Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Go "negative" or go home!

I find it very telling that in the recent Liberal outcry over John Tory going "negative", the focus is not at all on the undesirability of negative campaigning but rather that Tory stated he wouldn't stoop to such tactics. The Liberal response, in other words, was a negative attack on Tory's credibility. Sometimes two negatives do make a positive. Not to be missed here is that Liberal strategists like Kinsella are no longer even shy about the fact that they're tethered and committed to negative campaigning. Going negative has become de rigueur and an accepted fact of politics for the Ontario Liberals. Go negative or go home!
And you know, it wasn't that long ago that Kinsella, Raymaker and Cherniak were defending their vicious personal smear on Cheri DiNovo claiming that it was part of public record, even claiming that they themselves were being reprehensibly smeared by those denouncing them. Lamentably, less than a year later these apologists of smear no longer even feel the need to justify it.

So what about John Tory? Can he safely be accused of having gone negative? Undoubtedly Yes. Clearly in the broadest sense of the concept of "negative campaigning" as a deflection of political focus away from one's own platform and onto the negative aspects of an opponent, such that even a mention of an opponent may be construed as negative, John Tory has gone negative. And is he doing it for leverage? Unquestionably.

Still, what distinctions get lost in such a sweeping view of negative campaigning? Personally I favour reasoned debate, even old school sophistry, to its modern day replacements: petty spin and puerile negative attacks. But, surely, we haven't lost entirely the ability to distinguish between attacking an opponent's logic, argumentation and political record from adhominem attacks on an opponent's character and personal history. Surely, although both are forms of "negative campaigning", there still exists a recognizable difference between vilifying candidates by dredging up personal details from their teens or by disingenuously misconstruing their statements and intelligently and reasonably critiquing an opponent's statements and political record.

To be fair, I do think John Tory has overstepped slightly the line in his criticism of the McGuinty government record, yet this must be seen as a substantially different kind of attack from the sordid personal attacks and mischaracterizations perpetrated by the McGuinty Liberals against John Tory and others. I don't think John Tory has veered significantly from his desire to conduct politics differently- mind you, things had degenerated so significantly at Queen's Park that it wouldn't take much to improve the situation. His attacks aren't outrageously personal and we all know that if anyone deserves the monicker Promise Breaker, it's not John Tory.

So is attacking the Ontario Liberal government's pitiful record, negative campaigning? Surely, we don't mean to dispense with
"critique" in politics. While I lament the virtual absence of critical thought and dignified comportment in politics, I wouldn't want to lose it as an "ideal" (in fact, I've long argued given the decline in critical thought, eloquence and articulateness in political discourse that all newly elected officials should be subjected to a rigorous regimen of literature, rhetoric and political philosophy).

However, even if we grant that "negative" campaigning, marked by sleazy smears, distortions, distraction, disingenuousness, petty partisanship, etc. has or will soon become the norm, ought we not to aspire to something better? Or is the fact that dirty politics can be highly effective in modern day elections sufficient reason to be resigned to this kind of campaigning? Does the fact the voter turn out and public perception of elected officials is at an all time low possibly owing at all to this? Have we become so focused on ends that we entirely neglect the legitimacy of the means by which we strive for those ends? If I'm focused on attaining a watch, it matters substantially whether I acquire it legitimately or I steal it, for the latter will always never be just a watch, but a stolen watch.

I recently had a very interesting discussion with a teacher. She pointed out that today students are so focused on end results that cheating has become rampant. When she addressed her class in a very frank and gentle way, students told her that they consider cheating only as cheating when they get caught, otherwise it's called being savvy and getting the job done.

Is all of this completely unrelated? Or is this part of the ravages to the human soul inflicted by capitalism? Is this not the logical extension of narcissistic self-interest? Is negative campaigning not perfectly suited for a consumer society that has neither the appetite nor the time for focusing on issues and rather delights in seeing other torn asunder. Are these not by-products of late capitalist societies? For while the material gain and leverage brought to human societies by their adoption of capitalist economies is undeniable, we're often less prone to scrutinize the inevitable changes wrought on human beings themselves by these transformations.

So what are we left with in Canadian politics? Principles, ethics and integrity are luxuries that a party focused only on power cannot afford. Polling is the moral compass of most of today's politicians and the Ontario Liberals have whole heartedly embraced this kind of politics.

A recent example from Jason Cherniak is a worthy illustration. Cherniak, who greeted every mention of ColleGate as comprising a "slush fund" with outrage and who defended the embattled minister, not only was content to scapegoat the minister in the hopes of saving the party but now teases John Tory for his inability to elicit outrage in the electorate over that scandal. This, of course, after examining recent polling numbers. Despite a condemning report from the Auditor General, despite fair accusations that this at least has the stench of a slush fund, etc., Cherniak ultimately sees nothing untoward in the funding scandal since it doesn't seem to have hurt the Ontario Liberal Party's chances of forming the next government.


Jason Cherniak said...

1) I never defended Cole. I only said that it wasn't a "slush fund".

2) The auditor made it pretty clear that it was not a politically motivated scandal, but an example of bad management by one minister. That is why I don't think it should hurt Liberal chances. Tory's inability to stir outrage is why it likely won't hurt Liberal chances. There a very important distinction that you are missing.

Derrida said...

You defended this government tooth and nail until the very last moment and then let Minister Colle take the fall. You oscillated from there's no story here, nothing will stick (May 4), to McGuinty wouldn't have dared call an auditor general's report this close to an election if he wasn't sure the report will exonerate the Liberals(May 11), to it may have been a "patronage" fund but don't dare call it a slush fund (June 22), to finally scapegoating Mike Colle (July 27).

You can't possibly believe that a) this was the work of a single rogue minister (the auditor general not only condemned the practice of year end funds generally but noted each of the grant requests was "reviewed and in some cases adjusted by the Ministry of Finance"), b) not "politically motivated" (was it philanthropic altruism?), and c) the auditor general's report was not highly condemning (indeed there were a number of good cases made that this was arguably a slush fund).

As for this not hurting the Liberals, I actually think it's too early to tell. As more and more people become fully aware of this scandal and the other scandals there may well be some drop in support. Many folks have yet to start thinking about this election.