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Politics Why Conservatives have the messaging advantage in campaigns

Author Joseph Heath is pictured at his home in Caledon, Ont., on March 20, 2015.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Stephen Harper may have a built-in advantage in this year's election: his policies are just easier to communicate in 30-second TV ads.

That's the argument of philosophy professor and author Joseph Heath, whose recent book Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy and Our Lives, won the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing in Ottawa in March, and is short-listed for the Donner Prize, to be awarded April 29.

Advertising, and the messages parties communicate to voters, will be a pressing issue in the months ahead of October's federal election, and the Conservative government has already booked $13.5-million in ads in April and May.

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The Globe and Mail: Many political strategists have said that the Conservatives are trying to base their campaigns using reason, while the New Democrats are going after voters with emotional appeals. In your book, you say it's the exact opposite. Why is that?

The idea is that the Conservatives are appealing more to people's self-interest and the NDP less. But that's not the same thing as saying that they're being more rational.

If you look for example at people's attitude towards taxation as a policy issue, who's being more emotional? People who are in favour paying higher taxes or people who don't want to pay taxes? It's a pretty obvious feature of the public debate that it is the hostility to taxes that is the more emotionally held position.

It is actually a really common confusion, which is that people equate rationality with self-interest and they think that wanting to help other people as being emotional, but that's thinking about reason in the economists' very narrow way of thinking of self-interest.

There's also the personality of the leaders, too. The pitch for Stephen Harper is that he's the economist, he's cool under pressure, etc.

There's no question that Mr. Harper is a strategist who's very calculative. But the idea that his fundamental political ideas spring from any kind of a rational assessment of the challenges facing Canada today is actually contrary to the evidence.

For example, the Conservative attitude towards the military is based on this kind of romanticism or nostalgia. It's actually very emotional. It's just that his personal style is that of being kind of cool and calculating. And so people say, oh, because he's studied economics then suddenly that makes him more rational.

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I mean, there's the rational calculation of wanting to win an election. But beyond that, it's very difficult to see what the rational commitments are.

In Enlightenment 2.0, you write about what you call "scaffolding," or the social systems we organize around ourselves. Structurally, how do we improve our election campaigns?

The major focus on scaffolding was that I wanted to be able at least something new and different from the line, which people have been pushing since the 18th century, which put the onus entirely upon the individual, just to try to think harder and to be more rational. People say voters just have to pay more attention, or read the newspaper more carefully. If that's the best we can come up with, then there's not much hope. Because the limits to that sort of pull-up-your-socks rhetoric have pretty much been reached.

Paying attention to something is more or less difficult, depending on the environment that you're in. The reason why, when we go to work and we need to concentrate on something we close the door and we stop browsing the Internet and so on, is because it's hard to concentrate in certain environments. If we want to the public to pay more attention to politics, rather than just kind of hectoring them, we can also think about the way in which the environment is making it more or less easy to concentrate.

That doesn't lend itself to a very optimistic view of things, because if anything attention and concentration has become more difficult in the current media environment.

So in the context of an election, what's the environment?

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There are a lot of problems with political advertising, and one of them is that is not subject to truth in advertising law. Which many people actually find surprising. But commercial speech is governed by those laws, and so there are all kinds of ways in which businesses can break the law by misrepresenting their product, their prices, and so on. When you turn to the advertising produced by political parties, there are no constraints of truth on those ads.

Now changing that would be really difficult, simply because it falls under free speech, so you're allowed to say whatever you want. I actually think you could craft legislation to limit the extent to which you misrepresent people.

What about debates? That's the closest to a deliberative process we get in campaigns.

What happens in these debates, if you want to see the far end of it, is the last mayoral election in Toronto with Rob Ford, and then Doug Ford, and Olivia Chow and John Tory, and then a couple other people, where they are in these kinds of raucous town hall environments. It was basically just everybody shouting at each other the whole time.

What's really crucial, what I really focus on in the book, is that this kind of environment is not neutral with respect to political positions. Some political positions are easier to express in an environment where everybody's yelling and abusing each other. I don't think it's an accident that the Ford brothers' political views can actually quite easily be communicated when yelled at a high volume in short sentences. "No new taxes!" That's easy enough to communicate.

But exactly how you want to build some kind of transit plan is actually kind of hard in that environment. It favours playing to the gut and playing to peoples' prejudices and so on, what we call common sense, it really works quite contrary to someone who's trying to defend a position that is a little bit more complicated or counter-intuitive.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

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