When Politics is Personal

Lately I wonder if there hasn’t been a modification to the feminist adage “the personal is political”. In the aftermath of the recent federal election — a decision that left so many of us cringing in anticipation of the onslaught we know will follow — it became clear that for some, politics is personal.

And by “personal” I don’t mean “private” as in “it’s none of your business who I vote for”. I mean personal. There’s a defensiveness underlying the bravado expressed by many I’ve spoken with who voted for this government. It results in almost knee-jerk resistance to thoughtful discussion about what their choice of government means for the policies and institutions we all — whether we choose to realize it or not — benefit from, and how this administration’s priorities will impact everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

This defensiveness suggests a level of personal investment that is increasingly difficult to explore in a thoughtful — even a respectful — way. And I suspect it has a great deal to do with how the Conservative version of “tapping into values” is altering how people engage with the political process.

I understand that speaking to values is an effective way of getting messages across. But I worry that the version we’re seeing played so calculatedly is resulting in an electorate that’s not so much engaged in the political process as it is looking for validation from it. Teams win; policies don’t — and neither does the populace.

It’s evident the right is winning at framing political messages into neat, emotionally-loaded packages, while avoiding political discussions that go beyond talking points (or talking point — singular — since most of what passes for neo-con analysis these days is a mile wide but an inch deep).

On the left there still exists the mindset that solid research — presented engagingly and accessibly — will convince the electorate, win elections and result in good policy. It’s not as tidy a package or as pithy a soundbite, but it’s certainly a more substantive, though less emotional approach (because it’s hard to take statistics personally…unless you’re really trying).

But election results are difficult to ignore. And the sad truth is, if solid research were enough, authentically progressive policies would have won by now. So, to “win” must we also engage in messaging that reinforces the “politics is personal” approach?

Given what “politics is personal” has wrought, I hope not. To foster authentic political engagement, I don’t think politics can be personal.

But it does have to be about people.

In other words, a rejection of the self-validation (“Who would you most want to have a beer with?”) agenda in favour of the acknowledgement of interconnectedness (“what will this decision mean for my neighbours who are living in poverty?”) that should be at the root of political decision-making at all levels: from the ballot box to federal budgets.

Rather than looking for personal validation from politicians and political rhetoric, we need to focus on making and demanding decisions that reflect what’s best for everyone in the long-term; decisions based on research and experience, not what we — all evidence to the contrary — feel is true (the foundations of the “law and order” agenda).

The move from “politics is personal” to “politics is about people” positions us as better able to build on connections between constituencies, communities and citizens to ensure political decisions inherently respond to all of us — mirroring how we are responsible for each other. It also allows us to build on an intergenerational foundation of support at a time when this government seems singularly focused on erasing what we have accomplished and learned through experience — while plundering older generations for the votes they represent.

This past election I found myself thinking of two people in particular — my father and a work colleague. Both lived through the Depression, and came of age when awareness of the need for a national vision was beginning to germinate. Both saw and in certain cases fought for the creation of our modern welfare state. Both know what life is like without a national commitment to providing a basic standard of living, employment insurance, health care, equality, family leave, pensions — and how life for so many has been improved by these programs. And, at this point in their lives and careers, both are watching these programs being chipped away and downgraded, maligned and vilified as evidence of “nanny state” waste and government interference. Finally, adding insult to injury, both of them are watching a percentage of the electorate (and those who represent it) sprinting towards that end game as if this is progress; this is freedom.

Their life’s work and experience is the history the current government is busily erasing. And while wooing this same generation of voters by raising the spectre of an increasingly unsafe, unstable society from which they need protection, this government deliberately obscures how insecurity and inequality is increasing as a direct result of dismantling and defunding those very programs.

It’s a political strategy that fosters and is dependent on collective amnesia and political myopia. (For the record, my dad and my colleague are afflicted with neither.)

We all bear some responsibility here. The task of reminding people about our history (good and bad), and listening to those who made those sacrifices, must become part of our daily political and social awareness. We need to understand what it means to do without by talking with and listening to those who did without — and who worked to ensure their children and grandchildren wouldn’t have to.

But that’s only the first part. The children and grandchildren of that generation must prove, and in many cases are already proving, that the sacrifices of the past were not in vain. Those tremendous gains were a starting point, not a high water mark; many people and communities continue to be marginalized, and a great deal of work still needs to be done to achieve equality and justice. This work is as vital now as it was then — and we still have much to do to ensure that those programs and priorities represent and respond to all of us. And we need to acknowledge a new generation of leaders who will move us forward, challenging what we know and building on what has been accomplished.

So when I say that — rather than being personal — politics must be about people, this is part of what I mean. We need to listen to those who remember what came before; learn how victories were achieved; recognize how social progress can never be taken for granted; understand how past sacrifices to create a better future must serve as a lesson to all of us when tempted by the “looking out for myself” approach; and welcome what a new generation of leaders can teach us and how they can refine and expand a progressive vision that includes us all.

This is a critical moment. If we do not find way to resist collective amnesia and political myopia, our legacy will be a society that’s more unequal, more unstable, less just and less compassionate. It’s a legacy none of us can afford — even with all the tax credits in the world.

Because eventually, as we start to notice the collateral damage of our ballot-box decisions, we will realize that, in spite of the election rhetoric directed to us “normal, everyday folks,” the self-validation side of “value tapping” that we’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced by is simply a means to an ideological end.

But when we find ourselves paying the very real price of the society we somehow didn’t realize we were voting for, we’ll have no right to feel betrayed or misled. After all, it’s not personal.

It’s just politics.


  1. Bravo…I still cannot bring myself to watch the political news of the day. My heart is broken still from election day. I’m 47 and have never felt as emotionally vested in an election as I did this past one, nor have I ever felt as ‘proudly liberal’. I fear for our future and for our international presence. I just don’t want Harper representing me…I just don’t! My view of Canada – apparently isn’t one that most voters identify with. As a result, I feel like a lost Canadian.

  2. Erika –
    Excellent piece. It seems Canada has slid into American-style, cult-of-personality, fear driven politics, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when we look at the shift in culture everywhere around us.

    With this shift and the propensity to muckrake, I see fewer and fewer “quality” people (meaning engaged, bright, bigger picture, collaborative, human-centred thinkers) willing to come forward as candidates. What incentive is there, really, in this type of climate to do so? Getting personally ripped to shreds?

    And woe to all Canadians who, as you point out, benefit from the variety of social programs regardless of how they voted. It’s not a big leap across the 49th to understand the impact of cuts to social programs or widespread Libertarianism. Or to a so-called third world country with little or no middle class, great disparities of wealth, and no social supports to see the misery and, more frequently these days, the cost of widespread social unrest.

    Chaos, disinformation, confusion, apathy, hostility and fear all serve a purpose. It’s just not a purpose that I want to be a part of.

  3. Nicely put. The emotional appeal of the law and order message surely expanded the Conservative base in key areas, but not everywhere. The countryside, where I live, has a higher rate of violent crime than urban Canada, but my neighbours didn’t seem much moved by harsher sentences and new prisons.

    They seemed more influenced by targeted tax expenditures, first in the budget, then in the campaign. Next we will be told that the deficit is too high (too high for what?) so the supply of public goods will have to be reduced to finance tax cuts ! Or has that started already?

  4. Very will written – what I’m interested though, is how to best go about achieving “person-centered politics”. You mention early on that the liberal approach of providing the population with information is not nearly as effective as emotionally-driven messages, then continue to write that “we need to focus on making and demanding decisions that reflect what’s best for everyone in the long-term; decisions based on research and experience, not what we — all evidence to the contrary — feel is true”, and that we all need to take personal responsibility to better educate ourselves and learn from others.

    I can’t help but agree that these things would greatly improve our democracy. I can’t say I see it ever happening though. There’s a reason the Conservative method of electioneering works so well, even if it is dirty politics: it caters to what people are, not what they should be. It’s not ideal, but it’s the reality we will always live with.

    This is probably beyond the scope of the blog, but what would be really interesting would be a discussion on the means by which electioneering could foster evidence-based decision making, and how this type of strategy could realistically win a party an election. Otherwise, our elections will continue to be won by the party who bests implements the “politics is personal” strategy.

    1. hi, melissa, and thanks for your comments. i should clarify one thing–i was not trying to imply that we need to turn away from research and information entirely. i meant that we need to resist the temptation to play the “politics is personal” game and instead identify how to frame our research in such a way that, armed with the evidence, we can’t help but think of how people are impacted by political decisions. it seems like a daunting task, especially given the success of how “politics is personal” has infiltrated current electioneering–but i also believe that people want to be inspired, and that big ideas presented thoughtfully and unapologetically still resonate (witness the obama effect….though that initial outpouring has certainly been downgraded).

      i couldn’t agree with you more on this point: “but what would be really interesting would be a discussion on the means by which electioneering could foster evidence-based decision making, and how this type of strategy could realistically win a party an election. Otherwise, our elections will continue to be won by the party who bests implements the “politics is personal” strategy. ”

      thanks again!

  5. Hi Erika, a great post!For politics to be about the people; personal and political myopic perceptions have to fade away to give rise to broader perspectives of how people should look at themselves and the world.

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