Politics big-city elites, you say. Sound familiar at all? - Macleans.ca

Politics big-city elites, you say. Sound familiar at all?

It is clear that you can’t win in modern politics by having evidence or good ideas on your side


Michael Caronna/Reuters

When government House leader John Baird claimed last week that Toronto-based “elites” were behind the push to save the long-gun registry, it had the desired result: Baird was loudly mocked all the way from Front Street to Eglinton Avenue, which pretty much proved his point. But it also marked the final transition of the federal Conservatives into an intellectual branch plant of the Republican party of the United States.

The storyline of the summer was the emergence of the federal Conservatives as a party committed to principled ignorance. Whatever the issue—crime, climate change, the census—the government has made it a point of pride to actively ignore facts, research, and expert opinion. Baird’s crack about “elites” is part of a strategy that believes there is little to be gained in politics by having good ideas and implementing evidence-based policies. Instead, the key to success is being able to control the meanings of words used in political discourse.

This is something the Republicans have been doing for ages. Social conservatism was framed as “family values,” while Sarah Palin managed to turn end-of-life medical counselling into a “death panel.” The strategy has been so successful that during the 2004 election, the Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff published a book entitled Don’t Think of an Elephant, in which he advised liberals to fight back by reframing their own pet ideas: big government becomes “effective government,” and higher taxes are now “investments.”

All of this might seem like “Lessons from 1984,” but it actually relies on a sophisticated understanding of how the human brain works. After all, biologically, humans are still African apes, and we have what amounts to a prehistoric ape brain onto which we have installed 21st-century cultural software. The result is two systems of reasoning that run largely independent of one another.

The first helps us make snap judgments about our environment—friend or foe, risk versus reward. Most of the calculation happens under our mental radar, and when we do become aware of it, we call it an “educated guess” or a “gut feeling.” The second is a lot slower, but gives far more reliable results. This is the form of linear, step-by-step reasoning we engage in when we are thinking a problem through using all the available facts and evidence, and is what most of us mean when we talk about “rationality.” The problem with the second system is that life is short, our time is precious, and our attention is severely divided. The brain gets overloaded and responds by sending the whole decision-making process down to the gut for a quick answer.

Over the years, we have developed a number of techniques for dealing with this tendency, and when it comes to a government running a modern welfare state, probably the most important of these is the reliance on experts. These are just people that we have assigned the full-time job of ignoring the opinions and anecdotes that flood the airwaves, focusing on the data, and reporting back to us with their well-informed conclusions.

The problem with experts is that they don’t always tell the government what it wants to hear. The past year has seen a nonstop parade of bad news from the experts, who have shot down one article of Tory faith after another: crime rates are falling, not rising; harm reduction for drug addicts works; climate change is real and serious; a voluntary census is useless.

The key to the Conservatives’ survival, then, is to make sure enough Canadians continue to think with their guts and prevent the more reliable part of their intellect from becoming engaged. Their first line of attack is to shut the experts up, which is why the government has effectively silenced everyone from the economists at Industry Canada who aren’t allowed to talk about their research on productivity to the muzzled NRC scientists who had the temerity to say the wrong things about climate change.

But the ultimately more effective instrument is the control of language itself. The Tories have spent the past year rolling out a few slogans, most of them aimed at framing the terms of debate for the next election. And so we’ve heard the Prime Minister repeatedly tell us that “losers don’t get to form governments,” that the Liberals will form a coalition with “socialists and separatists,” and, now, that anyone who supports the long-gun registry is a member of an urban elite. It’s a straight-up appeal to the gut, aimed at short-circuiting more sophisticated thinking.

As the Tories’ resilience at the polls suggests, gut-level politics is incredibly effective, which is why George Lakoff suggested that the only real option for the Democrats would be to engage to Republicans on their own terms—take back the White House by taking back the dictionary. It is increasingly clear that you can’t win in modern politics by having evidence or good ideas on your side, and so it might be time for the opposition in Canada to take their cue from the Democrats down south, start fighting the Tories on their own turf. For example, Stéphane Dion would have had an easier time selling his Green Shift plan if the phrase “tax bads, not goods” had even once passed his lips. More radically, the opposition might want to try reframing the anti-gun registry crowd as the “death lobby.”


Politics big-city elites, you say. Sound familiar at all?

  1. This is aggravating to the point of the extreme. What hope is there of accountability in a world where people only need to say what people want to hear in order to get elected? (Not that this is anything new in politics, I suppose).

  2. This violates a basic maxim: "Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it." Getting down and dirty would only turn a lot of voters off of politics entirely – leaving only committed Conservative supporters going to the ballot box.

    Appeals to the gut only work in the short term – eventually, reality becomes impossible to ignore. If Stephen Harper and his Conservatives are willing to say or do anything to gain and hold power – which appears increasingly likely – what a hollow triumph this will be if the Canadian economy and/or political structure are destroyed in the process – as seems to have happened in the US under Bush, and may well happen again under President Palin.

    Oh, well. Eventually, billions of years from now, the human race (or its replacement) will have evolved to the point where appeals to the Almighty Gut will not triumph over appeals to reason – provided that we haven't destroyed life or civilization first. I just hope that our descendants will not judge us too harshly.

    • Well, I wouldn't be so positive about our future evolution, Out There. The evidence suggests that our skulls have been getting smaller since we invented farming. That may have something to do with the folds in our brains, but another explanation, one that makes a lot of sense if you follow politics, is we're getting stupider.

      I don't have a problem with the opposition reframing the debate(s) to appeal to people's gut instincts as long the framing is also backed up by rational policy. That isn't wrestling with a pig, it's dealing with the pig's irrationality on terms that force the pig to act in a rational manner.

      • You've never farmed pigs have you? Rational is not something they circumvent to. However you can coral them into a spot where they can't do harm themselves or others. That should be the argument for for thought based policy, find the clear and hard evidence on even one important topic that can't be subjected to spin.
        Even a good message without a medium to carry it will fail to travel.

        • In other words, you deal with the pigs in a way that forces them to act in a rational manner. Once they are penned, they tend to settle down.

          The argument for thought-based policy is something I'm all for. People aren't making their voting decisions based on that though, and you don't get to institute thought-based policy from the opposition benches. So you go for the gut. You basically have eight seconds to make your point. It has to fit on a bumper sticker.

          Come up slogans promoting learning and science…most parents want their kids to be educated.
          Come up with slogans denigrating racism…nobody wants to be labelled a racist.
          Come up with slogans noting that social programs and education reduce crime, tie it to "good families."
          The list goes on.

          Get them in people's heads though, and then when they see a news article or a debate or speech explaining the actual policy, they are more likely to pay attention and to spend time after that thinking about it. It's also more likely to put the Conservatives, who really don't have much behind their slogans, on the defensive. Once they are on the defensive they just look angry and stupid.

  3. Oh dear. Potter is another of those liberals/progressives who thinks all political questions have already been decided scientifically and all the answers favour liberalism, of course.

    As just one example: global warming. Even global warming experts agree the earth has not warmed over the past 15 years but they continue to push their agenda. And then we have experts who focus on the sun, and not 'climate', and they are predicting the earth is about to get cooler, not warmer.

    This article can be shortened to 'Cons don't listen to experts I like'. There is no consensus on many issues, Potter, and if you were serious about educating yourself you would be aware of that.

    • Except Cons also don't listen to experts they like (and hire) … once those experts say something that disagrees with their ideology. Cons simply do not like experts.

      • Cons simply do not like experts.

        No, Cons don't like partisan special interests (who tend to describe themselves as experts).

        • "No, Cons don't like partisan special interests (who tend to describe themselves as experts)."

          Seems to me Cons conveniently conflate "special interests" with experts when they don't like the information proffered by an authority on a given issue.

          And a "special interest" is anyone whose position disagrees with theirs…like, for example, scientists on the federal payroll.

    • I agree.

      Potter has done this before, and it's getting really old. It amounts to leftists == science, righties == idiots. Your example is a good one. Global warming is not science, it's propaganda masquerading as science, and it turns out righties are much better at seeing that. Leftists would believe the moon is made of green cheese if you said it the right way, and they would go around parading it as established scientific fact.

      If Potter was right, all the inventions of the world would have come out of the Soviet Union and Cuba. Strangely enough, those countries could not hold a candle to the USA, where almost all modern inventions originated (even over the last 10 years), and which is dominated politically, by, you guessed it, the right. Infact, one of the hallmarks of leftist countries is the lack of innovation (mostly because leftists like Potter believe it's something you can delegate to the so-called "experts", who are in reality "special interest partisans", "people with connections", and "people with big egos").

      This type of writing from Potter is completely bone-headed. The reality is that leftists == propaganda, righties == science.

      • Why is it "leftist" to cite stats about the decline of crime rates as a basis for crafting justice policy, or to the lament the loss of a valuable database like the mandatory long form census as a tool for developing social planning?

        And where does the entrepreneurial failure of the Soviet Union and Cuba find a place in this discussion? Potter makes no reference at all to the business success of either "right-wing or "left-wing" political cultures. It could be argued (perhaps equally fallaciously) that the triumph of American inventiveness is a product of their scientific prowess or of the "elites" the CPC likes to disparage.

    • Funny that you chose global warming. The experts, as opposed to the clowns and charlatans at WUWT, understand that warming is real (including in the last 15 years) and that we are causing it. Don't confuse the opinion of a weatherman with a political agenda with the scientific thoughts of thousands of physicists, climatologists, glaciologists, biologists and so on.

      Denying global warming at this point is about the same as denying evolution. Of course many of the Conservatives do that too.

      • The augment of global is a bit more diverse than the black and white of " is it or isn't". What are the natural causes vs artificial causes? What are the remedies. Are their remedies? What defencive action should we take if the remedies don't work? etc.
        Once the ranks break on that climate change is real (cause and effect), the anti climate change faction takes this as support and regroups. Dumb maybe but divide and conquer isn't a new maxim either.

  4. This piece does, however, provide a plausible explanation for the CPC's otherwise-bewildering rejection of evidence-based policy and their preference, in stead, for their version of "common sense".

    Personally, I'd prefer to go in the direction that science points us on these matters, rather than policy based CPC opinion and dogma. I guess that makes me one of the much-loathed "progressives" or, perhaps worse, an "elite".

    • This is a response to bergkamp, above.

    • Inject the "progressives" back into the CPC perhaps? The party did once have a more centric wing of thought on science and social policy.

  5. This is Canada's first religious government. It has worked well in Iran and elsewhere and removes the need to actually know something to be an expert in your field. Little men with little minds who hate all those who are not of their church and will destroy Canada to remain in power. This is much more threatening than terrorism.

  6. "After all, biologically, humans are still African apes, and we have what amounts to a prehistoric ape brain onto which we have installed 21st-century cultural software. The result is two systems of reasoning that run largely independent of one another."

    This is one of the most cringe-worthy statements I have heard for a long time…

    You can't just jump from pre-humans to 21st century Canada. Because there is this process called history. Things have happened. Not just social things. Biological-chemical things as well. So I'm not quite sure where this software you are talking about comes from…

  7. So what you're saying Andrew, is that you're more comfortable living in a country that prefers to jail citizens for such heinous crimes as refusing to answer some of the questions on the census form, owning a 22 cal gopher rifle without the governments' express knowledge and approval, or even (horror of horrors!) selling bootleg barley than,say, living in a country that prefers to jail citizens for letting their infant daughters freeze to death in a blizzard, or stealing from the hard working owner of a corner store. Riiiight.
    Where's Allan Funt?
    And people wonder why self-serving elites get held up to such ridicule.

    • Thank you for embodying precisely the type of idiotic "gut reaction" that Potter is talking about.

      The facts fail to support your contentions above so completely I have to wonder if you're trying to be ironic.

      Nobody has ever gone to jail for failing to fill out the census nor was anyone ever in danger of it, and frankly registering a deadly weapon is just bloody common sense, especially if you're the owner.


      • Citizens have gone to jail for the heinous crime of illegally exporting barley. A government that will imprison people for that WILL jail census protesters. FYI- The farmers jailed for illegally exporting barley were, to a man, protesting the overreach of the CWB. Don't think they wouldn't jail census protesters? Then you're just dumb. BTW, it's no coincidence that the Libranos were in power when the barley protesters were unethically and immorally abused by the courts.
        Guns per se aren't deadly. The danger of firearms is directly a function of the owner, and there are hundreds of thousands of unregistered firearms in this country safely in the hands of people who live lawful lives, but simply believe that their personal security is enhanced by the fact that the state does not know that they own firearms. (see paragraph 1 for reference frame.) And yes, I routinely tell untruths to the census where I feel it's none of the state's business.

        • Guns are always deadly, that's their expressed purpose for pete's sake. It is not a judgment on an individual to suggest that in our society all people should register firearms. Like most laws there is a recognition that most people are honest, but for the sake of the innocent and to forestall the guilty, we should endeavour to make sensible laws concerning such things as the mobility and ownership of guns.

          As far as the census law, it has been there for decades and no one has been jailed. All the parties agreed to get rid of that penalty as well, thanks to the CPC pressure, but Harper just doesn't seem to understand when enough is too much.

          Making the census voluntary is an idiotic idea used to serve a political ideological purpose, not a logical one that serves taxpayer's interests.

          • In fairness, you are right. Guns are deadly, but not necessarily dangerous. That said, you're still dead wrong on the census. We can make all the noises we want about no one ever going to jail for refusing to fill out the census, but if it's true we have a conundrum.
            If you can choose to not answer the questions without penalty, (if you refuse and are fined, then refuse to pay the fine, then the courts have the authority to lock you up, which has supposedly never been done), then the census is by default not mandatory and the government has legally abdicated the power to jail future protesters, and the government is simply formalizing a previously determined legal position.
            Thus, we have some people advocating that the government re-instate a legal position that previous governments have already abdicated. As you already state yourself, no one goes to jail for refusing or lying to the census, such as I have done, so why do we need to re-assert that authority when we know with 100% certainty it will be abused as it was in the case of the Wheat Board protesters. (And I'll guaran-ass-tee you there are lots of people would have made the statement that "nobody's gone to jail for exporting a 5-gallon pail of barley" 15 or 20 years ago, and look how wrong they would have been.
            Simply put, the wheat board fiasco proves the veracity of the Conservative push to take some of the bite out of the legislation behind the census.

          • I'd be happy with a fine for not filling out the census, making it no doubt somewhere between mandatory and voluntary, but still mandatory enough to give people pause.

            After all, I can be fined $150 for parking more than two hours on my own street, $100 for not picking up my dog's poop and $50 for bloody jaywalking, so I don't have a problem with a maximum fine of $500 for not filling out the census.

            Beyond that I think the state should be limited from prosecuting further.

            As far as the wheat board is concerned, that's a sticky situation from where I'm sitting. On one hand I completely understand your position, on the other I wonder wonder what would happen to Canadian wheat farmers if they didn't have a strong collective bargaining position for selling their grains. I however don't know enough to take a stronger position than that on that issue. Ultimately it should be a democratic process at the very least.

    • Be sure to set the strawman's remains on fire just to be sure you got him.

  8. An intriguing aspect is that gut populism is being fueled by a critically thought-out strategy by political elites. Wolves in sheep clothing may be an apt metaphor.

  9. Gee how surprising that a party with a rural and suburban rails against the suburbs. And how unsurprising that a dissection of urban-rural differences quickly turns into a denunciation of a country bumpkin rejection of evidence and reason.

    Both rural and urban voters tend to stake out positions that run contrary to the bulk of evidence.

    Largely urban activists push against genetically modified foods (zero evidence of safety issues), organic farming (which cannot sustain anything more than a market niche and may actually be more environmentally harmful in some ways), and nuclear power (a zero emission energy source with the lowest cost per kilowatt hour). Even where environmental science does support doing more to reduce C02 emissions, one can find considerable support among economists for harmonizing Canada's approach with our biggest trade partner.

  10. Other issues are subject to more debate, but there is some support for Conservative positions. For instance, the lastest General Social Survey was just released. It shows that Stockwell Day's concern about reporting rates of crime have merit – once again reporting rates fell. Conservative crime proposals are rooted in a rational deterrence paradigm that is not without its own support in the law and economics literature. While there is less academic/expert support for eliminating the gun registry, the positive impact of the registry is relatively small. It tells police what registered guns are in a residence, but they must still be wary of unregistered guns (and certainly the registry has had no perceivable impact on the level of gun crime, which was how it was initially sold).

    Finally, on the world stage, the dominant paradigm in international relations are realists who emphasize cold calculations of national interest as the critical factor in world politics – not international institutions, or soft power.

  11. This is just a big whine really. Since when did Chretien ever care about "expert opinion." If Harper can push it through parliament then it must be good policy. Otherwise MP's wouldn't have voted for it.

  12. This is funny coming from left, since it was the left that first perverted language to sell its ideological wares.

  13. This is not a novel suggestion. First of all, the left already employs gut-level terminology. "Progressive","reactionary", "anti-choice", "angry", "ideological", "bully", "mean" "American-style" "tax cuts for their rich friends", to give just a few examples.

    Also, framing this as the Conservatives using slogans to combat the Fact that they're wrong (granted, he didn't say it in so many words, but it seems implied) misunderstands why the government communicates in this way. They are also themselves susceptible to gut-level attacks from their opponents (see above, most of these example should look familiar) if they attempt to debate without appealing to the gut.

    Let's take Insite as an example. Apparently it has been shown to reduce overdoses, and has thus been deemed to "work". There is an argument that can be had about it. I am ill equipped for such an argument, but I'll throw a few out there: Not everything that "works" necessarily deserves scarce public funds, here are a few uses of funds we deem more worthy. Or if you look at study X on the subject you'll see this error in the methodology. Or (forgive me but I am too lazy to do this right, hopefully you get the idea) though it may work, it is fundamentally opposite of our concept of the good society and here's why. Such arguments would be ineffective compared to stoking the gut level disgust most Canadians feel at the notion of working hard to pay for some junky to get his fix. Plus even conceding the possibility that a program of this type is compassionate toward those careening to an early grave gives their opponents a chance to call them "heartless" or some such for opposing it. So they push the bad argument, with the added bonus that supporters of Insite are virtually guaranteed to call its opponents a bunch of ignoramuses, and who do you think wins that battle?

    I am not trying to absolve them when I say that, just that this is going to be part of our discourse, on somebody's side (typically the winners) as long as it works. This government didn't invent it and it will last longer than Stephen Harper is around.

  14. I was going to write a long rebottle but what's the point? The mental midget that wrote this article is clueless and spends most of it projecting really; talk about the pot calling the kettle black. I almost wish I could get my three minutes back. Bad really bad article.

    • oops Rebuttal