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On romance, narratives, and politics11 min read

Just over ten years ago today, the Conservative Party of Canada won its first majority government and the first majority for the centre-right in 23 years. Like Saint George exultant, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, surrounded in a sea of blue amidst a wave of cheering supporters, had slain the Liberal serpent and brought Canadians a “Strong, stable, national, Conservative majority government.” The country that Canadians woke up to on May 3, 2011, was bright and hopeful. The years of politicking and the parliamentary shenanigans of unscrupulous and out-of-touch Laurentians were over.

There was an ad that stuck with me from that campaign, and rewatching it now almost moved me to tears — perhaps because it represents such a stark contrast from the aimless messaging from the Conservative movement today, but possibly more so because its message makes it an ad that still works for our current moment:

How easy it seemed ten years ago for Conservatives to relay a message wrapped up in patriotic images: not only is our country not as great as it could be, but it is greatness that we should be striving for, and constantly pursuing progress is good.

It is self-evident that the Conservative Party is struggling to find its footing — at the time of this writing, the most recent polls suggest that the Liberals may lead the Conservatives by 6 – 10 points. Such a lead spells almost certain disaster for the party: one may recall that the Conservatives lost by 7 points in the 2015 election that delivered a Liberal majority government. As it looks like we may be headed that way again, it may be worthwhile to reexamine what happened during the 2015 campaign that caused the Conservatives to lose their grasp on Canadian voters. I believe that the catalyst for their demise was the Liberals selecting Justin Trudeau as their leader.

Steven Lukes describes three ways political power manifests: decision-making power, non-decision-making power, and ideological power. Ideological power allows one to influence people’s wishes and thoughts, even making them want things contrary to their own self-interest. Romance, in a way, is like exercising ideological power — it can be understood as a mutual influence on the other to stir interest to work towards an affair or a relationship. Both ideological power and romance subtly change a person’s thinking and decisions.

From a political strategist’s point of view, there should be efforts to create interest around their candidate in a titillating sense — the voters want to pay attention to a seductive personality because it is pleasant to do so. When we consider narratives, few narratives are as appealing as romance: people want to fall in love and be seduced.

When we think about voters’ choices in 2015, Stephen Harper’s campaign was a “hard sell,” while Justin Trudeau embodied the “soft sell,” the soft sell being more romantic.

In the hard sell, one is tempted to tout achievements, quote statistics, and induce fear — it would be unwise or even irresponsible for voters to vote for anyone else. The aggressiveness of this approach may turn off or offend voters: would electing a government from a party that has governed the country for most of living memory really be as apocalyptic as the hard sellers suggest?

The other approach is the soft sell — create a positive association with your name and message, do not appear like you are selling anything, appear in good spirits, and focus on the medium, not the message. The package that the 2015 Liberal campaign was seeking to sell did not mark a radical departure on matters of policy (both parties supported a neo-liberal, free-trading agenda). Still, voters ultimately flocked to a refresh in tone: from mean and paternalistic to one of hope and optimism draped in a softer friendlier inclusive patriotism.

Robert Greene wrote of the strategies used by John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in their respective presidential campaigns. The observations he made have applicability to Canadian politics. For example, Justin Trudeau, in his romance of the Canadian voter, bore many similarities to John F Kennedy.

One of the striking moments of the 1960 Presidential Campaign, which remains a fascination by political scientists and analysts, was the TV debate between Nixon and Kennedy (note that the video below is quite long):

Kennedy’s opponent, Richard Nixon, an experienced politician having served successfully as Vice President during the Eisenhower administration, was a skilled debater — he never stumbled answering questions, was able to drop statistics and his government’s accomplishments with force. However, under the hot TV lights, his contrast with Kennedy was striking — he looked sweaty, unkempt, unpolished, and looked directly at Kennedy as one would typically during an in-person debate. Kennedy, in contrast, addressed his remarks directly at the cameras, speaking directly to voters — when Nixon focused on particulars, Kennedy focused on a narrative: freedom, building a new society, recapturing the spirit of America that underpinned the American dream.

The lesson to be learned from this is that images matter — policy is essential, yes. Still, without a story and pictures to tie the policies together with the politician, the politician has limited appeal. While some voters are persuaded by the technical facts presented before them, there’s limited evidence that this plays a significant role in who they vote for. When a party releases a policy platform dozens of pages long, voters cannot analyze each policy individually. Instead, they will gravitate towards the one or two items in the document that may appeal to them and their interests. However, even if a policy offered by party A is objectively worse than a similar policy offered by party B, a voter who likes the leader of party A may be willing to overlook what they may now regard as “trivial” differences.

Greene also discusses another example of a masterclass in political communications in the 1984 re-election campaign of President Ronald Reagan. Reagan ran under the slogan “It’s morning again in America.” His 1980 election slogan, the now-infamous “(Let’s) Make America Great Again,” would naturally flow into the new slogan with the story of how his presidency had restored American glory.

Reagan’s Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale, thought Americans had enough of Reagan’s soft sell and wanted honesty. Mondale declared on national television: “Let’s tell the truth. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you; I just did” He repeated this message through to an absolute thrashing at the ballot box, losing the popular vote by 18 points and the electoral college 525 to 13.

Greene points out that his team always managed to get him photographed in the perfect setting — a testament to the quality of his tour team — he looked strong and presidential: shaking hands with physically disabled athletes in wheelchairs and cutting ribbons at senior centres. When the Press pointed out that his policies cut funding for the disabled and seniors, the reaction did not play out as they perhaps expected. The Press put out a feature where the images of Reagan glad-handing were displayed on the television. A reporter pointed out that Reagan was using these images to counteract the negative coverage cuts for the disabled and seniors may otherwise have had. However, the reaction from the public appeared muted — self-evident in the election results. The images associated with Reagan overrode the message the Press was trying to push. The Reagan team remarked that by pushing out these images, the Press effectively gave free advertising to Mr. Reagan and the media line was lost in the feel-good pictures. A Reagan official stated: “What are you going to believe, the facts or your eyes?”

The Conservative re-election campaign of 2015 bore many similarities to the dynamic of Kennedy vs Nixon, coupled with the misappreciation of the opponent in Reagan vs Mondale. The Conservative line was, “Justin Trudeau — he’s just not ready,” contrasting this with the experienced and battle-worn Stephen Harper:

Considering the lessons from Kennedy vs Nixon and Reagan vs Mondale, this ad’s approach (attempting to feed a narrative that Trudeau cared about only his image and was not a serious leader) did not pan out. Further, the statement “I’m not saying no forever, but not now” may have even backfired as it could very easily feed into the yearning, fantasy narrative that Trudeau’s own team was trying to build. Trudeau was quite easily able to turn the focus on his image into a positive and put out ads reflecting this:

It is worth pointing out that one of the frequent charges against Conservatives is that they lost the 2015 campaign because their campaign was not “positive”. Those kinds of statements are interesting because the Liberals certainly did not shy away from attacking their opponents in their messaging (the video above makes a few jabs at Harper and Mulcair). Typically, attacking one’s opponent instead of touting your own virtuous qualities or policies is what most people understand as negative politics. I would instead suggest that Trudeau instead likely learned lessons from the 1984 Reagan campaign, or at least followed a similar formula. By surrounding the campaign in positive imagery with himself at the centre, he evoked a positive schema around his entire campaign, which was implicitly contrasted against the Conservative campaign, which accordingly evoked a negative schema. When reflecting on the 2015 campaign, it is unlikely that voters would recall the negative attacks levied against the Conservatives, because they were caught up in the more positive Liberal messaging.

By focusing on the images of Justin Trudeau as the focal point of their attack, the Conservatives are not contrasting themselves but rather evoking a positive mental schema. In 2019, when all anyone was talking about was how the Prime Minister was in blackface three times, the images did not have the desired effect for Trudeau’s detractors. Justin Trudeau could stand on his record, which was thematically and temporally distinct from the images that blackface conjured. Instead, the images refocused the attention of the voting public back to the qualities of the leaders. The stories of Andrew Scheer’s paper-thin pre-politics resume, undisclosed American citizenship, and his perceived failure to address his social views suggested that he was currently hiding something instead of Trudeau, a prime minister with a defensible record who merely had suffered from youthful indiscretion.

The lesson for Conservatives is clear: focus on integrating positive branding with the leader’s image and not drawing attention to their opponent’s image if their opponent has a positive brand.

To shift gears a bit, while the nation is wondering how to respond to the teardown of statues and other images that ordinarily have positive brand associations, a simple statement like “Canada is fundamentally good” is an appropriate line to draw in the sand and forces the Liberal party to take an uncomfortable stand in the ongoing culture war fight. I’m not going to claim that I know how to pull this off, but the opportunity is certainly there. During the 90s to early 2000s, the slur levied against Conservatives was that they hated Canada. They claimed Conservatives wanted to make Canada into the United States, citing their stances on healthcare reform or the long-gun registry. Liberal support for Canadian institutions was tied to a soft anti-Americanism serving to entrench a centre-left nationalism that was focused on the institutions of the moment: “We are multicultural, democratic, we love the CBC and free healthcare,” etc. etc. But given that our history is so poorly taught, especially in glossing over the problematic elements of our past, the idea that Canada is fundamentally good no longer has the same salience among the centre-left.

For the modern Conservative leader, if they can successfully tie Canadian values and symbols to their brand (something that Liberals have successfully monopolized in living memory), then maybe the Conservatives will be able to fight a culture war on their own terms. However, Conservatives cannot simply rely on contrasting themselves with Trudeau by picking someone who appears boring. Look at Kennedy vs Nixon or Trudeau vs Harper, the contrast was there, but it wasn’t contrasting on what mattered from the point of view of the voter. If politics is romance, then a Conservative leader must make voters fall in love with them first, and then the leader must make the people fall in love with the country.

The upshot is hardly complicated, however. Simply that tour, personal style, image consultants, and a professional photographer are just as key to a modern political campaign as are the policy analyst or the communications specialist. Conservatives would be remiss if they dismiss the importance of these roles simply because the Liberals and Prime Minister Trudeau use them well.

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