Rocks, Guns, and Unicorns: Today’s Campaigns Are Child’s Play

The longest Canadian federal election since 1872 is finally over. Thank goodness. The attacks on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau began before the writ was dropped with TV ads declaring him not ready and others showing wildly out of context quotes and clips. The New Democratic Party and Liberals launched their own ads and assertions that were equally nauseous in tone and questionable in accuracy.

The long Canadian campaign was nothing, of course, compared to the American four-year presidential marathon that became real fully two years before party nominations. Canadian negative campaigning also pales in comparison. Consider the House Benghazi Committee that was ostensibly created to investigate the deaths of four Americans in Libya in September 2012. Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy recently bragged that the committee’s sole purpose is to destroy Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

Today's Negative Campaigns Are Child's Play.

(www.faircitynews.com)

Negative ads and practices are used because they work. They have always been with us. In many ways, they are tamer now than before.

Consider Burr and Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton was the primary force behind the Constitution’s ratification and as the country’s first treasury secretary he saved the United States from bankruptcy. Aaron Burr was a senator and then Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. In 1804, Jefferson made it clear that he would drop Burr from the ticket in the upcoming election and so Burr ran for governor of New York. He lost by a wide margin; due mostly to vicious negative attacks launched against his character and lies told about his record. He blamed a number of people including Hamilton.

Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. In a New Jersey field they paced it off, turned, fired, and Hamilton fell. One of America’s most respected founding fathers died the next day. Burr returned to Washington and, with Jefferson’s blessing, served out his term as Vice President.

Canada’s history is less violent. In 1861, Conservative John A. Macdonald was running for re-election. Former friend and Reform Party candidate Oliver Mowat arranged to run in Toronto and, as was legal at the time, against Macdonald in his Kingston riding. Mowat had a number of scandalous allegations made against Macdonald and printed in newspapers owned by members of his party. (The Reform Party became the Liberals.) Included among those blatantly and unapologetically partisan papers was the Globe. It was owned and edited by Reform party leader George Brown.

Macdonald arranged his first public meeting. Mowat hired a group of young men who spread themselves around the back of the hall. When the meeting began, they instigated fights. They threw rocks at those on the stage. Macdonald jumped into the fray and threw punches along with the rest. Macdonald won the fight and election and later become Canada’s first Prime Minister. Mowat was later elected Ontario’s premier.

In the twentieth century, newspapers and money continued to wield enormous power. In 1950, young Massachusetts congressman John F. Kennedy was running for the Senate. His multi-millionaire father, Joe Kennedy, used various committees to quasi-legally funnel several million dollars to his son’s Quixote effort. Joe saved the Boston Post from bankruptcy with a $500,000 loan and then, two weeks before the election, saw the influential paper flip from supporting the Republicans to endorse his son. Kennedy defeated the far more experienced Henry Cabot Lodge by a narrow 52% to 49% margin.

Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson used one of the first negative TV ads in 1952. A carnival barker fields questions for a Republican candidate who, because he has two heads, offers two contradictory answers. The ad was clever but the Republican’s Eisenhower won the election.

http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1952/platform-double-talk

Things have become increasingly worse. It was believed that forcing candidates to say that they endorsed a particular ad would help. It didn’t. Some thought the backfiring of certain ads, such as the Conservatives making fun of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s face in 1993 would help. It didn’t.

Today we seem to be stuck with campaigns that demean democracy rather than elevate it. Canada’s prime minister, for instance, based much of his 2015 re-election bid on trying to divide and frighten Canadians. In the campaign’s dying days he spoke only of taxes and used a sophomoric game show gag to make his point while saying things about his opponents that were obviously untrue. It was embarrassing.

Meanwhile, the United States has Donald Trump saying demonstrably false and ludicrous things while firing shot gun blasts of negativity and yet polling far above his opponents. America also has the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United v. FEC ruling that declared money is free speech. It allows folks like the Koch brothers to buy Congressional seats in ways that would make 19th Century Robber Barons blush.

A glance back suggests that parties, candidates, and the wealthy are not about to change. Maybe it’s up to us. Maybe we need to become a little more discerning and ask the next question of candidates who insult us by reducing complex issues to simplistic sound bites and slogans. Maybe we need to reject those who use negative smears in ads, speeches, and debates by using social media to fact check and fight back. Truth may beat trolls. Maybe we need more journalists with the courage of comedians such as John Oliver to take on issues that corporate-owned media or ideological mouthpieces avoid. Maybe we need to respect our citizenship by more intentionally exercising it. We could begin by insisting that candidates and politicians address more than just boutique tax cuts meant to buy us and, rather, tackle substantive issues that challenge and improve us; all of us. We can do it with our tweets and blogs and donations and attention and attendance and, most importantly, we can do it with our votes.

I may be naive. But that’s okay. Hope is never a waste of time. I sincerely believe we can have an uprising without a coup. We can have a revolution without guns. All we have to do to be better is want better. All we have to do is demand better. In this way, history’s lessons will not be that resistance is futile but that better is necessary and change is possible. We’ll see.

If you liked this column, please share it with others on Facebook or your social media of choice. You can see my other columns at http://www.johnboyko.com

Ten Rules for a Campaign Worthy of Canadians

In TV’s political drama West Wing, C. J. once bemoaned a trivial incident being reported as news and said, “Everybody’s stupid in an election year.” Charlie replied, “No, everybody gets treated stupid in an election year.” With the first debate in Canada’s long electoral slog heading toward the October vote now over and the campaign gathering steam, sadly, it appears that C. J. was correct. But there remains time to change. Canadians can enjoy the campaign they deserve if party leaders obeyed the following rules:

10 Rules for a Campaign Worthy of Canadians

(Photo: kelownalakecountry.liberal.ca)

  1. Don’t call us voters or taxpayers. We are citizens. Citizenship is a profound concept that informs our collective identity, individual rights, and responsibilities to others. Don’t cheapen citizenship’s nobility by confusing it with voting and paying taxes. They are merely two of its duties.
  1. Don’t tell us we’re choosing a prime minister. We’re not Americans picking a president or Human Resource directors involved in a hiring. Rather, we’re architects designing a House. The 338-member House we create will decide which party enjoys its confidence and that party’s leader will become ours.
  1. Don’t deride coalitions. Canada fought the First World War with Borden’s coalition government. In 2010, Britain’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaders negotiated a coalition that successfully and responsibly governed Britain for five years. Coalitions are a legitimate option in any parliamentary democracy.
  1. Don’t offer false choices. The most obvious example is the old chestnut of picking either a thriving economy or sustainable development. Respected scientists and economists have argued for years that we can have both or neither.
  1. Don’t employ terms without definitions. Promising tax changes for the rich and middle class without defining either invites cynicism. Promises to help families are similarly shallow when the concept of family is so broad.
  1. Don’t try to scare us. We know that foreign policy discussions must involve Canada’s support for aid, international justice, environmental stewardship, and fair trade. We know we must sometimes go to war. Please don’t pretend that foreign policy is about nothing more than tempering liberty to battle terrorism that, after all, is not an enemy but a tactic.
  1. Don’t bribe us with our money. Monthly cheques for this program or that are just dribbles of our cash that you held for awhile. Come tax time, you’ll get part of it back again anyway. We are not children and our money is not your candy.
  1. Don’t devalue social media. If you shade the truth or outright lie, change your message in various regions, or contradict a previously stated principle, we’ll know instantly. We’ll know before you can react or spin. Your TV ads won’t save you because fewer of us watch them than follow Twitter and Facebook.
  1. Don’t underestimate us. Kim Campbell once said that campaigns are not a time to discuss complicated issues. The unusual length of this campaign offers a unique opportunity to prove her wrong. Trust our intelligence and attention spans by engaging us with complex ideas and grand visions. We just may surprise you.
  1. Don’t forget character. Impress us by your ability to rise above empty slogans, staged events, sophomoric behaviour, and bully tactics. Speak not at us but with us. Speak with journalists who inform us. We all suffer slips of the tongue so if you commit a verbal gaffe, apologize and move on. Relax. A leader’s most important attribute is not a bursting war chest, lists of promises, strict adherence to a script, or even, forgive me, nice hair. Leadership is about character. In fact, that’s all it’s about. Show it. We’ll recognize it. We’ll reward it.

West Wing’s Leo McGarry once said, “We’re going to raise the level of public debate in this country and let that be our legacy.” We respect all those working to earn a seat in our House. Just imagine if party leaders, in turn, respected us by obeying the ten rules and adopting McGarry’s goal as their guide. We could then engage in a campaign worthy of Canadians.

If you liked this, please send it to others through Facebook or your social media of choice. This column appeared as an op. ed. in the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, and Maclean’s online.