I seem to be feeling perpetually defeated these days, and politics isn’t helping. Happy days are not here again, and there doesn’t seem to be any relief on the horizon. If there is no trustworthy leadership and no one can find one good thing to say about anyone else, then where are we as a species? I now understand what my dearly departed cousin Alan meant when he said to me, “Janie, they’re all bastards.” I need to give the back story to this quote. Alan and I didn’t share a common view on political direction; we did agree on the importance of getting it right for the majority of people – and doing so with integrity, we just didn’t necessarily agree on who had the better path to prosperity and equal opportunity. That having been said, he worked hard for decades in support of his Party, based on his belief in an open democratic system that should work. And after all that experience, this was his considered observation: “Janie, they’re all bastards.” This particular conversation transpired when I was at my idealistic and naive “finest”, a few days after Obama’s first inauguration, high on hopes and dreams. Sadly, that feeling didn’t last long. And what Alan was trying to tell me wasn’t that all politicians are bastards (either literally or figuratively), but that politics is a nasty business and all politicians, regardless of whether their heart and soul is in the right place, will find him or herself at some point engaged in something nasty. It’s just a nasty business. I am sorry to say I now agree with him.
My question is: does it really have to be like this? Unless I just haven’t been paying attention until recently, which I don’t think is the case, things are worse than ever. I know that politics has never been a love-in between Parties, but there used to be some semblance of behind-the-scenes mutual respect and deal-making. Now it has degraded to half-truths (or worse) from every side, delivered by slick advertising that’s produced by companies for whom ethics is not a known quantity. Do any of us worry that the advertising companies are the ones laughing all the way to the bank?
In Canada, the degree to which vitriol, fear-mongering, and misinformation reign during campaigns (and now between campaigns; in fact, it never stops) is fairly recent. The perceived wisdom is that it was “imported” from the U.S. by the people running Stephen Harper’s campaigns, although to be fair there were some classic negative ads before then, just not to this level. The idea was that attack ads work in the U.S., so let’s try them here. Instead of importing some constructive U.S. successes, like companies spending more on innovation or hiring international students and retired people from around the country to work in the National Parks in the summer (all well-trained, excellent ambassadors of their countries and states), we had to import one of the nastiest, divisive and most shameful artifacts of recent politics, the attack ad. How Canadian is that? Until now, not very. And why did Harper’s folks go down this road? Because it works. What does that say about us? Nothing very good. And attack ads are similar to other invasive species; once they’re here they seem to be impossible to get rid of.
In Canada, Justin Trudeau, the recent winner in the leadership campaign to try to take the Liberals back to the Promised Land, is building a war chest specifically to fight attack ads from the ruling Tories. I might add that these attack ads against him started the very day that Trudeau was named the new leader. There is no election looming and the Liberals are not even the Opposition Party, but the attack ads started. To their credit, a certain segment of politicians are pushing the notion of doing politics differently, especially young ones. Trudeau is part of this group, as is the new young opposition leader in my small province. By this they mean bringing more respect and civility to public discourse and, who knows, maybe even in legislative bodies. Doesn’t that sound divine? People getting along, not hurling nasty comments and half-truths at each other, working together to make our countries better places. Maybe it could even not always be about getting elected but about doing the right thing for the longer term. Wouldn’t that be something?
Trudeau is promoting this “different” approach to politics, but he’s still planning for politics as usual by building coffers to combat negative attacks. It’s called being realistic. Our self-proclaimed national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, had an editorial two days after the attack ads against him started, castigating him for trying to take the high road, saying that the public wanted him to respond, it was his duty, it was part of politics. Did they read that somewhere? And in a surprise election result in British Columbia this past week, the media was blaming the NDP’s unexpected loss in large measure on their leader’s decision to run a positive campaign, leaving the incumbent leader to campaign in fight mode, not always being dead straight, and convincing people that she had what it takes to stay in power after all, even though she had been 20 points down in the polls. I guess we don’t like “nice” so much after all. They’re all bastards and that, apparently, is what we want.
As has become clear on both sides of the border, on this side of the pond at least, negative ads have no redeeming features, but, sadly, they seem to work. The result is that much of the money being raised by political parties is going for nothing more than shameless advertising. How do we convince ourselves to be engaged in the democratic process when what is in front of us is so unsavory? What lessons do we draw from our current political reality? I have no answers. Alan was right … and my glass is not its usual half-full self.