I think I’m close to figuring out where politicians keep losing us when it comes to the issues of the day and our lack of interest in them. Perhaps it is we the voters that just don’t get it.
Recently over dinner I discussed the prevalence and penetration of the news on today’s citizens. A family member, one who is, by profession, very news-savvy, made me aware that almost everyone he can think of in both his office and in his life doesn’t read the paper or read the news online. These are people ranging in age from roughly 27 to 40. I was baffled. Consider the idea that the majority of Canadians have no knowledge of the events that concern them, beyond the standing of their favourite NHL team. Besides being disappointed, think of what that means from a communications perspective and how one might speak to them without traditional media channels.
Aside from how one might speak to them, it got me thinking about what is being spoken and the depth to which topics are verbally expressed in public forums. When we hear politicians rambling on about things like the Afghan detainee scandal, relative strangers’ names like Richard Colvin, or complicated terms like “proroguing,” perhaps instead of rallying Canadians to their calls, they’re talking right over our heads.
Michael Ignatieff‘s recently penned Op-Ed in the Toronto Star sort of makes my point. As I clicked the link to this piece, I was thinking about how he might approach Canadians in his words. Would he leverage rallying cries or would he numb us with adjectives? On the subject of proroguing Parliament, he’s quick to bring up several important and complex issues which the government is failing us on, including case-specific names and details that most of us (even news-hardened folks like myself) haven’t heard about before. Where his argument is strongest is in his relatively plain language about the government not working. He focuses on the basic principles, not the nitty gritty details.
Identifying specific issues, names and debates with the interest of raising voters’ ire is likely over our heads and thus badly misses its intention. Republicans and Conservatives are always successful because they speak simply in order to engage their target audience – definitively simple people (older generations, rural constituents, conservative-minded folks). In fact, it seems to engage and galvanize more than their core; it attracts new members from other parties as well. Why? Because it’s relatable. It’s interpretable. It’s easy. And while these right-wing ideologues advocate for the good ol’ days and say “gosh” and “darnit,” more often than not our centrist and left-wing parties can be found confusing themselves with their own arguments.
Forgive me for calling us (the voter mass) stupid, but perhaps we are. The best way to motivate us might be to boil down arguments and forget the details, or at least just skim the surface. Sure our educated and experienced politicians should be aware of specificities and nuances, but perhaps they should only bring them up conversationally or in front of the media as necessary. When speaking to voters, the best way, it seems, to gain momentum is to use key words over and over and over again. For example, I like Ignatieff’s use of the word “regime” for the Conservative government. It would work in the long term to have Canadians identify Harper’s government as a regime (which it is) as a knee-jerk, first response, rather than continually reminded that he has prorogued parliament. I think most Canadians twitch and groan each time they hear that word these days.
A note to my dear politicians: Spend your time shaking hands and being seen in your ridings and communities instead of delving into the minute details of the day’s issues. We voters are far less aware than you think. Leave the big words, the detail and the complexity for the commissions. And Rex Murphy.
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I am a bit confused as to who you are speaking to – all politicians, or just ones in opposition? Or just those in power? If it is just those in power, one might consider that those in power have much to gain by keeping potential voters disinterested by use of big words and concepts that are irrelevant to anyone but themselves (proroguing being the most obvious case – stall and delay until the questions go away). I’m not talking about manufacturing consent, but I guess I also kind of am. But in the case of the minority government, a larger voter turnout could be disastrous for them.
Indeed, politicians can also numb the brains of voters by getting them to think emotionally rather than rationally. Motivationally speaking, this can lead to actions of any kind, and in marketing terms, it’s very easy to pull off if one knows his or her audience. Word choice, stories, metaphors that are weak or full of fallacies …
Reminds me of David Cross – “the democrats want to take away your foot massage. wouldn’t that feel real good right about now? yeah, a foot massage. the democrats want to take that away!”
I’m talking mainly about our opposition parties. Fact is, our governing party really doesn’t need to say anything. They’re the ones in power. It’s not up to them to lose it, it’s up to others to gain it. Besides, the Conservatives have the luxury of promoting status quo, as that is the nature of their party. The challenge for the opposition parties is to advocate for change, which requires parlaying what they imagine things ought to be instead of what currently is.
You’re right about the emotion versus rationale argument. It’s the lowest common denominator amongst voters; the easiest way to encourage action. But why is it that American political types are so successful in manipulating language to suit their audiences while us Canadians can’t figure it out? And they’ve been doing it for years. Are our politicians publicly inept? Perhaps it’s those behind them; those who craft their speeches and develop their campaigns.
All told though, it strikes me as odd that we had what was probably the biggest case study in political communications history go down during the last Presidential Election and it seems that our opposition parties haven’t learned a thing. Who knows, maybe they think they’re doing everything right.
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