The forever campaign



Attentive readers will have noticed that I’ve spent the past month busily doing things other than writing for this blog. I’ve actually been working on a few academic articles, but also a long piece for the Ottawa Citizen, which just came out online today. It’s called “The Forever Campaign” and it deals with the problem that John Stuart Mill referred to as “the great mischief of unintermitted electioneering.”

Here’s a bit that pertains to our current electoral campaign:

Perhaps the signature accomplishment of the Harper Government, when it comes to accelerating the decline of Canadian democracy, has been the transformation of parliament itself, and of the legislative process, into an instrument of the political campaign.

Governing parties have always passed laws that they feel will appeal to their favoured constituencies. Historically, however, these laws have also attempted to achieve something, above and beyond merely appealing to these groups.

The Harper Government’s most innovative stroke lies in its record of introducing and passing bills that have no purpose, and no legal effect, other than appealing to favoured constituencies. Thus the legislative process itself becomes nothing more than an extension of the campaign, allowing the Conservative Party to position itself in a favourable way, and to issue the inevitable fundraising appeals.

Particularly egregious examples of this – among the flurry of criminal justice bills introduced by the Harper Government – have been the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act and the Protecting Canada’s Seniors Act, both of which introduce provisions that are essentially redundant — they merely reaffirm existing law or judicial practice.  The problem is not just the pandering titles, it is that the bills themselves are nothing but an exercise in pandering to targeted demographics. It is only when one considers the fundraising opportunities they provide that one can make any sense of the government’s decision to introduce them.

Lots more good stuff in there. Sadly, one of the first commenters says, basically “but the Liberals did bad stuff too!” This is, in fact, almost always the line used by Conservative partisans to defend their behaviour in power. And it’s true, Jean Chrétien was a very cynical politician, and for every outrageous thing the Conservatives have done, you can find some precedent, where the Liberals did something sort-of similar. But the fact that people are so quick to appeal to this as an excuse for their actions just shows how hard it is to break out of a race to the bottom, once it has begun. It is a structural feature of a collective action problem that everyone involved is able to point to someone else as the source of the problem. This is part of the reason that people find it so hard to escape from these cycles of mutually-destructive behaviour — because the situation itself always offers everyone an excuse for their actions.

I find it depressing that some people, even after reading a whole article about the structure of the problem, still cannot see it. In particular, I find it depressing when people say “but the Liberals did bad things too!” while failing to realize that, in so doing, they are not putting forward an objection to my analysis, but rather providing an illustration of it.

Finally, I’d just like to draw attention to the fact that I managed to use the word “ouroboros” in a major Canadian newspaper. I’m all about raising the tone of our political discourse…


The forever campaign — 5 Comments

  1. I am in agreement with your analysis but I am surprised by the following statement:

    ‘I find it depressing that some people, even after reading a whole article about the structure of the problem, still cannot see it.’

    But why they should see it? Perhaps I am too cynical, but if people are immersed in the structure and the incentives are those why they would change. This comments reminds me of some scholars that they use rational choice all the time, but suddenly they realized about certain actions of politicians that they are immoral or not good, and they are surprised that politicians do not do the ‘right’ thing. But it you follow the logic of rational choice that is the precisely the outcome!!

    In sum, it seems to me that your hopes for changing certain habits come from assumptions that do not follow from your analysis.

  2. I’ve been following your work for some years now, so it is somewhat puzzling that you talk here about “forever elections” & yet I remember reading in one of your books that you don’t have much faith in electoral reforms. Am I mistaken about this inconsistent stance?

  3. Yes, that first comment was depressing. But always remember the Atrios dictate that newspaper commenters are ‘the worst people in the world’.

    Although, having said that, I have to say that on the rare occasions I read the Globe and Mail online, the top-rated comments are typically far more insightful and accurate than the articles themselves.

    At any rate, thanks for the article – one of those things that, having seen it explained, seems obvious and will inform my understanding going forward, but never would have fully made its way into my thinking unless I saw the argument made coherently. It’s too bad you couldn’t work in the Chariots of Fire bit, I always thought that was an effective introduction to the perils of competition.

  4. What’s a writer’s main task? Saith the chorus,
    “Be both witty and sage, or you bore us”:
    Enter Heath, whose confection
    Helps dissect our election,
    Yet can squeeze in a pert “orouboros”!