In 1971, after nine years of polling in Canada for the Liberal Party, American expert Lou Harris reported that “sometimes we instinctively forget that human beings are basically and instinctively selfish.”
He told the Liberals after one of his polls: “A major finding of this survey is that foreign policy, Canadian unity, relations with the U.S., constitutional reform, pollution and other such matters are not at all the big issues, any of them.”
More than four decades later, Mr. Harris’s realistic analysis still holds. Canadian politics has moved into an era when voters no longer think much of themselves as citizens, with duties and obligations and longer-term perspectives, but as taxpayers in a consumer society who shop among politicians for those who will give them the most at the lowest cost.
Such is the conclusion of Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them, one of the very best books about Canadian politics to appear in many years. It is a depressing book for anyone who believes in a broad public interest and the capacity of political parties (and the media) to even discuss that interest. It is more depressing still because this state of affairs reflects what we, the public, have come to expect.
Ms. Delacourt, a long-time reporter for the Toronto Star and before that for The Globe and Mail, explains that we have entered the stage of non-stop marketing (and campaigning), wherein political parties find out what a particular slice of the electorate wants and then offers it to them.
Previously, parties tried to widen their appeal. They were big-tent parties, or tried to be. Now, parties are so sophisticated with their massive databases that they figure out which parts of the electorate they can attract, or have already attracted, and fashion their policies with only them in mind. This makes politics more polarized, which is what a young Stephen Harper sought and has now achieved.
“In a nation of consumer-citizens, the customer is always right. It is not the politician’s job to change people’s minds or prejudices, but to confirm them or play to them, to seal the deal of support,” Ms. Delacourt observes. “Speeches are not made to educate or inform the audience but to serve up marketing slogans. Political parties become ‘brands’ and political announcements become product launches.”
The drift to this kind of politics has been going on for some time, as Ms. Delacourt outlines in a review of political advertising and strategizing since the 1950s. But it has accelerated under Mr. Harper, who, even before he became party leader, was fascinated by marketing.
The notion that he is surrounded by people who plan and execute the marketing is wrong. Mr. Harper directs the marketing, involving himself in all aspects of it, presiding over a huge staff who do nothing but focus on communications, event-planning and, at central party headquarters, organize a massive information-collection effort on citizens in every corner of Canada so as to better identify which voters will be most influenced by which message.
Canadian politics has seen nothing quite like it. Since success produces imitators, the New Democrats and latterly the Liberals are now approaching politics just as the Conservatives do. That approach is fundamentally not about appealing to a broad public interest, or engaging people in debates, but about finding out what a particular slice of the electorate wants and delivering it to them, usually in the form of smaller taxes and/or more of a particular service.
For the Conservatives (and the NDP, for that matter), this means identifying only perhaps 10 per cent of the electorate beyond their core votes, then governing or campaigning only with them in mind. When the Conservatives make decisions in foreign or domestic policy, they think only about their core vote and this extra 10 per cent of political consumers.
Much has been written about this drift in Canadian politics, best epitomized by the Harper Conservatives. Ms. Delacourt has pulled the themes together in an excellently researched book that widens our understanding and deepens our depression about contemporary politics – which offers, after all, a rough mirror of who we are.