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Federal Politics
Election 2015

Whew, What a Turn Off!

How polarizing tactics can tranquilize voters, and win elections.

Andrew Nikiforuk 24 Aug

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

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Last year political journalist Paul Wells wrote that Stephen Harper "could not win elections without widespread support in the land" because Harper "has what every successful federal leader has needed to survive over a long stretch of time: a superior understanding of Canada."

But if Wells means Harper wins by figuring out how to appeal to a truly wide spread of Canadians, he got that dead wrong -- as do so many Ottawa pundits.

Harper owes his political longevity to declining voter turnout and a superior understanding of how political marketing can take advantage of that reality with hardcore propaganda.

While his party micro-targets his minority base of suburban white hockey guys and religious immigrant traditionalists, Harper has, at the same time, bombarded non-supporters with attack ads.

These ads and related technologies have had the effect of keeping moderate, alienated and apathetic voters at home.

And that's how extreme, ideologically-driven minorities win elections these days: with deft propaganda they polarize the debate, energize partisans and turn off non-ideological voters.

Engineering your desire to vote

More political engineering technologies tap massive databanks of voters to whisk the true believers to the polls while robocalls direct non-supporters elsewhere.

In fact Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley found ample evidence of a determined campaign by the Conservatives to misdirect voters in the 2011 election throughout the country: "The purpose of those calls was to suppress the votes of electors who had indicated their voting preference in response to earlier voter-identification calls."

Harper's policies clearly show that his winning streak depends on weakening Canada's democracy by sustaining low voter turnout. It's his secret sauce and one that worked in Alberta for 43 years. (The province is a leading pioneer of record low voter turnouts in Canada along with Newfoundland.)

As a consequence Harper and his Conservative party have no intention of addressing Canada's most significant democratic deficit: that fact that nearly 40 per cent of our citizens have stopped voting.

For proof, study the vote-suppressing measures the Tories wrote into their Orwellian named Fair Elections Act.

The bill, which was introduced with no fair discussion with Elections Canada, proposed to reduce the role of that agency in addressing declining voter turnout. It would muzzle the agency, eliminate vouching, and impose tougher ID restrictions on young voters. And it made electronic voting an impossibility without the approval of a Conservative-dominated Senate.

Apathy by design

By any calculation democracy peaked in Canada in 1958. That's the last time nearly 79 per cent of the electorate voted.

Although voter turnout averaged 75 per cent since the Second World War, it began a dramatic freefall in the 1990s. Almost every western democracy experienced the same steep decline.

Fifty per cent of California's registered voters, for example, cast ballots in primary elections in 2000; now only 25 per cent do. In some parts of the United States only 10 per cent bother to vote in local elections.

In 2003 Elections Canada got so worried about the trend that it commissioned a very serious report.

The study found that young people, the very folks most directly affected by today's political decision making, weren't voting. "Part of the answer to the emerging problem of voter turnout has been a growing perception of the meaninglessness of electoral participation," said the report. It "predicted that voting rates will likely continue to decline in Canada."

The researchers weren't kidding. In 2008 just 58 per cent of Canada's registered citizens turned out to vote. In 2011, when Harper secured his majority with just 39 per cent of the vote, turnout rose marginally to 61 per cent. But more than a third of the populace sat on their hands.

Most of the abstainers were young people. Sixty-two per cent of citizens between the age of 18 and 24 stayed home. Moreover, 55 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds failed to perform their civic responsibility. People between the ages of 34 and 44 didn't do much better.

When asked why, the unmotivated citizens told Elections Canada researchers that they were too busy or couldn't get to the polls. It wasn't their duty, they added.

Academics have since pored over declining voter turnout and even argued that fewer voters just doesn't matter anyway.

But the real reasons now seem obvious. A combination of polarizing politics, digital technologies and marketing propaganda have simply turned more and more voters off the whole bloody system.

Moreover, the whole process feeds on itself. Fewer voters in the democratic pool, argue U.S. analysts, not only give "disproportionate influence to voters at the extreme ends of the political spectrum" but promote more hyper-marketing to attract those extremes.

The Matthew Effect

As fewer people vote, politics also tends to become more polarized which, in turn, lowers the turnout even more. U.S. research consistently shows that the people who still vote tend to be white, partisan, educated and well-to-do. In contrast the people who have stopped voting tend to be poor, less educated, non-partisan and non-white.

As a consequence, modern democracies have tended to reinforce the Matthew Effect: those who have the most resources vote to keep them, while those who have the least vote less and keep on losing, because they no longer count in the system.

But there is more to this dismal trend. André Blais, a political scientist at University of Montreal, argues that the contamination of civic politics with consumer marketing jargon and branding techniques has eroded the ideal of citizenship.

Ottawa journalist Susan Delacourt describes the process in her insightful book Shopping for Votes: "We may have to confront the fact that marketing -- this increasing tendency by all sides to treat politics as a shopping trip -- is turning people off democracy. To use the language of shopping, people aren't buying."

Political marketers, just like engineers promoting hydraulic fracturing, claim that their technologies are safe and proven and that they are only providing a service to political parties.

But the dire question for our democracy, as philosopher Joseph Heath recently wrote, "is whether our politicians, and our political parties, have... gotten too good at playing the game -- whether they have developed strategies that, despite helping them to win, undermine the point of the competition."

Attacks on reason and hope

Skillfully polarized politicking, which is now the norm in North America, just accelerates voter turn-off.

Consider, for example, the Republican-style attack ads that have inundated Canadian media. Although the Liberals were good at it, the Harper government has taken the "air war" to a whole new scale and level.

Drawing upon the advice of Republican strategists such as Arthur Finkelstein, Harper's Tories favour propaganda that repeatedly demonizes opponents and calls them names.

Such propaganda works in ways that most citizens don't really appreciate. According to studies by Stanford researchers, "Media propaganda can often shore up loyalists to vote for their traditional party; on the other hand, that same propaganda is increasingly peeling off a band of citizens who turn from independence to apathy, even antipathy, toward our political institutions."

In such climates political marketing that targets specific individuals in specific ridings works best. "To do micro-targetting with any of success or efficiency," writes Delacourt, "the electorate has to be separated into "people who may vote for us" and "people who will never vote for us."

Harper's Conservatives may be the first political party in Canadian history that doesn't care about becoming more popular or garnering more votes. It only cares about winning a narrow base of supporters because their turnout matters more whenever turnout is extremely low.

Playing the margins

As a result the Harper government holds much more polarized views than Canada's moderate electorate. The same applies in the U.S. This development, argue U.S. analysts, can be explained again by low voter turnout.

"While the majority of Americans are politically moderate, the most polarized voters go to the polls in greater numbers, especially in primaries. The smaller the voter pool becomes, the more weight a single vote carries and the easier it becomes for an active, partisan minority to determine an election's outcome. Thus, highly-polarized politicians come to represent a moderate constituency."

As mentioned earlier, the Harper government's ironically named Fair Elections Act makes it just plain harder for many people to vote. The act also was designed to make it easier for well-funded political parties such as the Conservatives to spend more to fill the airwaves with simplistic, attack-style messages.

Most of civil society opposed the divisive act. Even Preston Manning, a former political colleague of Harper's, pleaded that all parties should come together to fix the bill in order "to strengthen and expand rather than weaken the role of Elections Canada with respect to addressing the greatest challenge to the Canadian electoral system, which is not its unfairness but rather the steady decline in voter turnout all over the country."

Only after intense civil protest did the Harper government remove a few of the most anti-democratic measures. But the bill's intent to discourage voter turn-out remained with restrictions on vouching as well as strictures on Election's Canada ability to even raise the subject of declining participation.

Every step of the way, Pierre Poilievre, the minister of state for democratic reform, fervently defended parts of the bill that banned Elections Canada from educating the public about their civic duties or low voter turnout..

Not surprisingly, Poilievre emphasized that it's time for the neutral agency to "focus on the basics (where to vote), and leave it up to partisans (political parties) and others to do that kind of outreach work." In other words let the political marketplace, now the domain of propagandists, engineers and marketers, prevail.

Scientific side to Harper

So here's the situation: Harper's Conservative party, which has a record of muzzling and defunding scientists, has staked its survival on science -- the science of stimulating or suppressing your desire to vote. It has embraced political engineering based on data and evidence that delivers a minority of voters needed to win in a democracy broken by low voter turnout.

In this arena the public interest has disappeared and been replaced with marketing goals designed to placate individual voters.

Given these realities every Canadian federal election should now come with the sort of advisory you find on a pack of cigarettes or a movie rating.

The warning might go like this:

The following propaganda campaign will contain violence, lies, bribery, coarse language and mature themes.

Democracy will be abused and voters will be turned off.

Voters that willfully abandon their civic duties will polarize politics, heighten the abuse and reward extremist minorities.

Political marketers from all major political parties will seek to restrict who votes and where.

Voter discretion is advised.  [Tyee]

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