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Why Nick Kouvalis’s politics don’t deserve a platform

Media fascination with the dark arts and ‘evil political masterminds’ isn’t new, writes Bruce Anderson. But it’s a problem.


 
Toronto City Mayoral Candidate Rob Ford (middle) is photographed flanked by his campaign staff, (L to R) Campaign Manager Nick Kouvalis, Director of Communications Adrienne Batra during an interview at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on September 27, 2010. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/CP)

Toronto City Mayoral Candidate Rob Ford (middle) is photographed flanked by his campaign staff, (L to R) Campaign Manager Nick Kouvalis, Director of Communications Adrienne Batra during an interview at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on September 27, 2010. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/CP)

The recent Maclean’s piece about Kellie Leitch’s campaign manager, “How Nick Kouvalis turns candidates into winners,” is a must-read. It shines a light on a problem in the relationship between journalism and media.

Unintentionally, perhaps, the piece reads like an advertisement for political thuggery.

The so-called “brains behind Kellie Leitch,” Kouvalis is cast as a sort of rough-hewn genius, possessed of insight and skills that elude regular operatives.

Leitch is campaigning on a platform that is flimsy and cynical. She’s chosen to exploit the fears and resentments among some white people toward immigrants. She believes in freedom, but freedom to be like her, not to be like you.

Former cabinet colleagues criticize her crusade as lousy policy, designed to promote her own interests, regardless of risks to her party and the country.

There’s no credible rationale offered for her big idea to screen immigrants to make sure they have Leitch’s values. No detail about how it would work, despite months of time to prepare and reveal such details. Why bother? Angry people don’t want to sweat the details; they came for the hostility.

Leitch spent years at Stephen Harper’s cabinet table, a cabinet that often talked about security risks and immigration. She never spoke about this crisis that she now sees in our screening system.

Leitch and Kouvalis decided to start a fight in the town square by promoting an obnoxious policy idea. They gambled that the media would cover the fight more than the flaws in their platform. Along the way, a candidate known mainly for a lack of charisma would be recast as the only person willing to stand up for angry whites. Pardon me, I meant “real voters.”

If it works, journalism should bear some of the shame. Especially since we’ve all had a chance to watch the Donald Trump show play out on the U.S. stage.

To focus on the Kouvalis as “genius” line, the Maclean’s story treats the screening idea as sort of goofy, but irrelevant—what really matters here is that she’s looking like she got momentum.

The authors even breezily suggest, “If and when Leitch wins … Kouvalis will have plenty of time to pivot her toward more salient issues.” In other words, once she has motivated enough angry white bigots to win the leadership, she can drop the values nonsense and talk about stuff that really matters. A kind of get-out-of-jail-free card for pulling the wool over their eyes.

Media fascination with the dark arts and “evil political masterminds” isn’t new.

Readers have long been encouraged to see these individuals as winners, people who have what it takes. Those they defeat are simply unwilling to do whatever’s necessary. The outcome is neither good nor bad, just the law of the jungle.

But journalism shouldn’t try to have it both ways.

It’s fair to bemoan that politics is too often cynical, ruthless, amoral. But people notice when you stop bemoaning political thuggery for a moment, and heap praise on it.

Starved for revenues, news organizations are drawn to the sensational. U.S. cable news shows spent months currying favour with Donald Trump so that he would call into their shows and boost ratings with his trademark rants—only to watch in too-late horror as he crushed a field that included probably a dozen people who were more qualified than he is.

By the time some of these commentators got around to saying Trump was a mess of a choice, the Republican Party was stuck with him. Low-information voters had heard all they needed to hear: Hillary Clinton needed to be locked up, a wall needed to be built, Muslims needed to be banned.

In the initial, crucial months of the Republican primary season, Trump barely had to spend a dollar on his campaign, because his unplugged tweets were catnip to media who would flood their coverage with his antics, and then wonder aloud why none of the other candidates were able to get any traction.

As the shock waves settle, how are media dealing with this culpability?

Some attach themselves to the argument that the success of Trump, as with the interest in Leitch, is about what “real people” want, as opposed to the “elites.”

Self-comforting, but not really convincing.

In the Maclean’s piece, Kouvalis is described as a “low-information voter whisperer.” You know what this means. It’s code for the idea that voters who pay little attention can be told anything, and if you play to their jealousies and rages, you don’t need to do the hard work of coming up with and making a case for good public policy.

The formula is simple: make some people angry at some other people. About what? Doesn’t really matter what.

Today, Kouvalis crusades against red Tories and elites. Not long ago, he ran the campaign of John Tory. Go figure.

To write that Kouvalis has become one of the more sought-after political strategists in the country begs substantiation. Otherwise, it leaves the impression that everyone in politics carries the “say anything, do anything, just win” gene.

But to know politics well is to know that’s not really true. Most who run for office are genuinely well intentioned people, who are trying to do something good for their community.

Sketchy campaign techniques are as old as elections. But the modern version probably began with Richard Nixon’s infamous “plumbers,” and then rose to quasi-legitimacy at the hands of strategist Lee Atwater, who played senior roles under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Atwater famously told reporters that a candidate he was working against had been “hooked up to jumper cables” because of treatments the man had as a teenager suffering from depression.

When helping Bush against Michael Dukakis, he boasted he would “strip the bark off the little bastard” and “make Willie Horton his running mate”—a reference to one of the most controversial, racially oriented, negative ads in American political history.

In a biography of Atwater, conservative Robert Novak reveals that Atwater also tried to spread false rumours that Dukakis suffered from mental illness. The litany of dirty tricks associated with Atwater is stunning, and his elevation to positions of authority (he became chairman of the Republican National Committee) helped create a culture that said to future generations of operatives: nasty pays.

Atwater died in 1991. In the year that he struggled with brain cancer, he repudiated his past.

He wrote to the candidate he disparaged: “It is very important to me that I point out that one of the low points of my career remains the so-called jumper-cable episode … my illness has taught me something about the nature of humanity, love, brotherhood and relationships that I never understood.”

Atwater probably couldn’t have fully realized the demons that he helped unleash in modern politics. But we can. And it’s in everyone’s interest to stop pretending that deeply cynical politics is in any way admirable, or serves any broader interest.

When journalism casts an admiring, or even an indifferent, glance at the worst things that people in politics do, the decline of public trust continues, and the fallout spreads. Today, in America, only 20 per cent approve of their Congress, according to Gallup. Public trust in the media peaked at 72 per cent in the wake of the Washington Post‘s coverage of Watergate. Last fall, it touched a new low, at 32 per cent.

Most of the conversation about the future of the media these days is about the trauma caused by disruptive technology. But it would be a mistake to think that technology is the only—or maybe even the biggest—problem.

Bruce Anderson has been a prominent pollster, communications counsellor and political analyst in Canada for many years. Earlier in his career, he worked on election campaigns for both the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals, but does not work for any political party now. For several years he was a regular member of CBC’s popular At Issue panel. He is the chairman of Abacus Data and Summa Communications. He wishes readers to know that one of his daughters is director of communications to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.


 

Why Nick Kouvalis’s politics don’t deserve a platform

  1. So glad I let my Macleans subscription lapse.

    • But you’re still reading it…

  2. Pearl-clutching. The media was fascinated with Gerry Butts and the nasty campaign he directed, but I don’t remember seeing Bruce getting himself all worked up about it.

    • What nasty campaign did Mr. Butts direct?

      • Indeed. Despite the relentless disparaging of Justin Trudeau by both the Conservatives and the NDP, the Liberals did not stoop so low as to attack people because of the way they looked or spoke, or because of what jobs they might have had before entering politics. They attacked policies and political behaviour. What a concept!

      • You might recall Harper and the Conservatives being derided as misogynist, racist, xenophobes who created a culture of fear. Butts might not have actually said these things, but you can extrapolate them from what he said, and he never dissuaded anybody from saying it. Kouvalis never exactly said he is gearing Leitch’s campaign toward white racists, but Bruce clearly had no trouble extrapolating that from what he said. Evil genius meet evil genius

        • Mr. Anderson has to be one of the most respected men in his industry, when he speaks, people who see the world without rose colored glasses, read and pay attention to him, you should take them glasses off. The liberals have the ‘Values Policy’ that no other party in the country has, even the NDP would like to open it and destroy it, it’s called the ‘Charter of Rights’, the most important document in the country. When Trudeau said, anyone who wishes to vote against government if he becomes PM, not a problem, but they will not be in the party if they vote against the ‘Charter of Rights’. If the Conservatives don’t get this values thing fixed up before the leadership race is over, and get in line with the values of the country, presently, they are going to end up being another fringe party, based in the west part of Canada, kind of like, lost in the weeds somewhere until they get their heads together, it won’t happen in the next election Tho Bro.

        • Are you kidding? Give me one example of ANYTHING that Butts said that one could extrapolate? You are so full of partisan BS you have no credibility.

          • Ah, the sound of Laurentian elites heads popping. Carpet Bomber – keep telling yourself about how the Liberals are the natural governing party, they are inevitable, etc. and how the other parties are irrelevant unless they become faint shadows of the Liberals. You may recall the Liberals deluded themselves with the same thinking in 2006, and we know how that turned out.

            Tom Rudd – that’s the great thing about this game that Bruce has started; the person in question doesn’t actually have to say anything in order to be branded the goat. Conjecture and innuendo is all you need to write an 800 word article and do some cheap virtue signalling

  3. Let’s ask Ms. Leitch if honesty is a Canadian value or is lying a Canadian value? Her campaign manager deliberately posted an outright lie about the Liberals and then when he got caught he joked he was only joking with everyone. This man is a despicable human being and should not be allowed in Canadian politics.

    • Per the interview with her on CBC Radio’s The House this past Saturday, she doesn’t think he did anything wrong. She’s as bad as he is IMO.

  4. Good article highlighting 2 issues. First – it is a truth (unfortunately) that nasty sometimes pays. People vote with their hearts not their heads…..and if there are enough angry voters….then yah win. Second – it is up to journalists like Bruce to carry the torch and out these candidates in a civilized manner.

  5. Ad revenues and spin.

    Don’t always agree with Maclean’s but I like the mag.

    Media drooled whenever Trump tweeted something provocative. It was those provocative tweets that got him all the free adverts. Using the f-word didn’t damage him either.

    Are Canadians really interested about Trump news day in and out? I’m finding it tiresome.

  6. People are not blind. When the media overwhelmingly favours one candidate, one narrative, the public looks elsewhere for the opposing view and draws its own conclusions on what the reality is. If confidence in MSM is down to 37%, it’s likely because discerning readers look to the news for facts and can differentiate between advocacy journalism, partisan journalism, and investigative reporting. The greatest irony here, is Mr. Anderson’s statement about “low-information” voters – as if anyone truly informed would have voted for HRC. Meanwhile the resoundingly defeated US “democrats” are insinuating that it was the public’s access to too much information – purportedly provided to Wikileaks by the Russians – which swayed the election in Trump’s favour. So could the US corporate MSM have contributed to Trump’s win? If they did, it was not by giving too much attention to Trump, but by being revealed by Wikileaks as outright colluding with the DNC to cheat Saunders and defeat DJT. Media acting as an arm of the ruling party is scary enough (“Russian” enough?) to warrant ousting the party and certainly dropping public confidence in mainstream “news”. Unless journalists find their way back to reporting facts sans propaganda, 37% might not look so bad in retrospect….

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