Why narratives?Posted: June 21, 2012
As far as introducing a blog, I’m of the opinion that explaining what it’s about is the best place to start. I grew up in a Martin-loving household and so, as a teenager, I heard many times that he would be a great Prime Minister. With my family and extended family, politics was always part of the conversation. The 2004 elections was the first time I voted (for Peter Miliken, the former Speaker of the House, a fact I am quite proud of). While I was dismayed with the result of the general election, I was not overly concerned. The Liberal government I had grown up with was relatively intact and the NDP was there to offer them the leftward push they sometimes needed to enact their more progressive legislation. All in all, there was no real cause for consternation.
In 2006, I watched the Liberal government fall. Minority governments tend not to last, but what was surprising was that the NDP had supported the Conservatives in bringing down the government. I was attending York University at the time and voted for Judy Sgro (MP, York West). This time, the election results were a bit more concerning. Stephen Harper, the new Prime Minister, was the former head of the National Citizens’ Coalition, an organization that I understood to have been founded to dismantle health care, primarily, with the larger goal of dismantling as much of our social safety net as possible. How he had been elected with that background was beyond me.
In 2008, I voted for Lui Temelkovski (former MP, Oak Ridges-Markham). He lost the election by 545 votes. My grandfather had helped put up signs for him and I just happened to be visiting when it was time to take them down. We rounded them up and then went to return them to Lui. When we got there, Lui invited us into his home for a cup of coffee. There, I met an intelligent, affable and principled man. I was disappointed that he had lost and became much more so after meeting him. I decided to get involved.
Over the next three years, I helped out when I could: making calls, knocking on doors and putting up signs. We were determined to take back the riding in the next election. That did not happen, unfortunately; the Conservatives crushed us, increasing their vote total significantly.
In 2008, I was upset I hadn’t done enough when I had the chance. In 2011, I was left wondering what I could do. Political work seemed, quite frankly, pointless when a party could get placeholder candidates elected, like the NDP did in Quebec. They hadn’t knocked on doors, recruited volunteers or solicited donations. Based on a handful of polls showing that Quebec, overall, had a favourable view of the NDP after the debate, the entire election shifted. My attention turned to the media.
In my opinion, elections are won and lost based on the portrayal of our political parties in the media. Our democracy is designed to include a free press to act as a counterbalance; it should provide commentary, analysis and investigation. It is a subject of occasional lamentation by members of our media that the press has devolved into a kind of political scorekeeper. Rather than investigate and discuss the relative platforms of the parties, the media is generally more occupied with speculating on how each party’s policy will be received and on how many political points their actions might cost them. Commentary we are privy to is generally unbalanced and partisan, or worse, it is assumed to be and ignored.
The calculation of political points is what I am most interested in. This political arithmetic is based on preconceived and generally accepted dominate narratives. A narrative might be something as simple as “Conservatives are good with money” or it could be something as specific as “Stéphane Dion is not a leader.” They are the assumptions that go into calculating one’s relative political success or failure and as long as they exist, we can only act within them. As an example, it is only in retrospect that I understand that Mr. Harper’s past leadership of the NCC is rarely discussed in the media because it has been subsumed and nullified by the “Secret Agenda” narrative (that is, “Progressives always think the PM has a secret agenda. He has proved he doesn’t so don’t talk about dismantling healthcare/abortions/gay marriage/etc.”). Paul Martin overplayed his demonization of Stephen Harper; the “Secret Agenda” narrative was born; now we can’t discuss his long-term plan for Canada. Analyzing the life cycle of a narrative, understanding how it came to be and the assumptions that support it, is the only way out of this trap.
The goal of this blog is therefore simple and quixotic. I plan to analyze, to the best of my abilities, the media narratives that I see at play in our political dialogue, with the intent of starting a new conversation about politics in Canada.