Friday, November 09, 2007

Retail Politics

There is no question that retail politics "rule the day", as pointed out in another post. Any proposal or policy is now viewed within the lens of saleability, framing, packaging, branding, etc. There seems little room for a substantive debate in the era of soundbites, any argument that takes more than two sentences to articulate is largely irrelevant. I guess the question becomes, is this new reality a temporary predicament, or is it the new reality of political discourse?

In one sense, you can't argue the fact that retail politics are effective, and the ever growing prominence speaks to the success. That said, as the era of retail politics has expanded, there has also been a concurrent rise in the rate of public cynicism. Voter turnout has consistently eroded, on average, which is a powerful statement on the entire process. Also, there is a growing disconnect between the "beltway" and the hinterlands, with very curious polls, that demonstrate little interest in the daily affairs of government. Successes or blunders, which normally translate into support, have largely been ignored and the status quo defies intuition. In other words, you could make the argument that retail politics have been a failure, in that the branding has actually created more voter apathy.

Could we be at the political crosswords, wherein a return to more philosophical, detailed debate could resonate? Is the public so tired with the manipulations and the sales pitch, that they would welcome another approach? I don't think you can disregard the opportunity for a party to morph into the anti-retail entity. When you consider the massive voter pool that no longer bothers, then the prospects for the apolitical perspective has value. Retail politics may rule the roost, but that doesn't mean that the condition is permanent. In fact, the public is entirely unimpressed, which suggests a vacuum waiting to be filled.


Robert said...

I would be nice to think that maybe things are changing for the better, but I'm doubting it.

Public cynicism and apathy with regards to politics have many causes; changes in society, technology and media have brought about this current flavour of retail politics.

Like attack ads and mailout requests for funding, retail politics evolved to its current state because it is effective.

There will always be a segment of the population who are more engaged and open to meaningful participation, but going forward I'm guessing we are the minority.

northwestern_lad said...

I have to agree with Robert to a degree in that there has always been a segment of the population that has not been engaged in politics, and that group has grown, especially in the youth. For most of us that do pay attention to and comment on politics, we grew up with it and gained an interest in it from the homes we grew up in.

But part of what I think is happening in politics is the lack of connect to everyone's day to day lives. Basically, most people go along with their daily lives and don't feel like their lives are directly affected by politics. It's not until something happens that affects them directly that they start to pay attention. That seems to like for a large portion of the public, and that kind of reactionary interest is not something that helps political discourse. For that reason, I doubt you will see an end to retail politics because those one or two line sound bites are aimed to rouse those interests, in order to get people to pay attention and take interest in their party. Why else are the Conservatives pushing a major law and order agenda when crime rates have been dropping for a very long time??? Because they have created the impression that if they don't have these laws, it will put "Your family" at risk.

The major way to reverse this trend is to get people, especially our young people, engaged and involved in the political process earlier so that they know enough of what is going on politically so that those retail tactics won't work.

By the way, I had a Conservative MP from Central Ontario tell me back in July of 2006 an interesting piece of advice. He said that the average person only spends 6 seconds a week thinking about politics, and that is what he aims for when he speaks to the public. That's the Conservative Party's approach. We need to get more people engaged so that the average person is thinking about politics more than 6 seconds a week. That is how you will get rid of retail politics.

Steve V said...


Fair points.


You outline that people aren't engaged, so what is the solution? Part of the disconnect is the dialogue itself. I'm a political junkie, and to be truthful, I find things such as QP mostly irrelevant, predictable, sometimes embarassing. If I feel that way, imagine the person with tertiary interest, they usually react with disgust. There actually was a time when politicians were held in fairly good regard, now they rank well down any list.

Anonymous said...

I watched old speeches by the inspirtional politicians recently - Trudeau and Levesque, for example. I didn't believe in Levesques politics, but he believed so much and there was so much passion.

I saw a couple of American pundits and a Canadian pundit saying they miss the passion and inspiration - there is none today. It's all about selling soaps suds - no passion, no inspirational vision, nadda, nadda and they wonder why Canadians are bored and don't pay attention.

Steve V said...


I think you highlight what is missing, the capacity to inspire.

Anonymous said...

Substance is one of the reasons that I was happy with the choice of Dion as leader. While most of the others were also highly intelligent people, my concern was that some, like Harper, would be willing to sacrifice substance in favour of retail politics and short term electoral gain, harming Canada in the process. Dion, perhaps ultimately to his detriment, is clearly not willing to do that.

That being said, I do wonder if what you suggest is possible for 2 reasons. The first is whether cynicism with politics has reached such as degree that voters won’t believe in substance when it’s offered to them. The second is due to the lack of substance in the media. The media have shown that they have little respect for policy, and prefer to cover the retail, horse race side. If you can’t get your message out, how can you show those cynical Canadians that substance is what you’re offering.

However, if the Liberals can make the next election about substance, it should favour them. Harper lately seems more comfortable with letting the more right-wing side of his government show. Earlier this week he said that they want to bring taxes down to the level of Diefenbaker’s time. There are a lot of programs that have emerged since then that are important to Canadians and its taxes that pay for them. The Cons have offered astonishingly little in the way of policy or substantive debate and the little they have is for the most part not compatible with what most Canadians want for their country. If the Liberals can successfully show this, it will go a long way to improving their prospects.

Steve V said...


You are right about the media, in fact much of the move to retail politics is a response to coverage. That is why any change must be accompanied by a calling out of the media, challenging them to use their sophistication, instead of acting like a conduit for propaganda. Lots of people debate what influence the online community will have moving forward. IMHO, the best chance for real relevance will be the emergence of a watchdog like posture, as it relates to what the media is feeding us.

northwestern_lad said...

Steve... part of my solution was in my reply. We need to get more young people involved and engaged. We need to show that politics are relevant in our every day lives, not just in the bad times. We need to show the good that can be done politically, because normally all the people see if the bad that politicians do.

Steve V said...


I'm just curious what is the vehicle, because I think it has to be the politicians directly? It will resonate if they sense a genuine approach, an institution and dialogue that people can trust.

northwestern_lad said...

Steve... the vehicle is going to be the hard part. I think that it's going to be hard for a politician do make it happen, which honestly pushes me more towards a grassroots movement more than anything else.

Wayne Smith said...

Our current voting system promotes cynicism and apathy because most of us vote for people who do not get elected. We feel like our vote doesn't make a difference, because it doesn't.

The recent referendum on electoral reform in Ontario was an example of voters not recognizing substance when it's offered to them, mostly because they did not find out about it in time, but also because of deep-seated cynicism about all things political.

Most voters did not know that the Citizens' Assembly was a group of people like them chosen at random by Elections Ontario. They just knew that it was "set up by the government". They didn't know what MMP was, so they voted against it.

Cynicism spawned by the current system was used effectively, and intentionally, in support of the current system. In the absence of the facts, people were ready to believe that MMP would give more powers to parties and party bosses.

In fact, MMP would give voters the power to hold political parties accountable, by giving every voter a party vote that would actually help to elect someone. Most voters didn't know that either.

From the Globe and Mail


Why Ontarians said no to MMP


Teach political science at UBC and the Université de Montréal respectively

October 25, 2007

On election day, Ontarians threw cold water on a proposed new electoral system called mixed-member proportional (MMP). During the campaign, our team at UBC and the Université de Montréal conducted a detailed survey that tells us why one-third of voters said yes, while two-thirds said no.

First, few Ontarians were consumed by an urgent need for change. Less than one-quarter were dissatisfied with the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. So the onus was on the pro-MMP side to convince voters there was something wrong with FPTP or desirable about MMP.

There was latent potential support for MMP. A majority of Ontarians said "artificial" seat majorities (like the one handed to the provincial Liberals with only 42 per cent of the popular vote) are unacceptable. Most prefer governments "made up of two or three parties because they are forced to compromise" over "one-party governments so they can get things done." They favour proportionality, even for small parties: About 60 per cent think "a party that gets 10 per cent of the vote should get 10 per cent of the seats." Close to two-thirds like the idea of casting two votes. Not surprisingly, the more people knew about MMP, the more likely they were to support it.

Yet these values only helped the MMP cause so much, because many Ontarians were in the dark about the proposal. Just before voting day, two-thirds were aware that a referendum was taking place and the same proportion said they knew something about MMP. But useful knowledge about the proposal was rare. Less than one-third knew MMP makes multiparty governments more likely. Less than half were aware that MMP makes votes and seats proportional, that it would give seats to more parties, and that it involves two votes.

Two specific elements of MMP proved to be liabilities.

First, increasing the number of members in the legislature by 22 was not well received. Ontarians who believed this was a good idea were clearly outnumbered. More important, there were the infamous party lists - the biggest weapon in the anti-MMP arsenal. A majority thought giving control over the composition of those lists to parties was a bad thing. Only 16 per cent liked the idea.

The possibility of a new electoral system was not the only surprise for Ontarians. Its source - a Citizens' Assembly - was probably even more unfamiliar to the public. Voters tend to be skeptical of referendum proposals from politicians, so the assembly might have provided much-needed grassroots legitimacy. But only if voters knew that its members were ordinary people.

Few discovered that. The media paid little attention to the assembly and often described it as "set up by the government" - a half-truth that did nothing to dispel voters' assumption that the proposal was coming from the usual political suspects. At the start of the campaign, half said they knew nothing about the assembly and, amazingly, there was no gain in awareness over the campaign.

So, knowledge about MMP and the Citizens' Assembly pushed voters toward the new system. Could referendum support have reached the 60 per cent threshold if voters had been fully informed about both? We can simulate the outcome if all citizens had known: (1) that MMP would give voters two votes, elect some members whose names never appear on a ballot, produce proportional outcomes with more parties and infrequent majorities; and (2) that assembly members "were ordinary Ontarians," "had an equal chance of being chosen," "represented all parts of Ontario," "became experts on electoral systems," and that "most members wanted what's best for all Ontarians" (rather than themselves).

Under these conditions, our data indicate the result would have been 63 per cent for MMP and 37 per cent for the existing system - exactly the mirror image of the actual outcome.

This is probably heartening, and yet disappointing, for electoral reformers. And perhaps opponents should show more relief than smugness.

The survey was conducted by the Institute for Social Research at York University from Sept. 10 to Oct. 9. Sampling margins of error are between 4 and 8 per cent, 19 times out of 20.