Do you believe that the Liberals won this campaign because of “positivity”, or “sunny ways”? If so, congratulations: you’ve just lost yourself an election. Attributing their win to “positivity” is making exactly the same mistake the Conservative campaign recently made.
The seeds of the Tories’ rout can be seen in the subtext of a policy point sent out on August 5 2014, declaring a stand against a Netflix tax. It was a proclamation conjured out of thin air that disappeared just as quickly. However, even the most ephemeral moments reveal the subtext underneath. And this was our first glimpse of the material underneath the rubbed-off paint – of what this Conservative campaign genuinely thought about Canadians: that we are limited creatures, incapable of grappling with the complex tides of governance and decision-making. In short: that we are contemptible.
Forget being politically active and engaged in policy questions; we are not worthy of being approached with the important issues, and we want nothing more than to curl up and binge-watch “Breaking Bad”. Since we cannot handle an honest discussion about the vagaries of the economy, we get amateur theatre in which a political assistant slaps down all the money we could lose, to cartoonish sound effects. Since we cannot be trusted to form our own thoughts on the value of other cultures, we are offered a “barbaric practices” hotline so that we can vent the hostile feelings the government is implying we possess.
When we read this story backwards, the appearance of Rob and Doug Ford at a campaign event was not improbable at all but was in fact inevitable. It was the final act of a campaign at its most desperate stage, unable to acknowledge that even the most fervent Ford supporter could see through this political gossamer. In the Globe and Mail, Tom Flanagan noted that the Conservatives “lost the message”, but that’s not really the case. In fact, the message became clearer and clearer, only it wasn’t the one they intended to send. Every element that the Conservative campaign thought they were running was undermined by this counter-narrative of contempt. By expanding the election period, they drew a five-round fight into a fifteen-round fight without a basic understanding that the longer the story, the more inevitable it is that your true character will be drawn out.
And lest anyone think that this viewpoint has ended, in a recent episode of CBC’s The House, outgoing Conservative cabinet ministers Tony Clement and Diane Finley both expounded on the necessity for “positivity”. Attributing Trudeau’s victory to a sunny disposition, or to Stephen Harper’s native unlikeability, is just another form of this patronizing assessment of Canadians.
Stephen Harper sealed his own political coffin, because the contempt that flowed towards Canadians also flowed towards Trudeau. This made Trudeau instantly relatable to millions of previously undecided voters. Derided, mocked, and ridiculed, Trudeau took everyone’s scorn on the chin and walked through it. This earned our admiration because if one thing unites Canadians, it is that at one point in our lives we are all written-off by someone: a teacher, a professor, perhaps a boss. We all understood exactly what was meant when high-achieving political elites dismissed him, childishly, as “Justin”.
He earned our respect when in a stroke of genius his campaign reversed that narrative with his deficit policy announcement; and it wasn’t the content of the announcement itself that made any difference, but rather its shape. Suddenly Canadians could be trusted to put two and two together with the expectation of four: we could be trusted to understand the idea of taking short term deficits in order to spur long-term growth. In this policy initiative, we citizens finally reappeared in this campaign as adults. It didn’t matter whether we agreed with him or didn’t, what mattered was that we dramatically became equals engaged in conversation, rather than subjects of advertisement.
The difference between this approach and the Conservative campaign lies in the subtext below the dialogue. Are we a people who can individually be trusted to sing a political song, and then do our jobs? To determine whether or not a journalist should be allowed to talk to terrorists? To refrain from judging when someone covers their face?
Trudeau and the media that report on him would both be wise to keep making things difficult for us, as this kind of respect seems to be something Canadians are demanding.
Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston is a graduate of the Master of Public Policy program (2014), holds a Master of Literature, Bachelor of Humanities, and was arts and theatre critic for the Ottawa XPress newspaper.