Monday, 2 July 2012

In Defence of (issue-based) Negative Campaigning

Few things are more popular than bashing attack ads and bemoaning the alleged "increased negativity" of politics on both sides of the 49th parallel. It's been documented again and again that "dirty" campaigning is nothing new in American politics, but does negative campaigning have a long history in Canadian politics? As well, are negative ads justifiable and even beneficial to parliamentary democracy? The answer to these questions is yes, yes, and sometimes yes.

A History of Negativity

1886 Political Cartoon "Whither Are
We Drifting".

Obtained from McCord Museum.

Best summarized by Wikipedia:

'"Whither are we drifting?" Macdonald is shown triumphant at obtaining a prorogation,
but is trampling a weeping Canada and apparently drunk with bottle in pocket
in this August 1873 cartoon by John Wilson Bengough. Macdonald is
depicted claiming clean hands, but with "Send me another $10,000"
written on his palm.'

Pre-Confederation politics in Lower and Upper Canada frequently involved fist-fights and angry mobs1. While TV ads didn't exist (because TVs didn't exist!), newspapers were quite vicious and affiliated with opinionated factions. While 19th century campaigns weren't centralized, decentralized dirtiness abounded.

Local campaigns, now generally honest and fair, were not always so. In rural areas it was once common to bribe voters with food, alcoholic beverages and money. In the larger cities, particularly in Montréal before the QUIET REVOLUTION, there were many instances of impersonating voters, placing fictitious names on the voters' lists, stealing ballots and intimidating the other party's volunteers by the threat or use of violence. Stricter regulation of campaigns and a more affluent and sophisticated electorate have brought about the virtual disappearance of such practices.
("Political Campaign". Garth Stevenson. The Canadian Encyclopedia.)

In the days before broadcasting and the internet, public speeches, newspaper articles and editorial cartoons were the catapults of choice to fling accusations of corruption or incompetence. It helped that many publications were flagrantly partisan, and not just on their editorial pages. Publishers, editors and writers would co-operate with political parties on the best way to attack the other side — something that was widely known and accepted.

In Canada, one famous cartoon in an anti-Conservative party magazine showed the prime minister of the day, Sir John A. Macdonald, telling his Liberal opponent that there was nothing wrong with bribing voters with money from business interests seeking government contracts. Macdonald lost the subsequent election, in 1874.

According to a 1998 study on negative campaigning in the United States, rising standards of objectivity and balance in journalism eased overt partisanship from news pages to advertisements in the first half of the twentieth century. Strict requirements for "fairness" in radio — and later television — news broadcasts had the same effect, the study says.

("CBC News In-Depth: Canadian Government: Attack Ads: Do they work?" Jan. 29, 2007)
Negative campaigning through a more modern, electronic medium came to Canada in the early 20th century.

Overtly negative advertising appeared in Canada during the federal election of 1935, when R.B. Bennett's governing Conservative party bought airtime for carefully scripted "chats" between actors playing ordinary people discussing corruption, intimidation and lying by Mackenzie King's Liberals.

("CBC News In-Depth: Canadian Government: Attack Ads: Do they work?" Jan. 29, 2007)

They've been quite a staple of Canadian politics for decades.  

Bad for Democracy? 

Now, there's been quite a few complaints about negative campaigning depressing voter turnout and spreading misinformation, as well as overemphasizing trivial issues. One can certainly get that impression, especially in lieu of the CON's obsession with Micheal Ignatieff's like of espresso. But the problem is that a lot of positive ads can be nonsesnsical, personality-based, fluff pieces. I mean, is Harper attacking Dion's Green Shift that much worse than Harper pretending to be a kind-hearted man of the people in a sweater vest? Both ads are pretty deceptive, except the sweater vest ad can't even be refuted because it's based on nebulous sentimentality.

A 2005 study has shown that negative ads motivate voters to seek out new info. Flowery positive ads, by contrast, tend to reduce the desire to get politically informed. If anything, attack ads lead to voter engagement rather than burn out.

That's not the only virtue of negative campaigning, though. Not only do they instil a desire for more info, they tend to have more informational content to begin with.

... studies of the content of political advertising in the United States show that negative ads actually have more factual content, and deal with more policy issues, than other forms of communication. But more interesting still is some new unpublished research done by Peter Loewen, a political scientist at the Université de Montreal. Loewen has found that the more people dislike the candidates and supporters of other parties, the more likely they are to vote. Which suggests that, if anything, negative campaigning should increase voter turnout.

("Negative ads don't deserve such a bad rap". Andrew Potter. June 11, 2008. Maclean's)
I'd personally favour tacit agreement among those running for office not to delve into utterly pointless matters like hot beverage preferences, but that ain't going to happen. All in all it seems that negative campaigning is an effective way to mobilize voters and expand democratic participation, which makes this Green Party attack ad attacking attack ads all the more ironic.

And, of course, this fluffy, grossly misguided, pretty hypocritical ad must always be displayed in concert with this.

2011 Manitoba Provincial Election: How the provincial right got owned

Things sure as hell weren't looking good for the NDP in the run-up to the 2011 provincial election. Relying on Gary Doer's cult of personality wasn't possible as the much duller and wonkish Greg Selinger had replaced him. The Manitoba Dippers were steadily dipping in the polls, with the Tories ready to attack the NDP's record on crime. In a federal election earlier that year the CONS had swept all but two seats in Winnipeg. Even earlier a small c-conservative faux populist mayor was re-elected, beating a centre-left challenger. It looked as if Manitoba politics would be tilting right for a few years. 

Top Image from NDP launched anti-McFadyen attack site

Bottom image a Tory leaflet designed for distribution in
South Winnipeg, aimed at the NDP's crime policy.
Image obtained from the Winnipeg Free Press .

 The NDP, rather than spending a campaign on the defensive, hit hard at the Tories by preempting the other party with their own ads. Provincial Tory leader Hugh McFadyen's record as a consultant in Ontario during Ontario Hydro privatization was brought up. His job as Gary Filmon's Chief of Staff was also highlighted, alluding to the service-cutting bad ol' days of the 1990s.

The 1990s had seen the Jets leave Winnipeg despite a "save the Jets" campaign that Filmon exploited to get re-elected. In 2011 the Jets actually came back to Winnipeg. This added more salt to the self-inflicted injury the Tories had sustained by wrapping themselves up in NHL prospects. The NHL return elated Winnipeggers and worked well with the NDP narrative. It highlighted the contrast between the Filmon 90s' and the NDP 2000s. 

The narrative of the campaign - that a vote for PC was a vote for New Right service-slashers - forced McFadyen into a defensive role.  He bought up ads stating that he wouldn't privatize hydro and vowed to wait until 2018 (four years later than the NDP's deficit reduction projection) to balance to budget so as to preserve cops, nurses, teacher, firefighters, and other public services.
The result of the election and the aggressive campaign was Greg Selinger winning a 4th majority government for the NDP. The messed up dynamics of Winner-Take-All contributed to the win, but effective messaging still played a strong role. Hugh McFadyen and the Winnipeg Sun complained that fear had won, comically ignoring their own fear-mongering throughout the campaign.

This illustrates what Canada's opposition parties need to do to counter rapid-fire rightwing attacks: launch their own preemptive attack ads.

The real threat Harper's Negative Campaigning poses to Democracy 

There is a threat to democracy that Harper's attack ads pose and it involves MONEY. Harper's war chest is vastly larger than the opposition parties' and he's done much to undermine the equalizer of public financing.

If campaign donations, rather than prior popular support, determine the ability of a party to run an effective campaign than the party that appeals to a richer segment of the population will have the best chances. For all the hope surrounding small donors and the donation limits under Canadian law, a party that can get solid, large amount of one percenters to give the maximum of $1,100 to their party each year will be in good shape. Tack on other, less wealthy but still affluent segments of the population, and you can see how monied interests can sway Canadian politics. Harper's Conservatives, tellingly the most pro-unchecked-corporate-power/unequal distribution of wealth party out there, had the most big donors - those who gave the maximum of $1.1 K - of any party.

This money advantage allows the Conservatives to run negative ads years before elections. They've just released an attack ad out against Mulcair. To beat Harper the Opposition has to start defining the issues and writing the narrative before the CONs do it. They need to start racing for more funds in the pre-election years to run ads years before the next election. To do anything else would be analogous to running a race with one leg tied behind your back. Sadly, Harper's country club Conservative donors will be hard to match. 

1 Incidentally, I was once speaking to a Liberal Party member about the viability of a bi-national, one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He asserted that you couldn't "turn back the clock" to a "time when Israelis and Palestinians lived together". I countered that there was quite a bit of hostility between Francophones and Anglophones in Pre-Confederation Canada, he claimed that it was nothing like the level of hatred in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Reading the hyperlink I hope you realize that he really doesn't have a clue about early ethnic tensions in this country.

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