The Trouble With Political Communications
If a politician or a government succeeds at everything they set out to achieve, nobody will ever know. If they then say something phenomenally stupid at a private party and someone recorded it, their career may come to a dramatic and unceremonious end.
In order to mitigate this and avoid even the slightest appearance of a gaffe, nearly everything that happens in politics is managed through the term “optics”. How does this action, this set-up, this statement, look to the media or the public at large?
To actively succeed in political objectives often requires prolonged failure with only an apparent path to success for the programs that those politicians promote. The optics matter, the results do not.
Luc Lefebvre, my executive assistant for my four years in office and previously mayor of the Quebec town of Sainte-Sophie liked to tell me to remember the story of the mayor and the bridge:
A candidate for mayor runs on a promise to build a bridge, and wins. The next election, he campaigns on a promise to continue the work of planning the bridge, and wins. The following election, he campaigns on a promise to fund and build the bridge, and wins. By the following election the bridge is built, and he loses. There is no more bridge on which to campaign; success is failure.
Both the for-profit traditional and social media environments promote – require, even – controversy, negativity, emotional response. It is far easier to describe a politician as wasting taxpayer dollars than it is to describe a politician as using our common resources to invest in the future. It is far easier to describe a scandal than it is to demonstrate an accomplishment, and it is far more interesting to read, listen, or watch about a bad decision than it is to learn about something done correctly.
For any chance of an objective discussion, there needs to be a facts-oriented rather than profit-oriented structure to the media ecosystem. The only way to achieve that is through some form of public funding, which is easily painted as buying pro-government coverage. But that bias comes from the very notion that money is the only motivator, or that public funding cannot be objective, rather than any notion that public service can or does exist. There is far too much money in politics, and not nearly enough in real journalism, which requires neutral public funding, rather than for-profit funding, to serve an actual role in society, so that the objective is information rather than emotion.
To achieve that, though, is a chicken and egg problem. The optics of a government trying to remove the profit motive from journalism are quite poor. What is it they are hiding? Why are they going after the so-called independence of media conglomerate owners? Why are they using tax-dollars to get themselves better coverage?
We have been conditioned to see all actions by politicians as self-serving, so the stories write themselves. Yet politicians have, themselves, been conditioned to make self-serving decisions because working selflessly to the benefit of the public is neither recognised nor rewarded come the election time that decides their fate.
To wit, one day, in my home town of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, shortly after the new Canada Child Benefit was brought in by our government, a young mother yelled at me in a public space about how Prime Minister Trudeau is useless and the Liberals never do anything for people like her. So I asked her if she was receiving the new Canada Child Benefit? Of course, she said, but any government would have done that!
The promise was made and quickly delivered, and ceased to have any further political value. Federal money is manna from heaven and, for the average voter, whatever support is offered is simply something they are entitled to; no election-time vote had any impact on the policy.
John F Kennedy may be celebrated for statements such as “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” but few live this philosophy. The question of what the government is doing to help the poor – how homelessness can be allowed to exist whatsoever in any nominally wealthy country defies all explanation – is seldom asked by anyone sincerely hoping for an answer. “What has the government done for me?” on the other hand, is common. And anything that happened over a week ago no longer counts.
Working to the general benefit of society is portrayed as, and understood to be, weakness. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, we are told, and you will achieve the inherited wealth you believe yourself to be only a single overtime shift or Walmart sale away from having.
Elections themselves are rarely fought on ideas, but on the aesthetics and personalities of the leaders — a war of optics. It is not by accident that Quebec's major parties provincially have nothing to offer between them, perennially fighting over identity politics instead of actual problems to solve, while provincial ballots there quite literally feature photos of the candidates next to the checkboxes, which is why Quebec campaign posters generally have a large photo of the candidate, and tiny text with their name and party.
Functional democracy is more than going to the polls once every four years. It's about understanding what that vote is for and following through to make sure it is carried out. It is about making the connection between the decision at the ballot box and the policy outcomes that may affect voters a year or a generation later. It is about having access to objective, accurate information.
That comes from a fair media environment that no amount of optics can provide, and for which making one more profitable subgroup of private media fund another less profitable group misses the point, even if it makes for good optics.
Optics alone must not be the basis on which we govern.
Posted at 06:50 on July 26, 2023
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