By your friends ye shall be known, and by your enemies you will define yourself. That seems to be a plausible way of explaining how Prime Minister Stephen Harper governs and plays politics.
By identifying enemies or hostile institutions, or by picking fights with individuals or institutions, Mr. Harper can better galvanize his supporters. The idea of appealing to as many people as possible in the search for maximizing votes is not how he governs. Instead, he looks to his party’s core vote, tries to energize it as often as possible, then finds slices of the electorate to add to the core.
In energizing the core, it helps to have “enemies” – institutions, groups, causes or issues that rile up the base. Properly motivated, the party’s core supporters will give money to smite the party’s foes and turn out to vote in large numbers.
The best emotion for firing up the core, or base, is anger. For there to be anger, there have to be threats; for there to be threats, there has to be a sense of interests or values put at risk by “others.”
These “others” are invariably depicted as having their own interests to defend – separate from the interests of the “people” or the “hard-working taxpayers,” as they may be called. The “others” have power – economic, legal, constitutional, political – that only the Conservative Party can thwart in the interests of the voiceless. And if the “others” have power, they must be “elites,” who, by definition, are divorced from and antagonistic to “ordinary” people.
This kind of political differentiation is new to Canada. Of course, there has always been political competition among parties. And of course, parties have heaped abuse on their adversaries, exaggerating their faults.
In the past, this competition has tended to be between or among parties – a political game, if you like. But the Conservatives have now focused their sights on other institutions outside of politics to help with their strategy of differentiation.
The media “elite” has always been in their sights. So, in a sense, have elements of the big business community (as Canada’s telecommunications companies can attest). Bureaucratic institutions are set up for attack: the Parliamentary Budget Office, the Chief Electoral Officer, the head of the nuclear safety agency or Via Rail.
Recently, with the impugning of the integrity of Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, the courts, including the Supreme Court, can become an institution to be criticized publicly and used if necessary to galvanize part of the base.
This differentiation strategy – of defining yourself by your enemies – is something deeply rooted in contemporary U.S. politics, where, with low overall voter turnout, galvanizing core supporters is critical to winning elections. You don’t win elections there by convincing people to switch sides, as much as you do by turning out the maximum number of your party’s core supporters. You accomplish this by targeting the character of candidates from the other party, largely through television advertising, portrayal of fearful consequences and stoking anger. All these tactics are now employed by the Conservatives as part of what they call the “permanent campaign.”
Some of these tactics have been part of Canadian politics for a long time, but at least three developments appear to have turned them into a more permanent fixture.
The first development is the reconfiguration of party competition. There used to be two large parties (the Liberals and Conservatives) and one small one (the New Democrats). The big parties would take perhaps 85 per cent of the vote between them, so the winning party needed 43 or 45 per cent to win a majority. They had to broaden their tents to win. But today, with the NDP much stronger and the Greens and Bloc Québécois in play, a party needs 38 or 40 per cent to win a majority. This reduces the imperative of vote maximization.
The second development is the loss of public subsidies for parties. Since they must rely only on private donations, their pitch has to be narrower than ever, for they depend entirely on the core for financial support.
The third development is polarization, which is largely if not entirely due to the ideology, structure and strategy of Mr. Harper’s Conservatives – central to which is wishing to be defined by enemies – in contrast to the older, more pragmatic Progressive Conservative Party.