You knew what kind of day it was going to be when, just before Question Period on Wednesday, Tory MP Parm Gill rose in the House of Commons to praise his own government's budget.
"This is a great budget for middle-class Canadians," Mr. Gill insisted in a statement that appeared to serve no other purpose than to generate video content for his Twitter feed. "The Liberals and the NDP … want high taxes on middle-class families, high taxes on middle-class seniors and high taxes on middle-class consumers. That is their plan for the middle class. Our government's plan is reducing taxes on middle-class families."
Mr. Gill's caucus colleague, MP Rob Clarke, got up next to deliver the exact same lines – with a straight face. He, too, posted his cameo on Twitter.
There was more of the same when the actual questions began. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wondered why the Prime Minister wasn't "helping people in the middle class who need it." Stephen Harper countered that the Liberal Party "wants to raise taxes for middle-class families, middle-class seniors, middle-class consumers" and all of those small businesses run by upstanding middle-class Canadians.
Between member statements and oral questions, the term "middle class" was uttered almost 80 times by government and opposition MPs alike. It even popped up in answers to questions on the sexual harassment of interns and policies related to the agri-food industry.
Talking points are hardly a 21st century political innovation. But they have so crowded out every other form of discourse that politics is now utterly devoid of honesty, unless it's the result of human error. The candidates are still human, we think, though the techies now running campaigns are no doubt working on ways to remove that bug from their programs.
Intuition, ideas and passion used to matter in politics. Now, data analytics aims to turn all politicians into robots, programmed to deliver a script that has been scientifically tested. The fembot running (via Chipotle) for the White House gave proof of that when she recently popped up in Iowa vowing to fight for the "everyday" folk who politicians up here still call the middle class.
"The deck is still stacked in favour of those at the top," Hillary Clinton said in launching her candidacy for the 2016 Democratic nomination. A couple of days later, in New Hampshire, she built on that theme by adding: "My job is to reshuffle the cards."
That phrase did not just roll off her tongue, mind you. The data analysts have algorithms that tell them just what words resonate with just what voters and will coax them to donate, volunteer and vote.
Politics is no longer about the art of persuasion or about having an honest debate about what's best for your country, province or city. It's about microtargeting individuals who've already demonstrated by their Facebook posts or responses to telephone surveys that they are suggestible. Voters are data points to be manipulated, not citizens to be cultivated.
All major parties, including the three Canadian ones with a shot at victory in October, now build vast databases accumulating as much information as possible on individual voters in order to customize their pitches. This approach was perfected by President Barack Obama's campaign operation, whose database contained as many as a thousand variables on some voters.
Campaign strategists euphemistically refer to this data collection and microtargeting as "grassroots engagement" or "having one-on-one conversations" with voters. But it's really about manipulation and pressing individual voter buttons. College women get e-mails from Democrats warning abortion rights are under siege; rifle club members get ones from Republicans warning gun rights are about to be curtailed. So, send $5 fast. And vote. These techniques have now become common in Canada.
The data analysts on the 2012 Obama campaign came up with "scores" for each voter in its database, or what author Sasha Issenberg called "a new political currency that predicted the behaviour of individual humans. The campaign didn't just know who you were; it knew exactly how it could turn you into the type of person it wanted you to be."
Thankfully, that level of sophistication is still a bit beyond the technological and financial wherewithal of parties on this side of the border. But just because, comparatively speaking, they're still amateurs at this game does not mean the Tories, Liberals and NDP aren't building a file on you.
Especially if you consider yourself middle class.