At the mid-point of the just-completed Canadian federal election campaign, veteran Conservative strategist Jaime Watt spoke the summary-sentence truth about current political communication.
“The best political ads use clichés,” Watt said during a CBC National panel discussion, “because clichés help people get the point right away.” Watt emphasized he did not mean best to mean most truthful, informative, memorable, creative or aesthetically pleasing. He meant it in the way a Navy SEAL Team Six is the best at what it does: attacking, destroying, and delivering a win to the good guys.
Just as Osama bin Laden abruptly got the point about what it means to encounter a military strike force in your bedroom, so it is critical for strategists that voters get the message in instant-delivery fashion about who is best to govern them. In both cases, the imperative is to leave the intended targets no time to think.
Anyone who finds it a stretch to compare violent military action with peaceful political messaging might ask deposed Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff about the “non-violent” assault on his reputation that was the core of Conservative war room strategy. It is true that, unlike bin Laden, Ignatieff retains a complete skull. He lost in a landslide, but he has not been buried at sea. Still, it was evident by the mid-point of the campaign that a gaping, jagged hole had been carved in Michael Ignatieff’s deepest beliefs about Canadian political life.
Whether those beliefs were in turn proof of his having lived outside the country too long to be a suitable prime minister is another argument.
What’s immediately fascinating is the way Conservatives used the cliché of the dilettantish, globetrotting, pointy-headed academic to undermine Ignatieff’s political bona fides and, far more, the very legitimacy of his Canadian identity.
They used this cliché not in its current sense of a shopworn phrase but in something much closer to its origins in the late 18th century printing industry. A cliché is literally a stereotype, or duplicate, printing plate. Especially in early printing, it would not always be a perfect copy. Yet it was serviceable as a quick substitute for the original plate so the printer need not worry if something went wrong during the printing process.
The cliché of Conservative campaign advertising was, likewise, an imperfect picture (imperfection being perfect for Tory purposes) of the original Ignatieff, easily substituted to make sure, in Jaime Watt’s phrase, voters got the point right away. Whether that is seen as a good thing or a bad thing depends in part on the perspective of partisanship, in part on whether we believe we have acquired immunity to the ethics of technique.
For all the ki-yiiing over the prolonged viciousness of the Conservative attack clichés, after all, they in no way limited Liberal eagerness to respond in kind. Nor did they have any engaging effect at all on voter turnout, which was neither up nor down notably from previous federal elections.
Even in Quebec, where the New Democratic Party’s astonishing success has been attributed to revulsion over the negative campaigning of the Liberals and Conservatives, voters were really either victims or beneficiaries of political communications cliché.
It was the self-created cliché of Jack Layton as avuncular Everyman, raising mugs of pub beer, speaking sidewalk French, smiling and waggling his cane like the bon homme who won’t let either his prostate cancer or his hip replacement keep him away from a good party. Positive though the picture may seem to some, it is as much the imperfect cliché as any in the campaign. Its intent was equally to give voters little or no time to think about political reality.
The reality is that Jack Layton is not merely a career politician, but almost literally a genetic politico. He counts in his lineage a Father of Confederation and a grandfather who was a cabinet minister in the Duplessis government. His own father was a federal Conservative cabinet minister in the Mulroney era. Layton fils has been elected to some governmental level since 1982-29 years in the life of a man who turns 61 in July. He may be a fine fellow to have at a party, but he is far more a creature of party politics than a common man kvetching at the corner table in the pub on Friday night.
Layton’s real mission, in this election campaign, was to attack and destroy the original copy of him if that’s what it took to deliver a win to his particular good guys.
So what’s new? George Orwell, certainly the greatest political journalist of the 20th century, warned 65 years ago that all “political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
What’s left to say after the full stop of that declarative sentence? Only the truth of what Jaime Watt said, which is that we have gone beyond the age-old politics of windy lies to an unsettling politics of instant, perpetual, and acknowledged shifting of shapes.
The purer winds of history can ultimately sweep away standard-issue lies through counter-evidence. But how do we, while under constant disrupting bombardment, disprove a picture, an image, a duplicate that is not so much a deliberate forgery as an artfully flawed cliché?
Put another way, what point is there to get when the point being communicated is not merely prefabricated, not merely prevarication, but not really meant to be truly gotten at all?