Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Liberal Policy for Dummies

Like many Liberal bloggers, I watched Ignatieff's speech to the Toronto Board of Trade with interest yesterday, hoping to hear a few planks of the Liberals' much anticipated economic platform.

My heart sank a little when he opened with an apology for how long and detailed the speech was about to be.

The details are there alright: taking a pro-active approach to accelerating economic growth rather than just letting it happen, defending Canadian industry and technology from foreign takeovers, instituting a permanent increase in the gas tax transfers to municipalities, greater investment in renewable energy and green technologies, bring back the 'Team Canada' trade missions, making the PBO truly independent, and on and on.

I can't say I agree with everything he's proposing. His 'tearing down the borders' theme scares me, and while the U.S. 'Country of Origin' labelling laws might be hurting Canadian pork producers for the moment, I'd much rather spend some money on PR for them than allow food companies to omit such information on Canadian packaging.

Overall, though, I approve of the direction he wants to go. He's committed himself to a reversal of Harper's 'hands-off' approach to government, which is a good start in drawing the contrast between the Conservatives and the Liberals.

Now it's time for the marketing guys to go to work. Because while I find all this stuff fascinating - as I'm sure you do, oh faithful reader - the sad fact is that most voters only digest policy in bites of six words or less. It's not that they're stupid... ok, maybe some of them. It's that most of them are just too disinterested / disengaged / busy to bother investigating political policy positions beyond what they get through thirty second TV commercials.

Oh, they'll complain about it alright, saying "So-and-so doesn't have any clear policies", or "There's no real difference between this party's policies and those", when what they really mean is, "Nobody has distilled all this into bullet-point form for me to compare and contrast".

The problem, of course, is that most good, comprehensive, well thought-out, balanced policy is quite often highly resistant to distillation. Bad policy, on the other hand, is very easy to summarize because it is so often oversimplified to begin with. The Republicans are masters at it: "Tough on Crime". "Trickle-Down Economics". "The War on Terror". "Just Say No".

There may be no better example of this phenomenon than Dion's failed 'Green Shift' policy. Despite the catchy name, the detailed presentation and the positively elegant use of market incentives to create a self-funding emissions reduction program, it resisted all efforts to 'sloganize' it. And once the Conservatives saddled it with their own 'Carbon Tax' label it instantly became anathema to a great many of Canadians. The financial benefits to average Canadians were easy enough to understand with maybe five minutes of reading - but everyone already knew what a tax was, so hardly any of them bothered to investigate further.

As with the opposition to Obama's health reform proposals, some of those who railed against the Green Shift actually had rational arguments based on a reasonable understanding of the issue. Sadly, they were - and are - in the minority. The rest... well, anyone who has ever perused the comments section of any given newspaper website knows the sort. But even those reactionary types are a minority. The real majority of the electorate in both Canada and the U.S. Just. Don't. Care.

None of this is news, of course. It's been well known for decades that the reasons people vote one way or another almost never have anything to do with their understanding of or agreement with a candidate's policies. Far more often, they are influenced by what others think about about these policies - friends, relatives, and always, the media.

What is interesting in the case of yesterday's speech is that the media seems, at least temporarily, to have been knocked off of their "Liberals have no policies" narrative (except for the National Post, of course).

The speech itself didn't really say much that Ignatieff and the Party haven't been saying all along, and there likely won't be any more average voters examining this speech especially closely or rushing over to Liberal.ca for more details. But now that the media's line has started to change from "Liberals have no policies" to "Ignatieff talked about his party's economic policies", we might begin to see a few rays of light penetrating down to ground level.

We just need to make the slogans small enough.

(BTW, do go and read the New Yorker article on 'The Unpolitical Animal'. If that doesn't put you off politics altogether, you know you're really hooked.)


  1. His 'tearing down the borders' theme scares me

    As well it should.  It also runs very contrary to the "No Deep Integration" logo displayed.

    Sorry, this guy does nothing for me . . . .

  2. Iggy is pimping trickle-down economics. That's sorta okay, but what's his ideas for the rest of us?

  3. You can just handwave away the suggestion that Ignatieff hasn't shown much difference with Harper by claiming he just needs some better slogans. It couldn't hurt. But, after a lengthy address, the impression amongst non-Liberal partisans is "same old, same old", then your leader has a serious problem.