Substance vs. style in politics

A few weeks ago I attended a “Big Thinking” lecture over breakfast in the Parliamentary Restaurant, which is located directly above the House of Commons chamber in Centre Block. An interesting location, given that many Canadians suspect there is a paucity of thinking—either big or small—in the vicinity of that space!

Part of a lecture series organized by the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences, this particular talk was co-sponsored by the Trudeau Foundation, and was given by Joseph Heath.

Heath, Enlightenment 2.0Heath is the Director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics, and a Professor in the School of Public Policy and Governance and the Department of Philosophy. His topic was both timely and fitting for the setting: “Reason versus Passion in Politics.”

Heath argued that contemporary politics has inverted the personal slogan of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau: “reason over passion.” In other words, politics is no longer about what you say, but about how you make people feel. In a “post-truth” era, the conventional wisdom is now “heads you lose, hearts you win.”

An ironic case in point: media analysis of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s ongoing lead in public opinion polls, despite appearing to be more about style than substance. Following last weekend’s biennial convention in Montreal, which saw Liberal party members adopt 32 out of the more than 160 policy resolutions they debated, most of the buzz among pundits was about Trudeau’s two speeches, and his capacity to craft an attractive image while remaining vague on ideas.

Another ironic case in point: later in the same day of Heath’s talk, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivered his budget to the House of Commons, just below the floor that Heath had been standing on. Branded “Canada’s Economic Action Plan” since 2009, it seems clear that this annual statement has become more of a marketing tool than an accounting document. It is full of lists of accomplishments and declarations; it is bereft of anything resembling a list of annual income and expenditure items.

Heath acknowledges that there is some truth to the “truthiness” of our age. Indeed, the insights of cognitive psychology tell us that we are hard wired to make decisions, including moral judgments and ballot box choices, by relying on our intuition rather than rational arguments. Thus politicians have simply come to understand, and become more sophisticated in manipulating, the underlying role that our feelings and emotions play.

In the words Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, politicians have discovered that they need “to talk to the elephant first.” They need to speak in ways that resonate with the automatic or inaccessible mental processes that tend to dominate our thinking.

Heath’s concern is that our intuition is “full of bugs,” including biases that can only be overcome through reason and social institutions. And so, in his view, the bias against reasoned debate in contemporary politics is an inherently destabilizing force in society.

As someone tasked with tracking and intervening in political debates, I share this concern.

The Ottawa Office works really hard to craft letters and statements on behalf of MCC that are carefully reasoned and considerate, and scrupulously nonpartisan. To be sure, we also strive to communicate the experiences of our partners in evocative ways. But the overall tone—even when we are addressing someone we have strong disagreements with—is respectful, and hopefully even gracious.

SignatureAs I listened to Joseph Heath, however, I found myself wondering whether we are as persuasive as we think we are. Experiences quickly came to mind when MCC’s efforts to rise above the level of visceral appeals or simplistic triggers seemed to be lost on our audiences.

Rather than a conversation, at times our letters or statements have prompted questions like “Are you for us or against us?” or “Why aren’t you willing to be more prophetic?”

Perhaps we need to get with the times. Perhaps we need to worry less about developing nuanced positions or pursuing progress through compromise.

Or perhaps, like Heath, we need to worry more about the state of political discourse in Canada.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

3 thoughts on “Substance vs. style in politics

  1. Quite thought-provoking, Paul. Thanks! I would suggest that the last paragraph begin with “And” rather than “Or.” In any case, I”m looking forward to your next blog post that will suggest some ways forward for the Ottawa Office to “get with the times.”

    • Or you can come to my talk at St. Clair-O’Connor Community in Toronto on March 26!

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