As someone who studies political communication, I am struck by the success, if not the ethics, of the Harper Conservatives’ political marketing strategies. Branding and spin have become central to every major party’s campaigns. But Harper has taken the game to a new level – in ways that undermine informed democratic debate.
The Harper strategists seem to be working from the US Republicans’ playbook. With a war chest much larger than their rivals, Harper’s team has spent big bucks over several years in order to position their political opponents, like Michael Ignatieff, as dangerous enemies. And so they entered the relatively short official campaign (it just seems insufferably long) with a substantial head start in image making, and with their opponents on the defensive.
What are the tactics in this playbook? Stay within a tightly-controlled message box, and relentlessly repeat nonsense until it becomes commonsense. Two examples come to mind. One is the constant refrain about the current opposition parties forming a “separatist coalition” — a deliberate distortion of the proposed Liberal-NDP coalition in fall 2008, with external support from the Bloc Quebecois – support which the Harper government has itself sometimes relied upon during its minority governments.
A second example: Harper’s claim that taxpayers are forced to subsidize political parties they don’t support. In fact, only the party you support benefits ($1.75) from the vote you cast. And incidentally, this kind of fair funding system is a lot better letting the parties take hefty donations from big corporations and others with money to throw around.
Other tactics: Emphasize hot button issues that galvanize your supporters, and wedge issues that divide your opponents. (One example of the latter is Canadian involvement in Afghanistan, according to the respected Rideau Institute in Ottawa.) Work with an echo-chamber of bloggers, think tanks and sympathetic media to amplify your message through seemingly independent sources. Bypass journalists and parliamentary committees, restrict the flow of government information, even shut down Parliament, as the Harper government did twice since the 2008 election. Amplify and exploit fears that serve your political purposes, like crime and Arctic intruders. Conversely, ignore real threats that don’t, like catastrophic climate change.
Between elections, use publicly funded government advertising indirectly to promote your own party, and to take credit where little is due. One example: the issue of economic management. A raft of taxpayer-funded TV ads since 2008 have touted the Conservative government’s stimulus package, even though it was arguably forced to adopt these measures from political necessity – its parliamentary minority, Obama’s initiative in the US. But as one economist pointed out, had a Conservative majority been able to pursue deregulation and closer economic ties with the US, Canadian banks would have been even harder hit by the 2008 meltdown. Similarly, the Conservatives are heavily touting their corporate tax cuts as job creators, even though a current report from the Center for Policy Alternatives indicates otherwise.
In setting the issue agenda and framing opponents, facts don’t matter, plausibility does. As Stephen Colbert might put it, truthiness trumps truth. This government apparently will use any means it can get away with to control the narrative.
Controlling the narrative may also require hiding parts of your own agenda. Has Harper really become a political pragmatist since his days at the ultra-conservative National Citizens’ Coalition – or, as one of his mentors, Calgary professor Barry Cooper put it, has he simply changed his “packaging,” so “it’s not as scary”?
Harper knows that most Canadians support a peacekeeping role for our country, not a heavily militarized foreign policy. We prefer a balanced approach to economic policy, not blind free-market fundamentalism. We want Canada to be an international leader on climate change, not a dinosaur. We want our leaders to reduce the massive gap between the rich and the rest of us, not make it bigger with yet more tax cuts and giveaways to the wealthiest.
Therefore, Harper’s communication approach includes strategic silences. Rather than outlining a socially and economically conservative agenda upfront, he appears to be following his own advice (in Report magazine, June 2003) of implementing it incrementally — an appointment here, a budget cut there. Two examples: Maintain a rhetorical commitment to public health care, while deliberately underfunding it so that citizens start to buy into private systems.
Another: stack the CBC board with corporate executives who have no commitment to public broadcasting, and are willing to load prime time TV with foreign soap operas and game shows. As CBC’s programming becomes less distinctive, public support erodes.
If he wins a majority, then Harper can take the policy gloves off.
All this amounts to an expensive, highly planned, long-term political propaganda strategy. It’s one that further fuels widespread political cynicism– but that’s just fine with the corporate elite and its political allies. Their place atop the economic and political ladder is reinforced by public disengagement from politics. The American Republicans would be proud.
Bob Hackett is a Professor of Communication at Simon Fraser University, and a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.