Susan Delacourt's new book, Shopping For Votes: How Politicians Choose Us And We Choose Them is creating quite a stir. Delacourt's central thesis is that Canadians no longer act as citizens -- with rights and responsibilities -- but as consumers, who are motivated by self interest, not the national interest. Jeffrey Simpson wrote in yesterday's Globe and Mail that:
It is a depressing book for anyone who believes in a broad public interest and the capacity of political parties (and the media) to even discuss that interest. It is more depressing still because this state of affairs reflects what we, the public, have come to expect.
Depressing but, unfortunately true. Delacourt herself writes:
“In a nation of consumer-citizens, the customer is always right. It is not the politician’s job to change people’s minds or prejudices, but to confirm them or play to them, to seal the deal of support. Speeches are not made to educate or inform the audience but to serve up marketing slogans. Political parties become ‘brands’ and political announcements become product launches.”
In practise, this means that what any party needs to govern is its core vote plus a small slice of the electorate:
For the Conservatives (and the NDP, for that matter), this means identifying only perhaps 10 per cent of the electorate beyond their core votes, then governing or campaigning only with them in mind. When the Conservatives make decisions in foreign or domestic policy, they think only about their core vote and this extra 10 per cent of political consumers.
And that makes a party leader a Director of Marketing, something which Stephen Harper has mastered:
The notion that he is surrounded by people who plan and execute the marketing is wrong. Mr. Harper directs the marketing, involving himself in all aspects of it, presiding over a huge staff who do nothing but focus on communications, event-planning and, at central party headquarters, organize a massive information-collection effort on citizens in every corner of Canada so as to better identify which voters will be most influenced by which message.
It's a sad and sorry state of affairs -- and it's toxic to democracy.