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Cynical Fears of a 'Hidden Agenda' Have Replaced Facts in Our Politics

April 19, 2011

8-minute read

On the face of it, this election campaign has thus far largely been free of what one might call the language of a culture war. Stephen Harper has explicitly said a majority Conservative government would not open up the politics of abortion or same-sex rights. The opposition parties have learned from the last election that harping on the threat of a “hidden agenda” doesn’t work particularly well anymore. Sure, it seems that the Conservative party may have borrowed liberally from the U.S. to construct a Canadian version of Tea Party-esque ads. But it is hard to argue that there is anything like the vitriol we see routinely south of the border.

In politics, however, as in life, sometimes the things that happen in the background matter a lot more than what is in the foreground. Most political observers would hear this statement and assume that I mean that the real politics happens behind closed doors, in the shadowy world of deal-making and horse-trading. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about is the background, not the backrooms.

What is the background? This is a question that is the subject of enormous debate in political philosophy. But suffice it to say that we can understand it as the powerful, but very rarely articulated set of shared (or at least partially shared) assumptions, practices, norms, and values about how things do, and should, work. Some parts of the background are very broadly shared and are quite explicit – say, the injunction against killing in all but very exceptional circumstances. Others are much more mundane and usually entirely implicit – e.g., that you normally don’t spit on the floor of a friend’s house. And some are only shared by parts of a society. For example, while most people instinctively gravitate toward picking blue rather than pink shirts when they buy clothes for young boys, others actively contest that norm and encourage colour freedom and sartorial creativity for their kids.

We learn this background in many ways (some explicit, some implicit) and from many different sources (family, school, peers, codes of ethics, laws, etc.). We also learn them from the stories we tell ourselves and each other. It is no coincidence, for example, that many of the most powerful ethical and religious traditions of the world read a lot less like a logic textbook in philosophy and a lot more like a potboiler thriller (if you don’t believe me, I encourage you to read the Old Testament sometime – there is more action and intrigue in a few chapters of Deuteronomy than in a week's worth of a Telemundo afternoon soap opera).

Why is this? Because good stories – of which parables are simply more explicit versions – usually teach the listener many lessons and norms. They do so subtly – often we don’t even realize we’re taking them in. We don’t have to accept them, of course. We can reject the lessons. But often we just allow them to seep into our background.

This background, then, functions to set our expectations in a variety of ways. They give us archetypal categories that we use to understand specific characters (for example, hero, villain, victim) and teach us the cues we can use to recognize the roles (action movies are usually particularly stark in this: within seconds we know that a character wearing dark clothes and sporting a swarthy complexion and a Saddam Hussein-like moustache = villain). They prime us to anticipate certain events. They encourage us to understand the causes and the importance of those events in very particular ways.

There are many ways in which the background is relevant in the current federal election. While it didn’t draw massive attention from the mainstream election coverage, bubbling away over the last week has been an attempt by a few conservative columnists and bloggers to spark a little culture-war fire. Their target? The CBC and the old standby claim that it is inherently biased toward Liberals/liberalism. This is pretty standard fare these days. In Canada, it is a neo-populist – or as I would call it, a “faux-pulist” – story of media/intellectual bias that forms the core of the culture war broadsides from the right wing.

This time, Brian Lilley and Ezra Levant focused on CBC’s “Vote Compass." But what began as relatively fair questions about the technical neutrality of the tool itself quickly ramped up into ad hominem attacks that insinuated that the fact that one of the creators of the tool – political scientist Peter Loewen – had worked with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s leadership campaign meant that the tool was biased toward favouring Liberals. And using a well-worn debating trick – asserting by asking it as a question – Levant also asked/suggested that Loewen might well be giving the data to the Ignatieff camp.

Andrew Potter, among others, challenged Levant and Lilley’s narrative strongly, suggested that the stories failed to include several known pieces of information that would seem to challenge the asserted bias, and accused the two of being intellectually dishonest. Levant and Lilley in turn replied and vigorously challenged Potter’s own professional ethics.

Now, none of this debate has actually uncovered whether there is some technical bias in the formulae used in Vote Compass itself. But that was never the main political point of this exchange and it is isn’t what is most telling about this incident. What I believe is interesting is the way that the Levant and Lilley attacks reflect and reinforce what has become a staple background story in our public square. As everyone from pollsters to academics has shown, there has been a rapid and widespread decline in Canadian’s trust in authority, institutions, and professions that once were viewed as legitimate and trustworthy.

I would suggest that we haven’t merely seen the decline of deference, however. I would argue that over the past 20 years, we’ve seen the Ascendency of Cynicism. It is probably a very good thing that Canadians are less naively trusting than we might have been before. But we have gone further than this. For there is an increasingly generalized cynicism out there (somewhat ironically shared both by those on the right and on the left) that believes that behind every person or claim of neutrality, there must be a hidden agenda. Everyone is self-interested. Everyone is trying to sell you something. No one is simply curious, interested, friendly, or altruistic.

The faux-pulist story runs with this general background sense and intensifies it – as well as focusing it particularly on certain characters: those mythical “elites” that are always just around the corner, plotting in their ivory academic towers, generous public-sector offices, or disingenuous media hideouts. Levant’s blog responses to Potter provide a fascinating study in this. They follow the plot line to a T, the highlights of which include rhetorically dismissing Potter as a spoiled child, a Zoolander-esque effete fashionista hipster, and as a PhD who obviously concocts theories for fun, just like the other “intellectually inbred Ottawa dittoheads.”

And just in case the message wasn’t clear enough, Levant reiterates the moral of the story: that there is a “fancy family” of academics, journalists, and Liberals that “desperately think they ought to be part of the ruling class,” and who are threatening to steal Canada from “dumb shlubs working at a tabloid paper” (read: an ordinary paper written by ordinary people for ordinary Canadians).

This faux-pulism is a narrative that has been repeated over and over in the Canadian public square for the last 15 years – and has become even more predominant in a media universe increasingly dominated by bloggers (who usually rely on volume and vitriol to stand out from the pack) and increasingly partisan and conglomerated media chains. So much so that it has become an archetypal background plot line that we can immediately access with only a few rhetorical hints. We don’t need anyone to assert – with a period at the end of the sentence – that someone is biased. Heck, we probably don’t even need it posed as a question. These days, simply noting (even without an arched eyebrow) someone’s previous occupation or ties or friends is enough to have everyone start connecting the dots of a crude conspiracy theory.

But what does this have to with the election? Is this anything more than a little spat between journalistic competitors and the collateral damage that every campaign inevitably leaves in its wake? I would argue that it is an interesting and meaningful event that holds at least three important lessons about how the Conservative campaign functions.

First, it helps remind us that what happens outside of the campaign itself can be just as crucial for whipping up support, outrage, and motivation in voters and those working on the campaigns as anything that actually takes place on the campaign trail proper.

The effect of the faux-pulist story and its plot line of an impending betrayal of the people by various elites is a key mechanism that encourages voters to feel like victims – like they’re being hoodwinked. This, in turn, churns up outrage in both the base and potentially friendly-centrist voters, which encourages them to emotionally reject the Liberal party as self-interested and elitist. And it encourages Conservative base voters and workers to be more intense, contribute more, work harder, and feel more justified in viewing the world in highly polemical and partisan ways.

Secondly, it helps muddy the waters across the board. It encourages voters to ignore and distrust any journalist, academic, or anyone else who claims to try to offer an objective perspective. This, in turn, means that the party with the more effective and skilled communications strategy can control the air war far more effectively, since they don’t have to take seriously (because no one else will) third-party voices.

Finally, it helps to reinforce and intensify the general cynicism about politics, which is particularly useful for the Conservative party right now. It allows Harper to brush off a virtually unprecedented contempt-of-Parliament finding as simply partisan politics that has no real validity. It is no coincidence that the Conservatives’ key line of defence was to dismiss it simply as the result of a stacked panel, for you no longer need to prove that a finding is untrue. All you have to do is insinuate that it is potentially self-interested and we reflexively forget the possibility that the findings/opinion in question still might be accurate.

We can see the same thing in the way that Harper has been able to shunt aside questions about former aide Bruce Carson. Because, ironically, we have become so acclimatized to being cynical about conflicts of interests in politics, we now assume that they will always exist, and thus we are no longer particularly able to get outraged about it (except in very specific circumstances where other factors are at play – which was true in the case of the Liberals and the Gomery inquiry). Can we not also see this cynicism-induced fatigue in both the Conservative party’s defence against the leaked auditor general’s report about G8 spending (nothing to see here, just move along) and the fact that it has not had much effect, apparently, on the polls? Sadly, both the Conservative party and many voters seem to agree that this is just one more example of politics as usual.

It is also a factor, I believe, in allowing Harper to continue to assert both that the idea of a coalition is anathema to Canadian democracy (despite the fact that he knows well that it is a key foundation stone of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy) and that there is a hidden coalition agenda. We are primed to suspect the worst and accept a story in which conniving villains (Liberal, NDP, and Bloc elites) attempt to overturn the “will” of the majority.

It also, I think, helps underpin the Conservative pledge to roll back public election subsidies for political parties. The more we believe the faux-pulist story about lazy fat-cat politicians who are only in it for their own interests, the less we believe that strong opposition parties and strong electoral competition is in the public interest. Which may help explain why this time around, Harper has gone on the offensive and forcefully argued that Canada needs a majority Conservative government. It may be that he suspects that the electorate is feeling so cynical right now about everything political, enough of us might be willing to vote in a majority precisely so we can get some peace and quiet from the constant electioneering that has characterized the last seven years.

Which is why sometimes the things that happen in the background can be far more important than what is taking place on the front of the stage.

Paul Saurette Associate Professor of Political Studies, University of Ottawa.

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