Politics as consumer goods

Published Monday 2 May 2011 - 11 h 23 min by Benoit Duguay.

This is the English version of a blog post published yesterday in French. I apologize for the short delay.

This morning, electoral circumstances dictate that I deal with all of this is political, that is to say, public affairs, government practices, ways of governing, not forgetting the electoral process itself, in a consumption perspective.

You are of course aware that our governments, without exception and at all levels, now manage public affairs, not with a view of ensuring the well-being of the many, but rather to make sure that they are re-elected.

Also in view of ensuring their election, political parties, both the one in power and the opposition, support the interests of marginal ideological groups whose ideas are not shared by a vast majority of population. For a moment at least, those ideas are favoured by the media and consequently also, seemingly, supported by many people, but not necessarily be the majority of people.

This does not correspond to what democracy should be, that is to say the free expression of the will of the people in electing their representatives to exercise political power and, by extension, to exercise it according to the well-being of a majority of people. In Western democracies, this majority has always been the middle class, heavily battered for at least twenty years.

This said, how and why did this happen? In my analysis of politics as an object of mass consumption, I will focus today on a tool used to make marketing a product, the opinion poll.

This exploration technique of expectations, beliefs, feelings and attitudes, was first used in the commercial sphere in the United States, with the obvious aim to develop markets. In the 1930s, the idea of using this technique in the political world begins to emerge and, on for the presidential election of 1936, George Horace Gallup founds the American Institute of Public Opinion. This will be starting point of the now famous Gallup Polls.

If the information collected by surveys were then, and still are very useful, to develop new products and make advertising claims amongst other things, it quickly became clear that the technique could also assist in the communication effort. Indeed, the disclosure of survey results through traditional media, social networks and even advertising can influence people’s opinions by means of what I would call a chameleon effect.

But in the political sphere, this chameleon effect influences the free choice of the voter. That is why France created a Commission of surveys (http://www.commission-des-sondages.fr/). Unfortunately, if this commission originally prohibited the publication of poll results in the last week before the election, this constraint has been reduced to a single day in 2002. In such circumstances we cannot truly speak of democracy but rather of a semblance or perversion of democracy.

In the context of the current election, we have seen a craze emerge for Jack Layton and, by extension, for the New Democratic Party. This enthusiasm has been fuelled amongst other things by the publication of poll results on a daily basis and a favourable coverage in most media for whom this phenomenon is a windfall.

I was also swept away by this wave of sympathy and am therefore well placed to appreciate its power. This said, let us get back to democracy.

Tonight, it is essential that a party which truly represents the will of Canadians be elected, with a minority or a majority of seats. Furthermore, in addition, it is important that this forty-first Parliament has within it a strong and responsible opposition, capable of representing the interests of all constituents, from coast to coast.

Excluding marginal formations without representation in parliament, four parties are running: Conservatives, Liberals, New Democratic Party and Bloc Quebecois. As publicly admitted by many of its supporters, the Bloc Québécois has lost its “raison d’être” in Ottawa. Like many, I thus exclude that party of my choices and hope that the vast majority of Quebecers will do the same. The presence of this party in Ottawa is one of the reasons for the political instability plaguing Canada since 2004. Even if you want the creation of an independent Quebec, which is not my case, it is not in Ottawa that you must send members of parliament. It is even in your interest that Canada be politically stable.

This leaves three parties. Depending on the issues, I have affinities with all three and am aware of the fact that none of the three is perfect. To determine which of the three overall best represented my position, I used CBC’s Vote Compass. I found this tool to be very useful to restore some rationality in what has become an emotional debate without major issues.

Today, I will vote for the party ideologically closest to my beliefs.

I thus first urge you all to vote. It is not only your right, but an important responsibility. Furthermore, I encourage you not to vote for a political party in view of blocking one party or another, the Conservatives or the Bloc in today’s context. This kind of “strategic” vote is harmful to democracy and may also produce undesirable results that you may not have anticipated. I invite you to vote for one of three pan Canadian parties, the one with which you are the closest in terms of ideas and orientations. This is the only way democracy will prevail.

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