What behavioural sciences can tell us about the federal Conservative leadership race

Jonathan Kates and Madeline Rowland

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this story starts, but for the sake of building the arc, let’s start last October, just before the last federal election, when MPs (and Conservative cabinet ministers) Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch announced a pledge to set up a barbaric cultural practices hotline. In that moment, these two set the tone for a series of political and policy promises centred on identity politics – a strategy that certainly cost the Conservatives in the 2015 federal election.

Canada already has plenty of white nationalism, Islamophobia, Nazism/anti-Semitism, and homophobia; we don’t need our politicians emboldening those who ascribe to these vile ideologies. If they want any chance of winning in the next election, the Conservatives cannot carry on with this divisiveness.

Now, as Rona Ambrose nears the end of her term as the interim leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, the prospect of finding a replacement with enough nation-wide credibility to challenge Justin Trudeau in the 2019 federal election grows dimmer each day. Hours after Donald Trump’s election, elite-bashing surgeon, professor, former cabinet member and current candidate (read: elite) Kellie Leitch emailed her base with an upsetting but on-brand message: “Tonight, our American cousins threw out the elites and elected Donald Trump as their next president. It’s an exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada as well.”

Kellie, we respectfully disagree. Canada already has plenty of white nationalism, Islamophobia, Nazism/anti-Semitism, and homophobia; we don’t need our politicians emboldening those who ascribe to these vile ideologies. If they want any chance of winning in the next election[1], the Conservatives cannot carry on with this divisiveness.

consLeitch’s plan to screen immigrants for anti-Canadian values has been widely denounced by small and big-C conservatives – even by former colleague Alexander, who made news recently for smiling and standing idly by as a group of Albertans chanted their support for “locking up” democratically-elected NDP Premier Rachel Notley in early December. Ambrose called the protesters “idiots,” reminding Canadians that it’s a real shame she precluded herself from running for the leadership by taking the interim leader role. She has demonstrated leadership and resolve against deficiencies in the Trudeau government, and, in our view, would almost certainly win the permanent leadership if she were eligible.

Besides missing the mark with identity politics and a revealing near contempt for the principles of democracy, this race has also proven to be of little value on environmental policy. At the first leadership debate, the loudest cheer of the day was for “social conservative” (read: bigot) Member of Parliament (MP) Brad Trost, who said he doesn’t believe “climate change is a real threat.” The loudest boos went to candidate Michael Chong, who not only believes climate change is real, but actually has a revenue-neutral carbon plan. It’s comforting to know that at least one Conservative leadership candidate is unwilling to join Trump and his ranks of climate change deniers.

Perhaps there are other candidates who believe in the urgent need to address climate change as well, but less polarizing candidates – including Chong, Maxime Bernier, Deepak Obhrai, and Lisa Raitt – have allowed Leitch, Trost, and now Alexander to steal the spotlight thus far. The latter group’s messages have co-opted media attention in part due to heuristics, whereby the candidates make “arguments” based on emotions rather than facts. From recent experience, we know this type of messaging resonates with people.

The circus that is this Conservative leadership race may not concern you if you believe that humans are fundamentally rational beings, whose decision-making processes are impervious to bias and error. Unfortunately, we are not so optimistic about the way people make choices.

Think of System 1 as a charming but lazy slacker, who is good at some things but is easily influenced for the worse. Think of System 2 as the responsible, intelligent older sibling, who is capable of steering System 1 onto the right path, but doesn’t always want to make the effort.

Before you call us cynics (or elites if you’re a fan of Kellie Leitch), consider what the experts in behavioural sciences have to say. It is a well-documented fact that the general public is capable of remaining ignorant to all but the most salient, scandalous, or highly publicized political issues. And unfortunately, this lack of knowledge is not the only factor influencing people’s decisions; from the most politically uninterested to the most highly engaged, we are all subject to cognitive distortions, judgment failures, and biases.

Many behavioural scientists believe that cognition operates through a dual processing model. Popularized by Daniel Kahneman, this theory posits that our brains operate using two different systems: System 1, which operates intuitively and effortlessly, and System 2, which requires slow deliberation. Think of System 1 as a charming but lazy slacker, who is good at some things but is easily influenced for the worse. This system allows us to effortlessly recall information that we need to go about our daily lives and to react quickly when necessary. Unfortunately, it’s also susceptible to heuristics: information shortcuts that reduce the amount of thinking a person needs to do and can lead to information distortions and errors in judgment. Think of System 2 as the responsible, intelligent older sibling, who is capable of steering System 1 onto the right path, but doesn’t always want to make the effort. This means that most of the time, the lazy slacker is in the cognitive driver’s seat.

So, what does this all mean for the Conservative leadership race? We don’t know for sure, but we believe that insights from behavioural science theory could help explain how party members may vote in the May 2017 leadership race.[2]

Cognitive Ease

Things that are easier to evaluate and understand seem more true to us than things that are complex or unfamiliar. Simpler concepts induce cognitive ease, while more difficult ones cause cognitive strain. The idea of cognitive ease can explain why Michael Chong’s proposal for a revenue-neutral carbon plan seems to fall on deaf ears amongst CPC voters, but when other candidates like Leitch or Bernier speak simply about balancing or slashing the budget, people are more responsive. Budget surpluses are clearly good, but complex carbon tax configurations? Voters are not so sure about that one, and don’t want to waste the mental energy needed to understand.

Priming & Framing

Priming and framing heuristics mean that exposure to ideas can unconsciously lead us to think about an issue in a certain way, or trigger us to consider a related idea. This means that the more Kellie Leitch screams about Canadian values and the dangers of immigration, the more media attention she’ll get, and the more inclined Conservative party members will be to cast their vote on that issue.

Choice Architecture

Voters don’t choose their ideal candidate in a vacuum. They make pragmatic decisions that are, consciously and unconsciously, related to other options available to them. As some Conservative candidates shift to the right of the political spectrum, voters become acclimated to the changed set of options presented to them. This is not to say that more polarized choice architecture will necessarily nudge Conservative moderates to the right; in fact, it may do just the opposite. However, the ideological composition of the candidate pool matters very much in shaping who voters deem to be their ideal choice.

So far the more moderate leaders in this leadership race have let their message get side-tracked by bigots, climate change deniers, and those who do not denounce calls to imprison democratically-elected premiers.

So how will this end? It’s difficult to say. So far the more moderate leaders in this leadership race have let their message get side-tracked by bigots, climate change deniers, and those who do not denounce calls to imprison democratically-elected premiers. The more extreme candidates have done a fantastic job speaking directly to the System 1 of every Canadian, appealing to their emotions over their rationality. If the Conservatives want to stand a chance against Trudeau in 2019, party members need to take a step back, look at the bigger picture and realize that a level-headed, pragmatic leader who has no time for the alt-right or the Council of European Canadians is the best choice to bring waffling Canadians away from the Liberals.

That said, if Conservatives continue to let heuristics blind their sense of judgement and elect a leader who wants to re-open the same-sex marriage or abortion debates, or enact anti-Muslim policies, they can surely expect to find themselves sitting across the House of Commons from a Liberal government – and the Prime Minister’s perfectly coiffed hair – for another four years.

[1] What happens with electoral reform for the 2019 federal election will certainly have a big impact on opposition parties relative to the governing Liberals. For example, the Conservatives would benefit most from keeping the status quo (and for this reason are requesting a referendum as historical precedence indicates it is likely to fail, especially if a minimum threshold needs to be met).  The NDP, on the other hand, would benefit most from proportional representation but their reasoning behind backing a referendum that is likely to fail is less clear, since they have historically been worse off under our current system. The interaction between electoral reform and the choice of Conservative leader is important but so far remains unknown

[2] Ever more ironic is the fact that card-carrying Conservatives will actually choose their leader by ranked ballot, an option for electoral reform that would have produced a significantly worse outcome for the party in the 2015 election.

Jonathan Kates is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance, and he holds a bilingual Bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Glendon campus at York University.  His policy areas of interests are cities, social policy, innovative approaches to governance and service delivery, and how individuals are influenced by their environments. When not perusing the internet, Jonathan is probably checking his fantasy basketball team…ok, teams. 

Madeline Rowland is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts in International Development and Political Economy from the University of Guelph. Her main areas of academic interest include government transformation, social policy, urban issues, and international affairs. When she is not in the library, she can be found incessantly reading the news, watching Seinfeld reruns or eating donuts. 

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2 responses to “What behavioural sciences can tell us about the federal Conservative leadership race

  1. “This is not to say that more polarized choice architecture will necessarily nudge Conservative moderates to the right; in fact, it may do just the opposite.”

    This is a party leadership race where only party members can vote. People who actually become members are usually those that are quite dedicated to politics and the party itself. I feel like given this, voters are picking who they think is going to win the election, not really who best ‘represent to Conservative values’. It shouldn’t be surprising that they end up voting for Leitch because they see Trump’s win as evidence that exclusionary politics can win elections.

    Though this may depend upon how dependent the Party thinks it is on the further right of the political spectrum.

  2. Pingback: PPGR Holiday Debrief – January 9, 2017 | The Public Policy & Governance Review·

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