The problem is both bigger and smaller

Don Lenihan troubleshoots Allan Gregg’s essay.

Politics has gone through a transformative change in the last 40 years. Today, events move at lightning speed; issues are highly complex and interconnected; there has been an explosion of new players in the policy space, such as NGOs, lobbyists and associations; information is superabundant; social media have created a 24 hour news cycle; and public opinion research, communications and marketing have changed the way policy is made and defended.

In this new environment governments are inclined to avoid public debate on major issues. Trying to explain complex issues in 15-second clips is next to impossible, and opponents are often very skilled at turning this to their advantage. They use sophisticated communications techniques to manipulate the media and incite suspicion, doubt and anger among affected groups. As a result, opponents often punch far above their weight, stalling or even derailing major policy initiatives. Governments fear them. Yet Gregg has almost nothing to say about all this. Instead, his call for a return to reason in politics often sounds more like a lament for the kind of public debates we had when Canada was a simpler, slower, less complicated place. As an expert in public engagement, I can only say that we are not going back to this. The past is gone.




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The problem is both bigger and smaller

  1. That’s total BS. For example, to excuse Harper from using an Omnibus bill to prevent debate on, what, 38 unrelated Bills or something, has nothing to do with social media, soundbites or lack of attention span. It has everything to do with cynically running a country on an agenda that does not do well under scrutiny.

    • Or only pandering to one particular element of the electorate – the business community.[it's worth following the author's link through to his policy piece on consumer politics[which i despise] and big issue politics. I hadn’t realized Delacourt’s book was out. Should be a provocative read.

  2. Mr.Lenihan’s write up is very much appreciated in the sense that it offers us some balance on the topic under discussion.

    However, Lenihan does not address one of the most fundamental subjects Gregg had touched upon, namely the topic of science as well as reason. It seems to me that Gregg (within his speech) is of the opinion that science is above all instantly associated with reason, as in: science is always supported by reason; science is synonamous with reason.

    I beg to differ. Besides reason to be the guiding force for science ( be
    that as it may), there is an awful lot of speculation involved in
    science. Scientific so-called “truths” have been overturned by futures,
    time and again. And yes, ideologies are known to be overturned also, and
    for the same reason, namely something more reasonable has taken its
    place, over time.

    Besides concluding (correctly) that ideology
    can be rooted in reason as well as scientific endeavors are rooted in
    reason, both ideology and science also have in common that they are
    replaced by updated versions over time.

    • Are you making the case that using reason (science) as the basis for policy is no more or less effective than using ideology – ie they are indistinguishable from each other – or are you making the case that using science does not produce 100% effective policy and ideology does not make 0% effective policy, yet one method may be better than the other over the medium to long term?

  3. Mr.Lenihan provides us with some much needed balance in regards to Gregg’s speech.

    However, Lenihan does not touch upon one of Gregg’s most overriding subject under discussion, namely science. Gregg implies that only science is rooted in reason in that science is reason, and reason is science.

    I beg to differ. Besides reason to be the guiding force for science ( be
    that as it may), there is an awful lot of speculation involved in
    science. Scientific so-called “truths” have been overturned by futures,
    time and again. And yes, ideologies are known to be overturned also, and
    for the same reason, namely something more reasonable has taken its
    place, over time.

    Besides concluding (correctly) that ideology
    can be rooted in reason as well as scientific endeavors are rooted in
    reason, ideology and science also have in common that they are
    replaced by updated versions over time.

  4. In Lenihan’s response he uses the example of “the right-wing view that robust social programs create dependency.” He goes on to indicate that many good policies have been enacted on the basis of this belief.

    So, is it only a belief (no correlation whatsoever)? Or is it a fact (a 100% correlation between robust social programs dependency)? Probably neither. It probably creates dependency in a modest number of cases, which apparently can be curbed with some tweaking of the original policies. That is quite different from the general belief that robust social programs create dependency, full stop, with the implication that the entire program should be abandoned.

    It is science that can determine the extent to which that belief is actually true, which can then lead to appropriate adjustments.

    • Lord preserve us from libertarian absolutism.

      • Maybe?

        • Absolutely.

          • OK, at some level this is fun… :-)

            But, can you elaborate, just a bit, on your reply?

            Thx!

          • Just having a bit of fun. I’ve nothing original to say on libertarians other than i rarely find any kind of absolutism entirely rational.

          • Okey dokey. I probably feel the same way.

  5. The opponents that Lenihan believe to shoot so much above their weight constitute civil society, and it’s to the detriment of us all that they’re not consulted or, even worse, marginalized. Western prosperity was at its peak in the post-war years when labour unions, churches, charities, trade organizations and all had something to contribute to the conversation on these big policy ideas. Along with that, there was also a widely held belief that government could be used to accomplish something worthwhile, and a trust in the politicalprocess… That idea has been out-of-vogue for some time in the op-ed pages, but it’s interesting to note that the corporations have never stopped believing in using political power for their own gain.

    Lenihan shrugs off Gregg’s analysis as a lament for more genteel days of yore and a high-minded tone, and I’m sure it is to a certain extent, but what’s the alternative? Sacrificing (as Maugham said) principle to expediency?

    The number of journalists covering the Ottawa beat is already hugely overtaken by communications consultants and PR. I find it a cynical sort of thinking that says that there’s no room for substantial analysis in this 24 hour news cycle…

    Gregg’s article was a bit of a clumsy cry for some sensibility, (and basically just articulating what anybody who pays attention to politics in this as something that impacts peoples lives in substantial ways, and more than a sport) but I much prefer it to poll-driven market segmentation and Tom Flanagan’s game theory applied to Canada’s political landscape.

    It’s hard to believe that Lenihan was writing about anyone but the CPC when he wrote that “They use sophisticated communications techniques to manipulate the media and incite suspicion, doubt and anger among affected groups. ”

  6. I don’t see why a return to reasoned argument is impossible. So it’s harder now that we’ve been through the emotion-fest of the late 20th century, wrecked our educational system with utilitarianism, and seen the collapse of any kind of integrity amongst our journalistic class.

    Big deal. Just like a fat-assed athlete can get back into shape, we can get our polity back into intellectual trim with some work and zeal (and less teachers’ unions). And the internet will help, I think, since it allows us to circumvent the media so we can expose ourselves to a range of ideas.

    • Or just call anything we disagree with the mainstream media eh?

  7. “transformative change”???

    really????

    I’m supposed to read this?

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