Po­lit­i­cal brand­ing — as prac­tised by Don­ald Trump, Vik­tor Or­bán and Doug Ford — is harm­ing democ­racy

Investment Executive - - FRONT PAGE - BY GORD MCIN­TOSH

The po­lit­i­cal brand­ing by pop­ulists is harm­ing democ­racy.

shout it. tweet it. write it. po­lit­i­cal brand­ing is harm­ing democ­racy and, ul­ti­mately, the econ­omy — on both sides of the 49th par­al­lel.

Be­fore we blame pop­ulism for the Canada/U.S. trade war, the cur­rent nas­ti­ness of fed­eral/provin­cial re­la­tions and ris­ing trib­al­ism among vot­ers, let’s look at how we got into this cur­rent mess.

There’s noth­ing new, of course, about pop­ulism. The Con­cise Ox­ford Dic­tionary of Pol­i­tics de­fines pop­ulism’s ori­gin in the U.S. of the 1870s as an ex­pres­sion of dis­il­lu­sion­ment and griev­ances of mostly western farm­ers who felt cheated by bro­ken prom­ises of cheap land and rail­way rates.

For most of the 20th cen­tury, pop­ulism has been equated with left-lean­ing or pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics, with some ex­cep­tions.

What’s new is how pop­ulism is be­ing weaponized by the right in the 21st cen­tury to at­tract con­ser­va­tive vot­ers who feel left be­hind.

We see ex­am­ples of right-wing pop­ulism such as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion in the U.S. and Hun­gar­ian Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­bán, who has been bor­row­ing heav­ily from the Nazis. And we see less ex­treme ex­am­ples, such as former prime min­is­ter Stephen Harper’s gov­ern­ment and the new regime of On­tario Premier Doug Ford.

All have shown el­e­ments of a com­mon play­book, such as des­ig­na­tion and sub­se­quent de­mo­niz­ing of a pub­lic threat or “en­emy of the peo­ple” or “elites,” and tight mes­sage con­trol. And, of course, facts don’t mat­ter much.

As in all forms of po­lit­i­cal brand­ing, main­te­nance of a sup­port base among vot­ers is es­sen­tial. But with con­tem­po­rary pop­ulism, main­tain­ing the base is all the more dif­fi­cult be­cause sup­port­ers were an­gry and dis­il­lu­sioned in the first place.

This is why pop­ulists con­stantly throw red meat to the base with com­bat­ive rhetoric and drama against des­ig­nated foes, such as union bosses, wel­fare cheats, refugees or ev­ery­body’s favourite en­emy, Bay Street.

An ex­am­ple would be the Ford gov­ern­ment rush­ing to uni­lat­er­ally can­cel con­tracts for wind farms — law­suits be damned.

Or chop­ping Toronto’s city coun­cil in half dur­ing a mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion cam­paign, democ­racy be damned.

Or, in the case of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, start­ing a global trade war to keep the base mo­ti­vated enough to show up for this Novem­ber’s midterm elec­tions, com­mon sense be damned.

Pop­ulism is all about keep­ing things mov­ing, like the script of a re­al­ity-TV show, to keep the voter base in­ter­ested in a sort of hy­brid be­tween gov­ern­ing and en­ter­tain­ing, just as the Ro­mans re­lied on bread and cir­cuses to keep peo­ple happy. Call it “gov­ern­tain­ment.”

Of course, should facts not jibe with the mes­sage, no worry. The base won’t be both­ered. Ac­cept­ing a good story if it res­onates with our own bi­ases is hu­man na­ture. This is known as “nar­ra­tive fi­delity” among so­cial sci­en­tists.

A strong sup­port base is a key part of what po­lit­i­cal strate­gists call “nar­row­cast­ing”: con­cen­trat­ing your mes­sag­ing to a highly de­fined mar­ket seg­ment that will be mo­ti­vated enough to stay with you.

In all, gov­ern­tain­ment is a reck­less form of gov­ern­ing that puts po­lit­i­cal sur­vival over out­comes. Abruptly can­celling a wind farm big enough to power 3,000 homes may ap­pease the base. But it could very well cost $100 mil­lion and send a sig­nal to the rest of the world that On­tario is ac­tu­ally closed to cer­tain kinds of busi­ness.

In the U.S., pro­tect­ing soft­wood lum­ber with tar­iffs may ap­pease a lot of peo­ple. But it will also hurt the U.S. home­build­ing in­dus­try.

The scram­ble to gov­ern­ment for the few rather than for the many is prob­a­bly why pop­ulism is con­tin­u­ing to morph into a retro ver­sion of mer­can­til­ism of the 18th cen­tury, in which gov­ern­ment, not the pri­vate sec­tor, was the driver of pros­per­ity, and wealth was built at an­other coun­try’s ex­pense.

Like mer­can­til­ism, right-wing pop­ulism will be re­mem­bered as some­thing that worked un­til it didn’t. At some point, the right-wing pop­ulists will run out of fresh meat to throw to their base, as hap­pened with the Harper gov­ern­ment in 2015.

Or, when vot­ers’ view of the world shifts, pop­ulist “al­ter­na­tive facts” be­gin to look like BS.

But un­til that hap­pens, risk as­sess­ment will be all the more im­por­tant. And the global eco­nomic and geopo­lit­i­cal sys­tems de­vel­oped in the post-Sec­ond World War period are in for some ex­treme tur­bu­lence, re­gard­less of whether Don­ald Trump avoids im­peach­ment.

Of course, should facts not jibe with the mes­sage, no worry. The base won’t be both­ered

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