Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Public, the Partisans and the Press

Yesterday Prince Edward Island held a provincial election. The Liberals will remain the government but there were a few interesting changes. The Greens won a seat and the Liberals lost several seats to the Progressive Conservatives. Despite performing well the NDP failed to win any seats this time. Today Albertans will cast their ballots to choose MLAs in their own election. Some of the coverage I've read and listened to had me thinking about election coverage.

The most shocking thing about the Alberta election is that polls indicate that the NDP are surging and may form government. All the caveats that polls are polls should be kept in mind, but it shapes the conversation, especially for the media and media shape the conversation for the public. The trouble is that the press and the partisans they talk to see elections very differently than the public who ultimately decides them.

I will be forced here to speak in generalities because it is not as though I have done specific research to back my observations. With that disclaimer in place I think it is fair to say that partisans (supporters of particular political parties) see things through ideology. Because they are interested in politics they develop a set of values and beliefs and attach themselves to political parties that closely align. There are, for a lack of a better term, tribal partisans for whom the ideology may be incidental to their support of the red or blue or purple team. This level of dedication is how partisans can stay committed to a party even when the values of those parties change. In the mind of ideologues the parties are nicely arrange on a spectrum with camps of voters who move between the parties left or right.

To write stories and gain understanding journalists talk to partisans (ex. political operatives, campaign managers, strategists, candidates, activists, etc.) about the political dynamics inside the city/province/country. As a result the view of the political world that we get is one shaped by the partisan perspective. This is fundamentally flawed.

Both the media and the parties have an assumed classic liberal disposition towards how our democracy works. That means that voters are rational actors who weigh the policies, experience and character of politicians and make informed decision, along with whatever values match their own. It is an ideal that was espoused by the American Founders and democratic theorists now for centuries and one that I fear bears little resemblance to reality in mass democracies.

The assumptions of partisans (and therefore the press) is that there cannot be such a thing as a Wild Rose-NDP swing voter, or PC-Green, which obviously does exist. The truth is that unfortunately politics is driven much more by personality than one might initially suppose. I think American presidential elections really prove this point. How is it that there were voters who would support Hillary Clinton but not Barack Obama if he were the Democratic candidate for president? They were members of the same party and had essentially the same platform but within the public mindset their differences made it so Barack Obama would struggle in the general election where Clinton may have sailed by easily. In 2000 it was summarized by "Who would you rather have a beer with?" This in general better reflected the public's mood. The move in politics in recent years acknowledges this, such as in Issenberg's Victory Lab book.

Coming to Alberta. How is it "conservative" Alberta might elect a NDP majority government tonight (not likely but a possibility)? Albertans are frustrated by the ruling party and Premier Jim Prentice. Naturally Albertans cast their eyes to the alternatives. Brian Jean is unsteady and new in his role as leader of the Wild Rose. David Swann, leader of the Alberta Liberal Party, has been somewhat of a dud in the election and his party has never gotten off the ground. Rachel Notley has been a credible alternative with a family name in politics and by all accounts has presented herself and her party well. Voters don't see things in the harsh black and white lines that partisans, and by extension the media, do.

Personality matters. Values trump policy. The gut feeling of a voter on who they 'like' can do more good than any number of debates or talking points or TV ads. Alberta and PEI's elections could be valuable case studies as we move towards the autumn federal election.

Happy Election Day, Alberta, make good choices.

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