The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The media is the message

Whether politics is the application of sociology or a specific subset of the science of appearances better known as marketing, Stephen Harper is plying the television and radio campaign exceptionally well. Every part of his presentation flows seamlessly together in a clean mélange of physical setting, music, and especially tone of message. In many circles Harper's ideology -- the true ideology, until now somewhat tempered by the compromising necessities of a minority government -- do not sit comfortably with many Canadians: and so the content of that ideology has been repackaged into seemingly gentle, utterly reasonable-sounding discussions one might have with an idealised 1950s television father who tells us, kindly yet firmly, the way things are in the world. It appeals to nostalgia, and nostalgia appeals to us.

(Never mind that the nostalgia is for a world that never was, and further blinds us to the substance of the relationship. Harper is not a father to his nation, idealised or otherwise; and we are reasoning adults with the power and awareness to make a true and positive difference in our world, not children ... though most of us seem to want to abrogate responsibility, in the way of children, at every possible opportunity.)

In effect the Conservatives are simultaneously running two separate campaigns. The first, the strict but benevolent father-figure, is designed to appeal to the not-quite-hidden deep yearnings of Canadians across a broad demographic swatch; and none of the other parties have yet been able to find an effective match or counter to it. In fact, such a counter would be very difficult to devise, without also edging upon a message which opposes family itself. None of the other leaders can similarly draw upon a father-figure appeal. At best then, they can try to recast the father image into a uneasiness, suspicion, even outright fear -- but then they have dipped into the ad hominem negative campaigning first.

The second Conservative campaign is a fear tactic: fear of what is (occasionally painted -- literally -- in stark black and white), fear of what could happen under a less competent leadership. Designed to solidify core support and tip waverers into the Consservative camp, this campaign makes no effort whatsoever to appear inclusive to a broader Canadian demographic. As Harper is alleged to have once said to Danny Williams, "We don't need [you] to win this election." Which, said to a Danny Williams, just might come back to haunt him ... if Danny Williams can figure out how to speak to people outside the Newfoundland choir and has any interest in spreading his message further. So far his speeches show little of understanding of a broader Canadian relevance. Harper's campaign people do have have that understanding, and very much an interest in targeting enough Canadians nation-wide to finally nail that elusive majority: which in turn will render his words to Danny William prophetic.

The scare tactic part of the campaign has additionally been strongly reinforced by the pre-election mailing campaign of so-called non-campaign pamphlets (conveniently funded by government, not party, resources) and a very efficient grassroots e-mailing structure. I run the kind of road that makes me of interest to people of all political stripes, which, these days, means that before I can get to my personal and business communications, I have to run a gaumet of four or five times as many not-technically-political e-mails: of which easily 80 percent echoes Conservative values. (An irony most of those who e-mail me don't know: when they define what it means to them to be a true Canadian, their definitions always exclude me.) Another 15 percent is Green-toned: the other party to have effectively harnessed grassroots communications. Now that it has become more autonomous from union structures, even the NDP can't compete!

The only two questions which remain are of circumstance and true independence of thought, both of which are largely outside control of substance, if not potentially control of message.

Will some communication stumble, poorly timed individual statement, or unfortunate coincidence of event conflict with the carefully orchestrated message? The Reform branch of the Conservative party prides itself in its individualism, an individualism Harper has done his best to rein in in the interest of solidifying core party support. Sooner or later, all individuals stumble -- and might not even see it as stumbling, since this would require a dictum of outside perspective which many politicians of every party seem to see as a weakness. During an election campaign, those stumbles cast reflection on the party as a whole.

Separated out from its packaging, maybe it is just possible that people will consider the substance of the message for themselves, within the context of economic and world realities ... and not come to the conclusion the Conservative party sees as self-evident?


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