When political leaders make their case to the electorate, they work from certain assumptions. One of these assumptions is that the electorate knows who the hell their political leaders are. After all, there’s not much value in Jack Layton giving a barnburner of a speech if the audience is going to walk away murmuring complimentary words about the skillful oratory of Baldy McWhat’s-His-Name.
But I remember the results of a Dominion Institute survey from last year. It found that 18% of adults in our country – in excess of four million individuals – did not know the name of Canada’s prime minister.
(Before going any further, permit me one paragraph to directly address these four million Canadians. Ladies and gentlemen, grab yourselves a pen – it’s a long, ink-filled instrument that comes to a point – for I have some crucial information to pass along: my name is Scott Feschuk… and I am your prime minister. Go ahead – revere me! By the way, the British North America Act indicates it’s your turn to come over and shovel my driveway.)
The survey also found that only 58% of Canadians could recite the first two lines of O Canada and only 38% could name all four parties represented in the House of Commons.
Clearly, as a nation we are suffering from a rare societal condition known as “being bone stupid.” How bad is it? If Canada were to institute a prime ministerial anthem on par with Hail to the Chief, it would benefit from some helpful lyrics: “Here comes the PM!/His name is Stephen Harper/That’s Stephen with a ‘ph’/And Harper: H-A-R-P-E-R!”
On the upside, while we may not be book smart, or knowledge smart, or actually-knowing-things smart, it’s still entirely possible that we are street smart. Unless you expect us to remember the name of the street, in which case, no, we’re not.
There are real implications here for political parties and their leaders, especially when those leaders are new to the job. When you work in politics, your perspective gets warped. You begin to do crazy things like over-celebrate small victories in Question Period and detect charisma in Peter MacKay. On an intellectual level you’re aware that most Canadians don’t follow politics closely, don’t listen to the speeches, don’t read the policy documents. But you convince yourself that the really important information somehow filters down to them.
It doesn’t. Remember this, Michael: It. Does. Not.
If only four in five Canadians know Stephen Harper’s name, how many know what he believes in? If not even two in five Canadians can name the four parties, how many know what the parties advocate? To an electorate that now defines itself by its disengagement, simple is the only thing that sells.
During the 2006 campaign, most every economist said the Liberal plan to reduce income taxes was preferable to the Conservative plan to cut the GST; most child care advocates supported Paul Martin’s system of care and early learning over Harper’s pledge of $100 per month per kid. But throughout the campaign the Conservative position on the issues was simple to communicate and easy to understand and remember. One cent off the GST. One hundred bucks. We no likey the gays.
The lesson of this year’s campaign, meanwhile, can be distilled to two words: Green Shift.
So to Michael Ignatieff I say: you yourself do not need to become dumb, but do not for a minute think anything is more important to a successful political operation than touting a few specific policies that are easy to explain, simple to understand and broadly appealing to the widest possible segment of Canadians. You can dream and tweak and brainstorm in the back of the shop – just make sure that what’s in the window is bright and shiny. Also, Harper’s going to call you an effete, Canada-hating egghead. You might want to say something by way of reply when he does.
Finally, you should know there’s still a place for powerful, old-fashioned rhetoric in politics – but in the age of civic illiteracy, if you’re going to echo JFK you’re going to need to fill in some of the blanks: Ask not what your country, Canada, a constitutional monarchy, can do for you, the person wearing your clothes who you see in the mirror every morning; ask what you (the person who you are, possibly named Dave or Sally – these are just examples) can do for your country, by which I mean the aforementioned Canada, a federation comprising 10 provinces and…