Sunday, January 22, 2012

Kinsella Is Half Right

Warren Kinsella knows more about politics on his little pinkie than I do on my entire body, so when he offers "advice" to Liberals, it's always worth consideration. In today's column Kinsella actually mirrors Bob Rae, Liberals need to fight back, stand up and respond to the Conservatives, their smear machine and their intellectually pedestrian minions like Taylor:
In politics, rule number one is define or be defined. Conservatives, small and large C, are doing precisely what some of us had warned they would do: They are unearthing unhelpful facts about Bob Rae’s ruinous reign and publicizing them.

They’re doing to Rae what they did, so successfully, to Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff: They’re shaping impressions about Rae before Rae does.

The best strategy, then, isn’t to call for yet more laws restricting legitimate political speech.

The best strategy is to hit first, and twice as hard. Be swift and brutal.

Remind people that Harper moved us from a surplus to a deficit. That he didn’t see the recession coming. That he wants to dismantle health care. That he favours Alberta over other provinces. That he has a far-right SoCon agenda. Whatever you do, progressives, do it now. Don’t wait.

Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff complained about how mean Stephen Harper is, and it got them precisely nowhere.

The best response to nasty attack ads then is simple: Make your own attack ads, fast, and make ’em nastier.

Define or be defined, Liberals are well aware how failure to adhere to Kinsella's rule has cost us DEARLY in the past. Perhaps the party gets it now, efforts to set up a contingency fund to help define the new leader on our own terms. However, that seems a long term strategy, in the immediate, it remains unclear how we do fight back, compete with a well armed opponent. I'm a bit surprised the party hasn't pivoted off the hardly seen NCC ad and used it as a fundraising plea for cash to do just what Kinsella argues, "fight back", send a message, offer a quick response. There is something to be said for the distant third party getting into a tit for tat with the government, this dynamic works on a host of levels.

I agree with everything Kinsella argues, except for the last sentence. "Make 'em nastier", that approach strikes me as potentially outdated. Hear me out. Attack ads do work, I don't dispute that for one second. However, it is also true that voter turnout is on the wane, part of this equation is the "turnoff" factor, the discourse so sullied, nasty, petty, that people are simply tuning out the process. Is a race to the bottom really the best option for the Liberals? In the last election, the one party that attempted to offer positivity seemed to get traction, any Conservative movement really a reaction to the NDP ascension. In the last Ontario election, the PC's were full of piss and vinegar, but the seminal moment for me was Hudak offering an attack instead of "vision" as requested in debate, it highlighted the notion of requiring something more than nastiness.

Liberals need to hit back, we can't just sit back and take shots from ankle biters without a returning kick to the chops coming from our side. That said, I'm not sure the traditional retort is the best option anymore, if one believes in some evolution within the electorate. It's important that any response avoid becoming such a turnoff that the whole affair resembles a mutual destruction society. The best response to cookie cutter attack ads- that offer ZERO imagination- is perhaps a whimsical response, humour, clever without the vitriol. I'm not sure nastier works anymore, if you take the electorate as a whole, clearly they seem unimpressed by the level of discourse. A successful brand moving forward unlocks the new theorem that speaks to want, while simultaneously addressing your opponents shortfalls.

I see the race to the bottom appealling to an ever narrowing audience. It doesn't mean the attack ad isn't effective, necessary, only that people aspire to more than mud slinging, at a certain point it all gets lost in a haze of negativity and disinterest takes hold. I would argue we are in the phase now where apathy and that disinterest needs to be addressed, so the successful parties of the future will be the one's that figure out how to make their arguments, blunt criticisms, without mirroring the familiar opponent techniques. Perhaps that view is naive, but there is empirical underpinning to suggest a new approach could find fertile ground.


Jerry Prager said...

I agree humour is the best medicine, satire, scathing spot on and as deadly as a stiletto. My biggest problem with Kinsella's whole approach to this is the same as war: you end up with nothing but escalating confrontations that spiral out of control.
In a society committed to zero tolerance for bullies, Kinsella's methodology does nothing but feed into the problem. I'd use an ad or two based on 'zero tolerance for bullies' campaigns, humourous, spot on; framing the Prime Minister and his cronies as stumbling blocks to solving the bullying problem in society at large. Role model language, mentoring language, as sharp as nails and as funny as hell. Laugh the bully down to size.

Steve V said...

That's why I refer to it as trench warfare, you end up in a battle of attrition, with nary a voter remaining.

JimmE said...

Whatever - WTF is the reply? WTF is the line connecting these trolls & their organization & the DEAR LEADER?

Jerry Prager said...

Ads based on a bullying satire motif have two advantages, they don't have to defend Bob Rae per ce, just undermine everything the Cons do, and they rally the troops and voters around an immensely important public policy position: zero tolerance.

Jim Parrett said...

While I agree the Liberals have to respond to Conservative mud slinging, being reactive only gives the Cons more power. Libs should not just respond to Conservative attacks but instead initiate their own line of ads exposing the Conservatives. In other words, be proactive and force the Conservatives to respond to Liberal 'attacks'. Switch the playbook from passive to agressor.

Craig C-E said...

Simply brilliant. Politics-as-usual keeps drawing from a shrinking water hole; the winners win less, as society moves on looking for something else.

We live in interesting times which the Liberals, broken to the point where regeneration is essential, are ideally positioned to seize.

The future isn't in sinking to the level of politics-as-usual, but in rising against.

johnny maudlin said...

Kinsella is an old school hack in a new school world. This much should be clear: partisan politics and the partisan political process are of little interest to a rapidly growing group of Canadian citizens. We've seen enough. To the extent that I give a damn I would seriously consider supporting Bob Rae for a position as leader of the federal Liberals and here's why: he shares some of the characteristics with Harper that appear to be working in Harper's favour. He is a skilled politician, a hard-ass, seems kinda cold and calculating. Which is what liberals will need to be if they want to take power from a guy who appears to be good at getting and hanging on to it. That said, the really good ideas (eg legalizing pot) die on the vine.

gimbol said...

Ok, so what was it about that web ad from the NCC that was untrue about the ex-NDP premier of Ontario?
Because if the only complaint is about the method but no dispute on the content, then it only reinforces the message in the attack ad.

Peter said...

Maybe Warren would like to start with an ad warning how Harper will send troops into the streets. Honestly, after three elections you would think he would have clued into the fact the Libs aren't going to ride to power through scare-mongering.

And his focus! Anti-Western barbs, Harper didn't see the recession coming (as opposed to...who?) and, cue the scary music, his secret so-con agenda. Yawn. Some people just don't know when it is time to retire.

Someone should force him to look at the GOP self-destructing in a year they should have the election in the bag and ask him whether he thinks the problem is too few anti-Obama ads and rhetoric.

Steve V said...

To be fair, seemed to do QUITE well with the Ontario Libs, that self deprecation McGuinty ad was a breathe of fresh air and went against former cardinal rules.

Tof KW said...

"Honestly, after three elections you would think he would have clued into the fact the Libs aren't going to ride to power through scare-mongering."

The hilarious part is that Harper himself rode to a majority in 2011 almost entirely on scare-mongering. Do you deny this Peter?

BTW, I do agree with you that at this point the Liberals using scare-mongering would be totally ineffective for one big reason; Harper is a well known commodity after all these years.

Peter said...


I presume you are talking about the ads attacking Ignatieff's loyalties to Canada. Negative ads are not my cup of tea, but they are presumably here to stay and we'll see them again no doubt. I leave their importance to the wonks, but no, I do not believe that is how Harper "rode" to power (nice imagery-Hee Haw!). I think he won because he was able to present himself to a nervous electorate as a steady, calm captain navigating rocky economic shoals and push the Libs and Dippers to go after each other.

Despite our host's suspicions that I am playing agent provocateur, I am con, not Con, and I have never bought into the Con/Dipper dream of the end of the Libs, either as likely or desirable. But I am struck by what a hard time both the Libs and Dippers are having telling the public what they would actually do in power. The Dippers are positively tongue-tied and terrified of internal divisions, while the Libs are very hesitant about policy beyond catchy things like legalizing pot. How about economic management and the world crisis?

OK, it's tough, but both parties are far too inclined to fall back on "Harper as bogeyman" rhetoric and tell themselves it's all a bad dream from which you will soon awaken and right the natural course of history. This makes you blind to Harper's strengths(and he has many), and also lets you skip confronting the economic and demographic changes that help him. It's tough work--much easier to just rail against those fundie yahoo cons. The thread above on climate change is a great example--important questions with rote, stereotypical answers.

So, sure, there are going to be attack ads on both sides and maybe contracts for a hyena like Kinsella. But as the focus of Lib efforts and priorities, I can't see it getting you where you want to go, because you're just talking to yourselves and appealing to those who hated Harper from the get-go and wouldn't vote for him to save their mothers.

Tof KW said...

Peter, the attacks against Iggy are not what I was referencing; and for that matter they pre-date the actual campaign by almost two years. And I consider then personal attack ads of the mud-slinging variety, not scare-mongering.

Harper's 2011 election strategy was based almost entirely on what the "scary coalition" would do if it gained power. The media nicknamed the CPC airplane "ScareAir" if you remember (and the LPC plane "UnnecessAir"). Harper's whole campaign revolved on threats should anyone other than Harper become PM. About 90% was fear-based, maybe 10% was about giving compelling reasons to actually vote CPC.

In terms of what the opposition needs to do in hopes of defeating Harper in 2015, they need to do exactly what the CPC has been doing. Study the US GOP's guide to election victory; specifically the chapter about how you take your opponents strengths and turn them into liabilities.

Ignatieff's positives were education, internationalism, and intellectualism. Every single one of these were turned into liabilities by the CPC war room.

The opposition needs to do the same to Harper. His only real strength is his portrayal as a knowledgeable economist (he isn't) and the myth of the CPC being better stewards of the economy than the Liberals. That needs to be turned around if the opposition has any hope of winning.

The other thing Harper has done and that the opposition needs to do is unite their parties into one. However that won't happen until another election cycle with a CPC victory as a result. After that they'll figure it out.