Skip to main content

Some orators have a weakness for citing the ancients, or Martin Luther King. Not Patrick Brown. His favourite quotations are the collected works of Patrick Brown.

In a radio interview this fall, the leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives affirmed his pluralist credentials by referring to no higher an authority than himself. "I start all my speeches with, 'It doesn't matter who you love, where you're born [or] what the colour of your skin is,'" he said.

Once, this would have been an odd rhetorical gambit, but it is fast becoming common. We're talking about politicians affirming what they have said, or will say, rather than what they have done, or will do.

Story continues below advertisement

In realist theatre, the "fourth wall" is the convention that keeps performers from acknowledging their audience. It says, What happens on stage is real, and really matters – we're not just putting on a show.

There is, or used to be at any rate, a fourth wall in politics, and politicians were devout in maintaining it. They had good reason for wanting to keep up the impression that their job is enacting policy and otherwise serving the public; the impression that, if they are actors, they are not just actors.

But all of a sudden, Canadian politicians have gotten very postmodern. Trained for generations to deliver tightly scripted messages, they have recently begun to talk as if staying on message is the actual message.

Shortly after winning the Conservative Party leadership last May, Andrew Scheer told reporters, "Right now, we're pointing out that the Liberal policies actually hurt the very people they claim to help." It was like a marionette gesturing at its wires.

And when Jagmeet Singh won the NDP leadership, he likewise seemed incapable of speaking about his plans without filtering them through a scrim of marketing lingo. "We're going to connect with people on an emotional level," he said, "and connect our policies and our values to an emotional message that actually stirs the hearts of people."

Renowned messaging savant Justin Trudeau is the most transparent about this kind of thing. In July, when the Prime Minister told Rolling Stone magazine that Senator Patrick Brazeau made a good boxing foil because he was scrappy, tough and Indigenous, and he admitted that he saw the fight "as the right kind of narrative, the right story to tell," he might as well have said "sell."

It all suggests that this marketing mentality has so taken hold among senior politicians that they no longer notice it as such. A party leader should be saying, "Our policies are best," not, "Our message is that we intend to brand ourselves as the party whose policies are seen as the best."

Story continues below advertisement

Can anyone in Ottawa recognize the difference?

The American journalist Michael Kinsley famously said, "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say."

The demolition of fourth walls is a textbook case. Everyone knows politicians spin – now they're admitting it!

The tendency is pernicious. It's an admission of bad faith – "This is our story, and we're sticking to it" – that breeds cynicism in voters. It says to them, These people think I'm stupid. It also says, These people talk like weirdos.

And while lots of tendencies in political chatter are awful – the stale metaphors, the passive voice, the focus-grouped inoffensiveness – the tic of alluding to your "message" even as you're delivering it has a uniquely undermining quality. Imagine John F. Kennedy saying, "We've decided that we're going to be telling Americans to ask not what their country can do for them, but instead what they can do for their country. It's a message we're confident will resonate with voters."

Imagine Churchill's "We shall never surrender" debased into, "Our messaging is that we intend to reach out to the electorate with a non-surrender-based platform."

Story continues below advertisement

The main beneficiaries of a world full of ministers and MPs turning themselves into cack-handed Mad Men? Politicians with simplistic ideas. What unites figures as diverse in experience as Rob Ford, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump is their capacity to speak to an audience as though it were made up of humans rather than customers – or of students in a seminar on Advanced Customer Acquisition.

Messrs. Trudeau, Scheer and Singh may think that if everyone is breaking the fourth wall, no one will be punished for it. But they should consider the possibility that they are leaving points on the board for any demagogue who can manage the simple task of telling voters what he will do, rather than telling voters what he will tell them.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons or for abuse. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.