The upcoming election, Geoffrey Rafe Hall writes, will be about nasty, brutish and small things. That's because Stephen Harper has nothing else to run on:
Lacking evidence of either sound fiscal management or a healthy economy — and certainly having nothing to offer on the ‘change’ front — Stephen Harper is confronted with the problem of campaigning on not much at all.
The PM’s answer to that problem so far has been to deliver more of the same — more fear, more legislation that ‘gets tough on crime’ – but these tired old tactics won’t, on their own, mobilize support beyond the party base.
So his first task is to shore up his party's base. That's what all the fear and smear is about. His past election victories have been based on playing a game of inches:
Remember how narrow the margin is between winning and losing in federal elections now. In the northern Greater Toronto Area in the last federal election, seven seats were up for grabs. Five went to the Conservatives, who received 39.2 per cent of the votes cast. One seat went to the Liberals with 38.2 per cent of the vote; the NDP took one seat on 20 per cent of the vote. Less than 59 per cent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot — meaning that the difference between winning one seat and winning five came down to the choices made by less than one per cent of voters.
So even the smallest of actions matter. One tactic that has proved effective in galvanizing base support, regardless of political affiliation, is what psychologists call “out-group derogation”. In simple terms it means creating an Us vs. Them split in supporters minds, with the ‘Them’ group presented as threatening. The tactic works, and Conservatives have used it before. But it really only works well when the distinction between “us” and “them” is based on shared values — such as banning face coverings in citizen ceremonies.
But that's a risky strategy. What if the "shared values" the Conservatives espouse are shared by only their base?
What if, in the process of identifying and shunning the ‘other’, that group expands beyond the boundaries set by shared values — by many Canadians’ discomfort with the niqab, for example — to a broader multicultural/multiracial society? What if, in the heat of an election campaign, some of the ‘Us’ camp get roped in with ‘Them’?
The Conservatives have courted the immigrant vote. But, if immigrants become convinced that Harper has them in his sites, what happens to his game of inches?
Stephen Harper has made gross miscalculations in the past. Perhaps this is another one. And perhaps it will do him in.