Friday, November 5, 2010

Sanity versus Fear in Canadian politics

Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner; published under the title "Washington rallies offer important messages"

Last Saturday I attended a unique event in Washington, DC. Featuring Daily Show host John Stewart and the Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert, it was a massive counter-rally. Stewart’s plan was the Rally to Restore Sanity, while Colbert’s response was the March to Keep Fear Alive. Billed the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, at over 200,000 it was easily the largest gathering in quite some time, dwarfing the previous Tea Party and Glen Beck rallies it partially mocked.

One highlight was the appearance of Yusuf Islam (a.k.a. Cat Stevens) and Ozzy Osbourne singing “Peace Train” and “Crazy Train” against each other. (Both songs are favourites in my household.) MythBusters Jamie and Adam also did some wave, sound, and jumping experiments with the huge crowd and a seismometer.

The event featured music, comedy, parody protest signs and elaborate costumes but surpassed mere entertainment, carrying a serious message: political debate, especially in the media, is dominated by extremists on each side. Not seeing their views presented in civil discourse, the moderate majority disengage. This leaves the levers of control in the hands of extremists and lobbyists. This rally was for “the rest of us”, people who don’t generally make their case through poorly-spelled slogans or loud shouting. Volume does not equal validity, but you wouldn’t know that from how the media covers politics.

Clearly it’s worse in America than Canada, but we are fast catching up. An avowedly right-wing Fox News-style cable news channel is trying to launch here. Political advertising has gone decidedly negative, and in recent years attack ads have appeared even outside election periods.

Attack ads work, but in an insidious way. They don’t inspire people to vote for anyone; rather, they dissuade people from voting at all, a strategy called vote suppression. The trick is that rather than grow your own support, you diminish the base of your opponents. The effect is lower voter turnout and the exclusion of moderates from the process.

It’s hard to know how to address this spreading negativity. Certainly humour is one approach, and Canadian shows like the Mercer Report and 22 Minutes make a good try. But despite their biting satire, the attacks multiply. This week the Green Party of Canada called for a ban on political advertising on television, which is an interesting idea. TV ads are very expensive, driving the high cost of politics, but are rarely used to present meaningful information. Instead, they are the primary tool for emotions and attack ads. Perhaps if parties were banned from the airwaves and had to reach voters through print media they would focus less on painting others with fear and derision and more on presenting ideas.

I think it’s worth a try.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.


  1. Nice points eric.

    Did you feel that the rally really meant anything? or are middle of the road people just kinda fiddling while democracy corrodes? That is the problem when the seriously motivated nutjobs around us outmuscle the mushy kinda motivated 90% in the middle.

  2. I don't think one rally by itself can accomplish much, but it can be the start of something, or help to grow a movement or at least show the presence of a base.

    It's a tautological problem, really - as you work harder and harder to overcome the extremists you come to resemble them.