J.R. McConvey is a writer based in Toronto.
One thing is certain about elections: they bring out the signs. Lawns and roadsides across the country are cluttered with red, blue, orange and the occasional green. An already busy visual landscape is surrendered to the will of the politically solicitous.
One of politics’ more durable lies is that policy and governance take priority over image management. Contemporary politics is a visual medium. Conducted through signage, carefully orchestrated public appearances, television and social media, political narratives play out as screen content, designed to compete with – and borrow tactics from the creative and commercial content with which they jockey for clicks.
With the pandemic making it harder to court voters in person, screens must convey more of the candidates’ personalities. Hence, in campaign materials for the front-runners, we see a new taste for casual haberdashery. In August, the Conservative Party of Canada launched its platform with a GQ-style mock magazine cover featuring leader Erin O’Toole in a black T-shirt, arms crossed for maximum flex. It evoked a “thirst trap,” slang for a type of selfie intended to elicit praise or desire. Days later, a Liberal ad pictured Justin Trudeau in a similar black tee. In the age of remote work, it’s no longer enough to roll up your sleeves; to connect with the pyjama-clad masses, you must dress down.
The sartorial relaxation aligns with a general trend away from formality in political imagery. It’s telling that when the CPC had to pull an attack ad featuring Mr. Trudeau’s head superimposed on the body of Veruca Salt – the selfish, petulant child from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory – the terminal issue was copyright infringement, rather than the use of sloppy internet troll aesthetics to frame the Liberal Leader as a garish caricature.
Some images aren’t so easily expunged from record. The most recent politician haunted by a revenant from their virtual past is Lisa Robinson. The former CPC candidate in the Toronto riding of Beaches-East York suspended her campaign after Liberal incumbent Nate Erskine-Smith dug up screenshots of posts she allegedly made in 2017, telling Muslims to “go home.” Ms. Robinson claims the posts are fake. Either way, the image has spoken: Mr. O’Toole, striving to project positivity, cannot be associated with hateful tweets, no matter their veracity.
If the discourse is more about the candidates’ social content than their platforms, there’s good reason for that. This is Mr. Trudeau’s arena. With his staged photo-ops and rakish pandemic beard, he set the terms by which others must play. When sunny ways and feely optics are at odds with concrete policy, it doesn’t merely entrench cynicism; it pushes the political conversation deeper into the visual realm. A lesson we should learn from the Trudeau government is that it matters less how Canada’s cabinet looks than how its members represent the communities that voted for them. Keeping the Canadian flag at half-mast might remind us that the Trudeau government feels bad about residential schools, but symbolism without policy to support it is merely theatre.
At present, the tendency is to analyze political iconography in the context of colonialism, fascism and white supremacy. While these are animating factors, they’re all subservient to the only category that matters in today’s media landscape: attention. In his 2016 book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, media theorist Tim Wu analyzes what he calls “the attention industry.” In exchange for our attention, Mr. Wu argues, “we have accepted a life experience that is in all of its dimensions – economic, political, social, any way you can think of – mediated as never before in human history.” He locates the maturation of the attention industry in 20th-century war propaganda, but claims – writing before the presidency of Donald Trump – that propaganda’s use by tyrants made it unappealing to modern Western governments.
Those days are gone. The visual grammar of Western democracy is now shaped by strategists such as Brad Parscale and Nick Kouvalis, whose work straddles politics and marketing. To call it propaganda feels outdated. But a phenomenon such as Ford Nation, with its slogans and bespoke PR channels, has echoes of the 20th century’s outsized personality cults. Doug Ford is an enthusiastic practitioner of visual politics, filtering every communication through a would-be working-class aesthetic based on sensible conservative blue, with nods to the bold, brash style prevalent in American cable news. Mr. Ford’s brand is so strong that he didn’t need a platform to get elected premier. Meanwhile, many of his greatest misses in office are design gaffes: recall the blue licence plate, the gas-pump sticker, the fundraising flyer designed as an invoice. Whether or not they work – whether the stickers stick or the licence plate is visible at night – they’re pieces in a larger narrative that places attention capture through visual media at the centre of the political project.
The result of this rewiring plays out as we speak, in conflicts over the latest politicized fashion statement: wearing a mask. In a climate where everything is a symbol, a functional piece of equipment designed to protect people from disease has become a statement – of conformity, solidarity or repression, depending on who you ask.
Herein lies the danger of a predominantly visual politics: we are not fully conscious of the ways in which visual information works on our brain – or of how sophisticated the techniques being used to control those functions are. Much as we have done with the intentionally addictive mechanics of smartphones and social media, we proceed without alarm, as though seismic changes in technology and intent do not ripple through our political discourse, our very psychology.
If politics is to continue being waged on screens – and surely that is where most hearts and votes are now won – we must factor aesthetics and design into the discussion. Otherwise, we fail to see what’s right in front of us.
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