Why the Right is Winning – Cardozo

By Andrew Cardozo

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Monday, October 8, 2018 | Latest Paper

Progressive fatigue and good communications: why the right is winning

By Andrew Cardozo

In this extreme information age, all communicators get less time than ever before. Voters are not simpler or less intelligent. There is just so much more competing information being thrown at them all the time. Clear messages rise to the top. PhD theses sink deep. 

OTTAWA—The right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), led by François Legault, was just elected with a big majority in Quebec, following Ontario’s lead with Doug Ford and his very right-wing Progressive Conservatives. And in New Brunswick, the PCs may yet be the government. Add to this Jason Kenney in Alberta, Donald Trump, Brexit, Giuseppe Conte in Italy, and with some exceptions, the right is advancing in Canada and in many countries.

There are many reasons, but at least two are worth examining: progressive fatigue and smart communications—and the two go hand-in-hand.

On the latter first, neoconservatives win the communications war; time and again. It’s not so much the online communications war and social media. It’s the simplicity of message, like Make America Great Again (Trump), and For the People (Ford). Legault started with C’est le temps de changer. Maintenant (It’s time for change. Now.) and then shortened it to simply, Maintenant. It can’t get clearer than that, but also conveniently, can’t get more vague than that. But it’s a crucible that everyone can pour their urgent beefs into.

Slogans are more than simple words for complex ideas. (Progressives curse and swear at the simplemindedness to complex problems.) The good slogans are evocative of an emotion; returning to the good old days, caring (yes, Ford cared about people more than Wynne, $15 dollar minimum wage notwithstanding). The essence of populism of the right or left is being able to not only boil down complex ideas to simple slogans, but to do so in a way that is evocative of an emotion. Better still, it acknowledges that emotion and commits to respond.

There are strong similarities between the Donald Trump/Hillary Clinton election, and the Doug Ford/Kathleen Wynne one. In both cases the women on the left were generally regarded as highly intelligent and extraordinarily experienced. Their male rivals were not so much. In both cases, the women were progressive, feminist, and frequently discussed complex matters of public policy. The men not so much. But the conservatives were better communicators—at least, winning communicators.

All to say, the left has much to learn from the right about clear communications. Trump and Ford may not understand or discuss the intricacies of public policy and the legislative process, but they have a level of emotional intelligence that is higher. They connect better with more people. They win. And they implement their agendas and dismantle others.

Yes, they play to a sense of progressive fatigue; too much political correctness; a loss of male privilege for some; fear of a changing culture; racial demographics; or even xenophobia. Calling them names might feel good, but it does not help because their supporters take that as an insult too and you lose them. Remember the basket of deplorables.

Yes progressives should call out their negative slogans and dog whistles faster and louder, when they use terms like “virtue signalling,” “climate Barbie,” and “illegal refugees.”

But in this extreme information age, all communicators get less time than ever before. Voters are not simpler or less intelligent. There is just so much more competing information being thrown at them all the time. Clear messages rise to the top. PhD theses sink deep.

The harder part is for progressive to rethink their progress. Before getting to the communications, progressives need to think through timing. There is little point rushing through a lot of progressive legislation if you do not have the population (read: the electorate) with you. If enough people turn off your agenda, they will simply vote you out and vote in a conservative replacement, which will go about wrecking your policies with a ball and chain. Then what have you accomplished?

There are some progressives gloating that they did the right thing in Ontario: “See, it was obviously the progressive thing because now the conservatives are dismantling it all.” Well, if politics was a game, yes, that would be a victory. But politics is not a game. It is about real policies and real people. Hard-working people will not get the $15 minimum wage. Modern sex-ed is gone. That’s the tragedy.

The success of a progressive government is much less about what it achieves during its time in office and much more about what policies outlive its time in power. Those are the ones that change society and people’s lives for the better.

Lester B. Pearson is one of the most influential leaders in Canadian politics, because 50 years after his time in office most of his achievements are still in place or have been developed further, rather than obliterated. (I acknowledge my conflict as I work for the Pearson Centre.) Think of medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, the Maple Leaf flag, merit-based immigration, bilingualism, and women’s equality.

So here is a thought. Should progressives go slower, do less, but communicate better? Consultations have to be real and governments have to be able to change course in response to what they hear. If the sale of Hydro One was so unpopular, what right did the the Ontario Liberals have to go ahead with it? It’s not good enough to say, “we made a judgment call.” That’s not a policy justification.

Many felt, as a result, that they did not deserve to get re-elected. But the bigger issue for progressives is that we all got a government dedicated to undoing most of the progressive policy agenda. Was Hydro One worth it?

Simple and clear consultations and communications are essential not only to help people understand the policy, but to take ownership of it, the way we now consider medicare, CPP, and the flag all so essential to the Canadian identity.

Sometimes we have to think twice about our principles to make sure the policies survive. While progressives badly wanted a woman nominee in the U.S., in large part to advance women’s equality, was it worth it when she lost to a man who is undoing so much of the very policies that women have been fighting for? Think about the Supreme Court which will be able to turn back women’s equality for a generation or two. Would it have been better for women’s equality for the Democrats to run Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders? Man or woman, black or white, sometimes a tough call has to be made about winning elections so you can secure and advance progressive ideals.

Being open to irregular border crossers into Quebec and not shutting the border down harder helped elect a government in Quebec that has a much tougher line on immigration. Those very border crossers will now be under more opposition by the provincial government, and because of them the CAQ felt emboldened to take a much tougher stance on immigration for thousands of other regular immigrants, present, and future. Was it worth it?

For progressives, this kind of questioning may be heresy. But it is becoming clearer that not to think through these conundrums is inciting more and more voters to respond to negative identity politics, the victory of which sees progressive policies cut down in much bigger ways.

This does not mean abandoning progressive principles. But it does mean making good choices about which ones to pursue and when. And it means learning to communicate better from the winners. Of course, stand up to them and call them out, but don’t forget to learn from their winning ways.

Andrew Cardozo is president of the Pearson Centre and an adjunct professor at Carleton University. 

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