My “Forever Campaign” piece in the Ottawa Citizen this past weekend received a lot of positive response (a shorter version was published in the National Post, as well as several other Postmedia papers). Today the Citizen has a column by Randall Denley (“Politicians are no Threat to Democracy”), retired journalist, failed Ontario PC candidate and now “strategic communications consultant,” taking issue with some of the claims that I made.
Apparently my concerns about the future of democracy are not only ill-founded, but in some cases positively “funny.”
I just want to focus on two aspects of Denley’s piece. He starts out by making a fairly big move, which is to dismiss the major premise of my argument. I claimed that the “point” of a democratic political system is to produce “good government” (which, to be pedantic, should be taken to mean “to improve our chances of getting good government,” or “to improve the average quality of government,” or something like that). The quality of government provides, in my view, the standard against which the performance of the political system must be assessed.
Denley, however, denies that there is such a thing. In his view, “good government” is all in the eye of the beholder: “All parties believe they will deliver good government…” As far as rebuting my argument is concerned, he might as well have stopped right there. After all, if there is no such thing as better or worse government, then the whole exercise of fretting about the “health of democracy” is incoherent. It is to enter a world in which, as I say to my kids: “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”
But consider how Denley’s claim looks, if you parse it through one of the sports analogies that I used. For example, I talked briefly about the problem of the neutral zone trap in hockey. I said that hockey players and coaches sometimes forget that the “point” of NHL hockey is actually not to win games, but rather to entertain spectators. In this respect, the neutral zone trap is perverse – it’s a strategy that helps teams to win, but undermines the point of the competition, by making the game incredibly boring to watch. Now suppose an NHL player were to respond to this by saying: “What is this thing called ‘entertainment’ that you speak of? Each team believes that its own style of play is entertaining. Who are you to say that they are wrong? In reality, the point of hockey is just to win.”
This argument exactly parallels what Denley is saying about democracy. To fancy it up a bit, what he is claiming is that there is no non-partisan way of identifying what counts as good government (which is, I think, actually what a lot of Harper supporters believe). What follows from this, however, is a rather troubling implication, which is that whoever wins the election automatically provides “good government,” so long as they think they are doing so. And if anyone complains:
Second point: Denley spends a lot of time criticizing the idea that political parties “have become too sophisticated and powerful” – which is actually not something I said, but whatever, it’s a point worth discussing. Denley goes on to emphasize the extent to which parties remain amateur organizations:
Sure, the parties themselves promote the idea that they are clever, powerful groups that know everything about voters and have special ways of targeting messages to them. At best, that’s a gross exaggeration. Political parties do use data management systems, but they are pretty unsophisticated. Google knows far more about you than any political party.
It’s true that, if you take the Conservative party’s CIMS system, or the ill-fated C-Vote database, it looks pretty unsophisticated compared to what Google or Facebook are doing. But my “decline of democracy” thesis does not require that political parties be more sophisticated than tech companies, it requires only that political parties be more sophisticated now than they were in the past. And anyone who knows anything about political parties knows that they are.
So Denley’s reasoning here is, as we say in the business, specious. He has failed to grasp the structure of the argument (or to understand how a “race to the bottom” works).
Incidentally, here is what I actually said about the growing sophistication of politicians and political parties:
The question we need to ask ourselves, as we consider the state of Canadian democracy, is whether our politicians, and our political parties, have also gotten too good at playing the game – whether they have developed strategies that, despite helping them to win, undermine the point of the competition.
What I had in mind is something like the practice of using “talking points” in all media engagements. There are really interesting parallels between the “neutral zone trap” in hockey and the “talking points” strategy in political communication. The simple strategy of working out a series of points that you want to make, in advance of an interview, then just using the questions as a pretext for reciting those points, is an incredibly successful and effective practice. And it’s not the case that everyone has always done this – the strategy was invented at a particular time and place. Go back even to the Mulroney years and you can find interviews where cabinet ministers, or even the prime minister, would just say what they thought, in response to questions. And yet, once the practice of talking points became generalized, it was incredibly destructive to the quality of democratic discourse (just listen to an interview with Pierre Poilievre to see what I mean – there is literally no point talking to him).
Finally, I can’t help drawing attention to Denley’s gloriously unselfconscious penultimate paragraph:
Those who spend a lot of time lamenting the efforts of political parties should join one and see if they can do better. For $10 or $20, you can get a membership and have a say in choosing who gets to run in your riding and even who leads the party. It’s really very easy to become someone who has a degree of influence on political events.
That’s right, he wraps up his argument by asking people to give money to political parties.
One afterthought: can we have a moratorium on the suggestion that, in order to fix the system, “people have to get more involved”? This is not a solution, it is a restatement of the problem. (Saying that a problem requires massive, broad-based, spontaneous, decentralized collective action in order to be resolved is equivalent to saying that it cannot be resolved. We need to think institutionally about social problems.)