The Language of Politics

The RBC Emerging Scholars Program is an opportunity for students in each of the five Spur cities to contribute to a national conversation on politics, art and ideas by enjoying and contributing to the inclusive and intellectually vibrant atmosphere of Spur 2014. Below you’ll find an examination of this year’s theme, from an Ottawa Emerging Scholar.

As one who has studied both political science and journalism, the SPUR discussion titled The Language of Politics was of particular interest to me. With the CBC’s Evan Solomon at the helm, the conversation set out to wrestle with a number of timely questions; touching on themes of messaging, control, social construction, and so forth.

As an observer, I had one question that I had been turning over for quite some time. I wanted to know what was behind the marked shift towards controlled political messaging—and in the process—away from spontaneity. From a political perspective, it obviously made sense to try and ensure that everyone within a party was on the same page. Yet, at some point, the sheer repetition of the endless talking points took on almost insulting tone to those who paid any attention to Canadian politics. Quite simply, it was tiresome hearing the same exact words—often verbatim—day after day, week after week, month after month.

Before I had the opportunity to raise the question, however, the discussion quickly turned to this notion of control. It was at this point that senior NDP strategist Brad Lavigne shone light on a tactic that, in retrospect, is actually quite simple. Strictly controlled messaging, said Lavigne, is not aimed at those politically and socially engaged—far from it, in fact.  Controlled messaging actually disregardsthose politically engaged from the outset; it expects these individuals to see it for what it is, an attempt to win over those who pay significantly less attention to the political realm.

Indeed, when a Conservative MP rises in Question Period to deliver an answer to the opposition, the carefully crafted words read from a sheet of paper are intended to fall on the ears of the (more or less) politically apathetic. When a slightly different question is raised, and that same MP stands again to deliver the exact same answer, those words are once again intended for the uninterested voter, not the political scientist.

The ultimate goal, if it can be called a goal, is for the average voter, flipping from station-to-station on the commute home from work, to hear the eight-second clip touting a specific party’s specific position on a specific issue. Often times, if crafted correctly, that clip will be catchy enough to lodge in one’s memory until the next election, when it can be recalled in the ten minute drive to the polling station. For, as this somewhat cynical view of voting logically holds, the few minutes on the way to cast one’s ballot is the only time an individual will truly dedicate to making such a decision (as important as it is).

Oh yes, thinks the voter as the talking point replays in his head, the Conservatives have been tough on crime. Though said voter may not know anything else, being tough on crime sounds like a good policy for a political party to stand by, and as such, when the individual finds himself staring at the ballot sheet, the X will be placed with special thanks to that very talking point that drives the keen observer to distraction.

Certainly, this says something about the current status of our political sphere, and, one could argue, our society writ large. Yet, as evidenced in panel-member Susan Delacourt’s new book Shopping for Votes, the Canadian political system has turned to a consumer-based approach that favors a permanent campaign over long-term vision based on sound public policy. The days of spontaneity, where a Prime Minister would stop on the stairs of Centre Block in order to engage in a battle of wits with a pressing journalist are now seen as simply too dangerous. Unfortunately, the days of spontaneity appear to have passed us by. Even more depressing, perhaps, is that they have been replaced by a system that actively and openly tries to ‘trick’ the apathetic masses at the expense of the engaged few.

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