The Maclean’s Politics book club, Part Two

Paul Wells, Susan Delacourt, Brad Lavigne and Chris Turner on the year in politics

by Aaron Wherry

In celebration of a remarkable fall in political books, and to make sense of a remarkable period in Canadian politics, we’ve assembled four of the season’s most acclaimed authors for an email book club. Joining our own Paul Wells, author of The Longer I’m Prime Minister, are Susan Delacourt, author of Shopping for Votes; Chris Turner, author of The War on Science; and Brad Lavigne, author of Building the Orange Wave.

The first part of their discussion is here. The exciting conclusion is below.

From: Paul
To: Chris, Susan and Brad

It’s interesting that each of you asks a variation on a question I’ve heard a lot on the book trail: “Could we maybe do politics better?” Mixed with, especially in Susan’s case, “Could we maybe do journalism better while we’re at it?” At one stop, in London, Ont., I was asked that sort of thing by the former president of a local Conservative riding executive.

There’s a lot of dismay about the conduct of our politics (illustrated, to me, by the near-evangelical enthusiasm for Mike Chong’s Reform Act, which some of my colleagues portray as a vehicle for transporting Canadian politics from darkness towards light) and about our political journalism. One manifestation of the latter is how eager readers are to label political coverage as overly sympathetic toward parties they don’t like. (I don’t recall ever having a reader complain that my journalism was too kind to a party the reader liked. In other words, I never hear from readers who say, “You’re giving my party a free ride! Toughen up! It’ll do us some good!”)

I do think political reporting in daily newspapers has changed for the worse in 20 years. In the early ’90s, before my time, each large news organization had a few reporters who knew the big debates of the day backwards and forwards. A very high level of issue expertise. Now there’s less of that. But I do think some of that conversation has migrated from the traditional news organizations to books, including ebooks, and while that’s bad news for newspapers I’m not sure it’s particularly bad news for Western civilization.

As for our politics, well, from a certain angle the arrival and tenacity of Stephen Harper is proof that our politics can change. And while I think there’s a reason why the strict message discipline practiced by Harper works, I also think it’s possible to imagine a different style appealing to voters. But I do think it’s fair to say that dissatisfaction with politics as usual is pretty high, judging from what I heard on the book-tour circuit. What did you hear?

From: Susan
To: Paul, Brad and Chris

I think Paul raises some good questions.

Twice this year, I was out on the road for book purposes. The first round was with Justin Trudeau, while I was doing an eRead for the Star on his leadership campaign. The second round, of course, was for Shopping For Votes.

Though it’s probably a mistake to draw too many broad conclusions from the crowds who turned out for these events— they’re kind of self-selecting, in terms of political interest—there’s no question about the level of discontent with politics as usual. They’re annoyed with the polarization, the negativity, the focus on all-scandal-all-the-time. They think things are getting kind of crazy around these parts, and I can’t say I disagree with them.

And yes, some of those problems do rest at the feet of the media—I have found myself thinking a lot lately about why it is, or more specifically, when it was that we stopped being able to report on more than one political story at a time in Ottawa.

I have a couple of rather pedestrian explanations for that phenomenon: all-news TV and then, later, all other forms of technology that allow our editors and commentators outside Ottawa to feel that they’re as much in the loop as those of us doing the daily journalism in the capital.

It works this way: An event happens in Ottawa, and for whatever reason, that’s the story that CBC or CTV choose to cover live. Then everyone on Twitter and other social media pile on. Then our editors, watching the same coverage and conversations, want to make sure we’ve got as much as our competitors on it. If you’re the unlucky reporter with a story not on that same subject, you’ll have a heck of a time breaking through the noise.

So not only do we have fewer reporters, we have less variety in the political stories coming out of the capital every day. I am (unfortunately) old enough to remember a time when we all fanned out and looked for new things all day and only decided at the end of the day what the best story was. Some days it might be a national-unity development, other days it might be a new piece of legislation. Now that best-story-of-the-day decision is being chosen mainly on the basis of what’s making the most noise.

Anyway, in terms of solutions, I’ve been kind of assembling an informal list of thoughts/ideas that got the most heads nodding during the Q&A sessions on the state of politics. Here are the top three:

* A lot of people seemed to like the idea of standards over political advertising. When you point out that the private sector has such standards, and politics has none, they like the idea even better.

* “Taxpayer” is not a synonym for citizen.

* Government should not be seen as something inflicted on citizens, but something that belongs to them.

I’m working on a bigger list, but I’d say these are the thoughts that seem to resonate most with the crowds I’ve been encountering in book-promotion land.

From: Brad
To: Paul, Susan and Chris

Picking up on your point Paul, I also sense an increasing sensitivity among people on political coverage and journalists. Maybe because journalists are more accessible than ever before or maybe it’s because the next election is wide open and, as usual, the stakes are very high. Increasingly, people are turning to media sources and specific journalists that support and reinforce their bias (in the U.S., it’s nicely framed as Fox vs MSNBC). The folks that have turned up to my book signings are certainly proof of this. Agreeing with Susan on her point that those who come to book launches are self-selecting, those who come to Orange Wave book events are political by nature and for the most part ridiculously up-to-speed on events of the day. During the book signing in Saskatoon, I had a number of different people at different times come up and ask me about the latest polling numbers, “Did you see that Nik Nanos on Evan just now, Tom’s up in the polls?” “No” I answered, “I was in the cab on the way here.”

New tools have given more outlets to more people to engage the media: the 24-hour news cycle, online sources, the internationalism of content and especially Twitter have all changed the landscape.

Susan and I explore this in our books. In a 1000 channel universe there are very few shared experiences anymore. As a result message discipline by politicians has never been more important. We’re all consuming our information at different times and from different places, therefore constant repetition is important. As for skepticism, the speed with which journalists need to file and the lack of space they are given creates a vacuum that the audience is left to fill. With little time for context and background, suspicion far too often fills in the blanks.

Throughout my fall tour, shorter-term political strategic questions (as opposed to the big-picture questions Susan speaks of) dominated the Q&A sessions. On the news was the Senate/PMO scandal and therefore that’s what people were asking about the most. The folks who come to my events already have a good dose of cynicism around the current crew running the federal government. So perhaps my audience isn’t seeking to make up their minds as much as they are seeking to reinforce their bias in long form.

From: Chris
To: Brad, Susan and Paul

It’s curious that we started out talking about how (unexpectedly) much interest there was in Canadian politics this fall and now we’re closing off by lamenting the decline of the mass audience and the narrowing of political journalism to single story arcs. Curious, but maybe inevitable—as Brad says, there seems to be a growing scarcity in shared experience, and it’s having an enormous impact on politics and public life in general.

There were cons as well as pros to the days when a handful of media outlets could presume to dictate the national discourse, not least of which was the outsized role certain gatekeepers once played in deciding what stories were allowed into it. But in this first giddy phase of the digital age, one definite negative has been the speed and skill of new communications technology at constructing echo chambers. Not only are we sharing experiences less, we’re having difficulty even agreeing on the basic facts of those things we do witness in common.

I set out with The War on Science to reassert the primacy of objective data and the scientific method in public policy, and yet I suspected it would be nearly impossible to reach those portions of the Canadian public who’d already decided that any strong criticism of this government was not just suspect but totally unworthy of consideration. With us or against us. Everything’s spin. Tribal loyalties trump the truth in nearly every instance. I can’t simply be angry with the desecration of Canada’s scientific tradition, I must be angry for partisan reasons. It’s because I’m one of those treehugger types, a Green loyalist just trying to score easy points and preach to my own choir.

I’m all too familiar with this, coming from the wildly polarized climate change conversation. There is a pretty fascinating and fast-growing literature on the role of “cultural cognition” in the assessment of facts and the estimation of risk if anyone wants to go google it. The upshot is that we not only tend to listen more often to people with whom we share cultural norms and values, but we consciously and unconsciously discount information that comes from outside our tribe if it presents a challenge to the our shared worldview. Among other oddities, studies have found that better informed and more scientifically literate U.S. conservatives are actually more likely to be virulently opposed to the consensus on anthropogenic climate change than people with much less grounding in the science.

And even as we lament this, the master gameplayers in this tribal competition see only greater and greater opportunity. This is of course something that the Conservative Party of Canada—and political parties in general—have become very good at. Message discipline, talking points, the creation of simple (often simplistic) narratives, told over and over, in the face of any and all contradictory evidence, so as to ensure that the distracted mass audience hears the same story whenever and wherever they intersect with it. And the media, yes, serve all too often as willing enablers, chasing those sensational but often meaningless clashes at the expense of the dull complexities of policy and its implications.

Probably the most troubling question I encountered doing publicity for The War on Science—mainly from media interlocutors aiming at a sort of quasi-populist voice—was: Why does it matter to the mythic “average Canadian” if the government is slashing scientific research and reducing its data flows? The intonation always seemed to indicate that said average Canadian was someone far removed from and presumed to be indifferent if not hostile to whatever high-minded talk we’d just been engaging in. The implication was that it all wasn’t going to make a lick of difference to the traffic on tomorrow’s commute or the size of the next pay raise or the price of a double-double down at Tim’s, and so why should anyone care? Could I condense the book’s thesis into a tidy anecdote or soundbite, some kitchen-table talking point in which everyone would recognize their self-interest? And if I couldn’t, well, thanks for playing anyway.

I usually mumbled something about needing to be able to assess future risks and seize new opportunities, but I have to admit even as a jaded journalist and one-time politician I was a bit thrown by the idea that the pursuit of truth—about our world, our place in it, where we are and where we might be going—wasn’t self-justifying. Why does science matter? Why bother with labs or museums? Do we really have to explain that? And if we do, what kind of dangerous public discourse has Canada trapped itself in?




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