Friday, May 22, 2009

"Never look for birds of this year in the nests of the last."

So the hot topic these days is the Harper "attack ads"; most observers and pundits commenting on the veracity of the ads themselves, i.e. is their content truthful and honest?, as opposed to the veracity of the strategy behind them, i.e. as one element in a political strategy are they a truthful and honest tactic?

What they are, most definitely are an attempt by Harper to re-employ a strategy that he perceives to have worked in the past. Unfortunately for the voting (or non-voting) public that "successful" strategy was one launched against democracy in Canada, not against a political opponent, be that an individual or an organization. It was a crass strategy targeting the voter as a consumer. His means to his end (obviously winning the last election) was not the presentation of a positive platform or vision of the country, not even wanting to govern for some reason, or with some purpose than simply being the smartest strategist in the free world; it was winning through control, containment and manipulation.

Straight from the (Karl) Rovian playbook, itself originally based on the successful William McKinley campaign of 1896, which applied business principles to politics for the first time, Harper embarked on a strategy of winning through voter suppression. Rove's own underlying strategy in the (Bush) Texas gubernatorial contest of 1994 of segmentation and balancing persuasion with motivation, had morphed by 2000 and the Presidential contest of Bush/Gore to segmentation and balancing motivation with anti-motivation. "Business principles" became honed to "marketing principles".

In the 2006-2008 period, Harper employed his Rovian techniques mercilessly: segment the "market"; treat voters as consumers of a product; define the other product as unpalatable to certain consumers; flood the market with specialized appeals to your own loyal consumers; and, don't worry about, and in fact encourage, consumers who don't like your product either, to simply go without. There is no other explanation for the conduct of Harper's cabinet and caucus in the last Parliament; they simply didn't care how many voters were turned off period, as long as their "core" remained motivated; having the rest anti-motivated was simply according to plan.

The "success" of the strategy is borne out by the disastrous turnout figures of the 2008 election. Out of the slightly more than 1,000,000 voters in 2006 who did not vote in 2008, more than 75% of those - close to 850,000 - were formerly Liberal voters. Canadian politics had reached the acme of anti-motivation. Voting motivation and democratic principles suppressed.

Michael Ignatieff wants to "do politics differently" (and I think he's made a decent start at it) and believes that voters want politics done differently too. I agree that many might, but that many more have already slipped into ambivalence, and in order to stop the slide, politics will have to be done very differently indeed. If we can present our party as about caring more about Canada and our flailing democracy, than about the Party itself, the contrast will be compelling. But it's a very tall order: complex and time-consuming (and admittedly rather academic), and (sigh) one that will pragmatically have to be thinned somewhat by the true realities of politics.

But as the old adage attests: "charity begins at home".
In marketing circles there is a difference between marketing products and marketing organizations and ideas. A product doesn't really have a "relationship" with it's audience, but an organization does. Brand management is about customers; relationship management is about reputation. The electorate is not inured to the Liberal Party's own deportment in the past, otherwise Harperovian strategies and tactics wouldn't work as well as they have. They come by much of their cynicism honestly. But we can begin by letting voters know that we don't simple view them as consumers of a political "product". That we are not simply marketers, but developers, innovators and public-service-providers. Proceedings in Parliament and conduct in between and during election campaigns will be indicative.

Let's turn the Harperovian strategy on it's head. Not voter suppression; but voter expression.


  1. I miss your insight.... been way too long since we've been graced with your witty observations