Friday, May 31, 2013

Broadcasting Despair

It is tempting to enjoy the downfall of the Ford Brothers -- most particularly, perhaps, because their troubles are of  their own making. But, Paul Saurette warns in today's Toronto Star, progressives need to understand the danger inherent in the Fords' ruination:

Even progressives who regret the damage the Fords have done to the municipal agenda and disdain the faux-populist affectations of a couple of self-entitled rich guys passing themselves off as regular joes, should mourn the events of the last few weeks and think carefully before indulging in too much schadenfreude. For although these scandals might ultimately topple one or two “Teflon” conservative politicians (which wouldn’t be a bad thing), the long term effects of scandals like these are likely to make it even harder for us to advance progressive political agendas.

Why might this be the case? The ease with which Doug Ford was able, devoid of irony, to demean the media by insulting politicians, is indicative of a political worldview that is both fantastical and real at the same time. It is a perspective that closely mirrors what Thomas Frank has termed “backlash populism.” 

The American Right -- particularly the Tea Party -- seeks to, in the words of Grover Norquist, drown government in a bathtub. Their goal is to sow cynicism; and their own incompetence does that nicely. You would think that citizens could see through the scam. But, Saurette writes:

Contemporary neuroscience has shown that sheer repetition is a powerful strategy of persuasion. Neurons that fire together, wire together, as they like to say. The constant repetition of these faux populist talking points actually works with lots of people. As Daniel Kahneman – winner of a Nobel prize for his pioneering work in behavioural economics – has shown, the more times you hear something (even if you don’t really believe it), the more familiar it feels. And the more familiar it feels, the more true it seems. Familiarity may breed contempt among some. But it also breeds acceptance among many others. And the faux populist story has been circulating in Canada in politics and the media for several decades.

So piling scandal upon scandal accomplishes Norquist's goal:

With each scandal, the bar of what we expect of our politicians is lowered farther and farther. It now takes truly absurd events to shock us. And so we become even more cynical about all politicians. If we can’t even trust the guys who yell loudest about stamping out crime; and if we have to watch even the hand of the guys who lecture longest about keeping the public till free from those who feel entitled to their entitlements, who can we put our faith in? 

The left must give Canadians something to believe in. Stephen Harper and the Fords are hell bent on broadcasting despair.


Lorne said...

I have long felt, Owen, that the open disdain for democratic traditions obvious in the Harper regime is part of the Conservative agenda to disaffect as many people as possible so they won't vote; however, I like to think that the current scandal and the obvious involvement of Harper in it will galvanize people to dispense with these renegades in 2015.

Perhaps a tipping point has been reached?

Owen Gray said...

I read this morning, Lorne, that the majority of Canadians aren't buying Harper's story. Perhaps we have, indeed, reached a typing point.

By the way, welcome back from the West.

Kirby Evans said...

Yes, cynicism is a powerful tool, and it has been fairly effectively used by the Tories in Canada. However, self-interest of older voters, and the exponential anger of many voters is probably a commensurate weapon in the face of such cynicism and despair. The wider problem is the way in which people have come to blindly accept that society cannot afford decent social welfare, pensions, and healthcare, despite the unprecedented wealth.

Owen Gray said...

It's easier to believe that you can't afford something, Kirby -- particularly if you believe that income isn't as skewed as it is toward the 1%

And, if the propaganda machine can be reved up to repeat the message that pensions and healthcare aren't affordable, the powers that be -- those ordinary joes -- are home free

thwap said...

It's a "heads they win, tales we lose" arrangement.

"They're all crooks!" shout the rubes. Then they stay home and let the real crooks win and win and win.

Owen Gray said...

It's about shifting blame, thwap. Other people -- the opposition, civil servants, the press -- make mistakes. We never do.

We're too righteous for that kind of behaviour.