The U.S. presidential campaign was nastier and more divisive than any in recent memory. The Brexit vote, and even Alberta’s Progressive Conservative leadership race, have had many of the same attributes. Alberta political strategist Stephen Carter saw it first-hand last week when Sandra Jansen, for whom he was working, dropped out of the PC contest. She cited harassment at the party’s convention and online. Mr. Carter explains to Jeffrey Jones how the discourse has become so toxic.
What’s wrong with politics?
It starts with the deterioration of media. It used to be that we had a curator for all the news that’s fit to print and decided what we would see. There was a curator on the TV news desk, and we watched that news. Everybody got the same news and, therefore, everybody got the same information – factual, representative information. Now, I’m my own curator, so if I choose to follow you on Twitter, I get information from you. I’m able to choose which point of view and which information I’m able to get back. All that’s happening is I’m reinforcing my own point of view.
And now, I have permission to be nasty. To me, it’s the equivalent of kink. Back in the day, you didn’t know anyone else who was kinky. Then the Internet came along and you could find your people. Google anything you want and you’ll find your people. Now, equate that to politics: I can find my people, and it could be a hateful group of people. Also, I’m granted anonymity.
Why are people so angry in the political sphere? Is this the end of decorum?
Because there’s no consequence for a lot of this action, I do think that it will be very difficult to return to normal. There’s a false equivalency, too. When the people rise up in Portland or New York, the right says, “See? You’re not accepting the election result.” And I see that and say, “See? They are standing up to say they won’t accept having their civil rights taken away.” If it was reversed and Trump had lost, the protests would have been a lot more egregious.
Even here, in my time working with politicians from 1997 until now, we have technology and techniques that enable us to move away from people who are attacking us. People were in Sandra [Jansen]’s face following her down the hall when she was trying to escape and yelling at her. I always thought that we could be miserable online, but in person, we were mostly pretty nice.
Is there room for the centre in political discourse?
There has to be. One of the things you find out in government very quickly is that there are very few ideological solutions, and often you look back at the ideological solution you had proposed and say, “That was wrong.”
Why do all the unexpected vote results keep occurring, such as with the U.S. election and Brexit in Britain?
I call it the tyranny of the less engaged. Sports and celebrities – these are things we know a lot about. People put more time and effort into choosing their football pool than who to vote for. It’s not that we’re irrational about who we choose to vote for, but it turns out we’re irrational about just about every decision we make. When I buy a car, do I become hyper-engaged and know everything there is to know about that car before I buy it, or do I buy it using lesser criteria?
What does it mean for Canadian politics after the toxic U.S. campaign?
It’s going to happen here. The toxicity and the permission that was granted by the Trump election to attack – well, here we are. I see [federal Conservative leadership hopeful] Kellie Leitch saying that the other people are the elites. She’s a physician who grew up with every advantage, and she’s saying that the other guys are the elites? But people want to hear it. [Alberta PC leadership candidate] Jason Kenney stands up and says the NDP has caused the recession. If you objectively look at the data set, you know it’s not a partisan thing. Jason Kenney knows, but he’s saying it anyway. He’s found an audience of people who are furious.