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.”