by Trish Hennessy
(part two of a series)
Stephen Harper played the fear card and won, while the NDP made history by becoming the official opposition.
Some pundits suggest this means Canada has become an ideologically
polarized nation, but I say that’s premature. While we may be on the way
to becoming ideologically divided – pushed in that direction by a hyper
partisan, heavily ideological majority federal government — the 2011
electoral results suggest something more primal is at play.
As I stated in yesterday’s blog, the politics of fear can be
exploitative, distracting, and divisive. Here’s how it affected the
anti-Conservative choice in the 2011 federal election.
Let’s start with Harper’s preferred method of dirty pool: negative
advertising. Politicos take it on faith that negative advertising works
in election campaigns – that they’ve become a necessary evil.
It’s true that Canadians were exposed to some of the worst
American-style negative ad campaigns in our federal history. Towards the
end of the campaign, there were more than a dozen ads on the
Conservative Party website attacking either the coalition or Michael
Ignatieff. Those ads were repeated so many times, it would be hard to
find a Canadian who couldn’t recite the words “he didn’t come back for
Pundits are right to point to the
effectiveness of these ads in framing Ignatieff. In the post-election
hand wringing, some blame the Liberals for waiting too long to let
Ignatieff define himself to voters. Those who insist that negative
advertising works will point to the Ignatieff smear ads as an example
that they work. They will overlook the ineffectiveness of the Liberals’
attack ads on Stephen Harper, criticizing him for ‘contempt of
Canadians’ and more. They will overlook the role attack ads play in
sustaining the politics of fear. They will not necessarily tell you how
Negative advertising ‘works’ under certain conditions. Even if it’s
inflammatory, negative advertising has to have a ring of truth. It helps
if the attack ad speaks directly to a targeted, niche market of voters
that you know you can mobilize. The ads have to be seen repeatedly for
them to stick in the voter’s mind. And the party initiating the attack
has to have an answer for those who flee the person subject to attack.
Harper’s answer to the Ignatieff attack: trust me to manage the
economy. Polling indicates Harper was playing from his strengths and
speaking to Canadians’ undercurrent of worry about our economic future.
For those who didn’t trust Harper – those who fear what he might do with a majority government — they had four possible options.
As a counterpoint to the politics of fear, the Liberal Party appears
to have coasted on the fumes of “the Natural Governing Party” one
election too many. The Bloc campaign had a sluggish feel to it. Harper’s
politics of fear took advantage of these two parties in their hour of
disarray, reducing the choices for Canadians who truly feared a Harper
As for the discouraged voter — those who have given up
waiting for a leader to appeal to them and decided not to vote — they
might represent a quiet casualty of the politics of fear. Some Canadians
who decided not to vote in this election may have simply gotten turned
off of the toxic nature of the campaign. Some may have struggled to make
a decision that felt right.
Fear can be paralyzing, but fear is usually looking for someplace to
go, and sometimes the antidote to fear is hope. It certainly helped some
Canadians view Jack Layton differently in this election. Jack, with his
warm smile. Jack, with his Canadien hockey shirt, hoisting a beer.
Jack, risen from his sick bed to do what we all hope in the face of
health adversity: fight the beast down with grace, with pride, with the
fortitude it took to become an electoral David to Harper’s Goliath. In
Quebec, le bon Jack.
Jack Layton had captured, if for a brief moment in time, the
aspiration that resides alongside the slow simmering worry in Canada:
the hope that we can overcome adversity and thrive. That cane he hoisted
above his head at rallies became a symbol of strength; of defiance
against long odds.
And, for a few days, Canadians sat on the edge of their seat
wondering whether a phenomenon no pundit or pollster had predicted, this
NDP tide of support dubbed ‘the orange wave’, would crescendo into an
Two things happened in the final days of the election that possibly
stemmed the NDP tide, and both were products of the politics of fear.
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