There are good reasons to be upset about politics and the behaviour of our elected representatives. However, it strikes me that many citizens are over-cynical and whine about politics for unfair reasons.
Tree planting is often proposed as part of the solution to climate change. A new study demonstrates why it is critical to see this as a social science issue, not just an ecological one.
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Bastin, J.-F. et al. Science 365, 76–79 (2019).
Coleman, E. et al. Nat. Sustain. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00761-z (2021).
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The author declares no competing interests.
Pritchard, R. Politics, power and planting trees.
Nat Sustain (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00769-5
Published: 13 September 2021
J.R. McConvey is a writer based in Toronto.
One thing is certain about elections: they bring out the signs. Lawns and roadsides across the country are cluttered with red, blue, orange and the occasional green. An already busy visual landscape is surrendered to the will of the politically solicitous.
One of politics’ more durable lies is that policy and governance take priority over image management. Contemporary politics is a visual medium. Conducted through signage, carefully orchestrated public appearances, television and social media, political narratives play out as screen content, designed to compete with – and borrow tactics from the creative and commercial content with which they jockey for clicks.
With the pandemic making it harder to court voters in person, screens must convey more of the candidates’ personalities. Hence, in campaign materials for the front-runners, we see a new taste for casual haberdashery. In August, the Conservative Party of Canada launched its platform with a GQ-style mock magazine cover featuring leader Erin O’Toole in a black T-shirt, arms crossed for maximum flex. It evoked a “thirst trap,” slang for a type of selfie intended to elicit praise or desire. Days later, a Liberal ad pictured Justin Trudeau in a similar black tee. In the age of remote work, it’s no longer enough to roll up your sleeves; to connect with the pyjama-clad masses, you must dress down.
The sartorial relaxation aligns with a general trend away from formality in political imagery. It’s telling that when the CPC had to pull an attack ad featuring Mr. Trudeau’s head superimposed on the body of Veruca Salt – the selfish, petulant child from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory – the terminal issue was copyright infringement, rather than the use of sloppy internet troll aesthetics to frame the Liberal Leader as a garish caricature.
Some images aren’t so easily expunged from record. The most recent politician haunted by a revenant from their virtual past is Lisa Robinson. The former CPC candidate in the Toronto riding of Beaches-East York suspended her campaign after Liberal incumbent Nate Erskine-Smith dug up screenshots of posts she allegedly made in 2017, telling Muslims to “go home.” Ms. Robinson claims the posts are fake. Either way, the image has spoken: Mr. O’Toole, striving to project positivity, cannot be associated with hateful tweets, no matter their veracity.
If the discourse is more about the candidates’ social content than their platforms, there’s good reason for that. This is Mr. Trudeau’s arena. With his staged photo-ops and rakish pandemic beard, he set the terms by which others must play. When sunny ways and feely optics are at odds with concrete policy, it doesn’t merely entrench cynicism; it pushes the political conversation deeper into the visual realm. A lesson we should learn from the Trudeau government is that it matters less how Canada’s cabinet looks than how its members represent the communities that voted for them. Keeping the Canadian flag at half-mast might remind us that the Trudeau government feels bad about residential schools, but symbolism without policy to support it is merely theatre.
At present, the tendency is to analyze political iconography in the context of colonialism, fascism and white supremacy. While these are animating factors, they’re all subservient to the only category that matters in today’s media landscape: attention. In his 2016 book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, media theorist Tim Wu analyzes what he calls “the attention industry.” In exchange for our attention, Mr. Wu argues, “we have accepted a life experience that is in all of its dimensions – economic, political, social, any way you can think of – mediated as never before in human history.” He locates the maturation of the attention industry in 20th-century war propaganda, but claims – writing before the presidency of Donald Trump – that propaganda’s use by tyrants made it unappealing to modern Western governments.
Those days are gone. The visual grammar of Western democracy is now shaped by strategists such as Brad Parscale and Nick Kouvalis, whose work straddles politics and marketing. To call it propaganda feels outdated. But a phenomenon such as Ford Nation, with its slogans and bespoke PR channels, has echoes of the 20th century’s outsized personality cults. Doug Ford is an enthusiastic practitioner of visual politics, filtering every communication through a would-be working-class aesthetic based on sensible conservative blue, with nods to the bold, brash style prevalent in American cable news. Mr. Ford’s brand is so strong that he didn’t need a platform to get elected premier. Meanwhile, many of his greatest misses in office are design gaffes: recall the blue licence plate, the gas-pump sticker, the fundraising flyer designed as an invoice. Whether or not they work – whether the stickers stick or the licence plate is visible at night – they’re pieces in a larger narrative that places attention capture through visual media at the centre of the political project.
The result of this rewiring plays out as we speak, in conflicts over the latest politicized fashion statement: wearing a mask. In a climate where everything is a symbol, a functional piece of equipment designed to protect people from disease has become a statement – of conformity, solidarity or repression, depending on who you ask.
Herein lies the danger of a predominantly visual politics: we are not fully conscious of the ways in which visual information works on our brain – or of how sophisticated the techniques being used to control those functions are. Much as we have done with the intentionally addictive mechanics of smartphones and social media, we proceed without alarm, as though seismic changes in technology and intent do not ripple through our political discourse, our very psychology.
If politics is to continue being waged on screens – and surely that is where most hearts and votes are now won – we must factor aesthetics and design into the discussion. Otherwise, we fail to see what’s right in front of us.
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Canada has had more than 100 years to modernize elections and campaigns so that women candidates can compete on a level playing field.
What’s taken so long? How is it possible that obstacles dating from the suffrage era continue to pose significant barriers?
Veronica Strong-Boag’s forthcoming biography of the first woman cabinet minister in the British Empire reveals problems that continue to this day. In 1892, Mary Ellen Smith left the dusty coal towns of northern England for Nanaimo, B.C. She arrived as an experienced public reformer, committed to improving the living and working conditions of families like her own – composed of white European miners, their wives and children. Smith became a leader in West Coast campaigns to extend the vote to women and to strengthen minimum wage, public pension and child labour laws.
The sudden death of her husband Ralph, an MLA for Vancouver, led Smith to contest his seat in a provincial byelection. Despite fierce competition, she won in 1918 and in two subsequent races. Smith became not just B.C.’s first female MLA but also a minister without portfolio in the province’s then-Liberal government.
As an immigrant from the U.K. whose first language was English, what were her rewards? Smith was provided no stipend, staff or seat at the cabinet table. She resigned as minister without portfolio less than a year after her appointment, stating she refused to be a superfluous “fifth wheel on the political coach.” In 1928, the B.C. Liberals pushed Smith off the stage entirely, running her in a Tory bastion on Vancouver Island. Smith, as well as the B.C. Liberal Party, lost that election.
During much of Smith’s time in the public spotlight, political leaders and media pundits remarked on little beyond her attractive face, fashionable clothes, feminine speaking style and congenial personality. Smith became a sexualized commodity of the time: B.C. Liberal leader John Oliver announced that he’d kissed the victorious candidate out of “duty” rather than sin. Another B.C. Liberal proposed marriage with a $3,000 monetary incentive. In short, the substantive commitments that had long dominated Smith’s civic involvement were buried in a volley of commentary that highlighted her “comely” good looks and “quiet, gentle voice.”
Mary Ellen Smith stands among the first women in Canada to walk away from parliamentary politics with a deep sense of disappointment. But she was far from the last.
What can be done to ensure that today’s women candidates escape these sordid legacies? First, sustained focus in public debate on policy content rather than personal minutiae would go a long way toward improving our political climate. As they did 100 years ago, contemporary news reports and commentaries that highlight hair, wardrobe and tone of voice trivialize the contributions of half the population by turning political campaigns into old-fashioned beauty pageants. This trend is particularly worrisome in our visually saturated era, when social media emphasis on style and imagery is usurping the somewhat more-substantive orientation of older news outlets.
Second, I encourage candidates and leaders to channel Mary Ellen Smith by calling out the biases they confront. To their credit, a number of diverse women who abandoned federal politics in recent months, including Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq and Vancouver Granville MP Jody Wilson-Raybould, did just that. Back in mid-June, Qaqqaq announced she would not run in the next federal election. A member of the NDP caucus since 2019, Qaqqaq said the House of Commons was “a very uneasy place,” where staff did not recognize her status as an MP. Qaqqaq also felt stymied in her attempts to improve housing and prevent suicide in Indigenous and Inuit communities.
A Liberal MP and cabinet minister for one term and then an independent MP since 2019, Wilson-Raybould explained in July that she’d decided not to run again given a “toxic and ineffective Parliament” characterized by “harmful partisanship.”
Instead of quietly exiting the parliamentary arena, both Qaqqaq and Wilson-Raybould spoke publicly about what ails the system. They. along with embattled Green Party Leader Annamie Paul. have identified problems that continue to impede participants who come from traditionally marginalized outsider groups. Paul’s comments this summer suggest that the internal Green Party debate over the Middle East conflict and the defection to the Liberals of Jenica Atwin, a Green MP from New Brunswick, was far from civil. In fact, Paul told reporters that racist and sexist allegations were levelled against her at an emergency meeting of the Green Party’s national council in mid-June.
Not surprisingly, these contemporary trail-blazers include women who are Indigenous (Qaqqaq and Wilson-Raybould) as well as Black and Jewish (Paul). Their entry to Canadian public institutions that were constructed for and by white Christian men has provoked discomfort, hostility and lots in between.
Third, as the citizens whose voices ought to be represented in legislative chambers and in cabinet meetings, we – as members of a diverse Canadian public – need to demand better. It’s our responsibility to hold editors, journalists, bloggers and tweeters to foundational standards that require fair coverage of election campaigns. Emphases on the coiffure, sexual allure or voice of female candidates tend to go hand-in-hand with neglect of their substantive politics. This approach remains as vapid and imbalanced now as it was a century ago.
We also need to insist that parties and legislatures open their doors to change-oriented participants who don’t look like the Fathers of Confederation. If public institutions remain closed to candidates like Qaqqaq, Wilson-Raybould and Paul, those structures are sure to calcify as bloated parking lots full of status quo advocates.
Our job, in short, is to help ensure the experiences of women candidates and parliamentarians in 2021 are measurably better than they were in the era of Mary Ellen Smith.
Data shows that during this pandemic, public trust in elected leaders in Canada has dipped precipitously. Just imagine how much worse those trends will become if we don’t find ways to elect women like Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Annamie Paul – and ensure they are effective and are able to be influential inside the system.
This article is part of the How can we improve the elections process special feature.
Let me be clear, we must be critical of the government and hold politicians to very high standards. This is particularly important in times of crisis where their decisions will heavily impact our standard of living or even our health conditions, as we have seen with COVID-19.
That said, many comments about politicians that I hear are unfair and cheap.
First, politicians are said to constantly break their promises. The good news is that we can actually verify the extent to which they do — and fortunately, several academics do this important work. Overall, the numbers are very clear: most of the time, governments deliver a majority of their pledges.
We also hear a lot that politicians, and especially the prime minister, are strategic and pursue their self-interest. These are two extremely puzzling complaints. Why would it systematically be a bad thing to be strategic? At the end of the day, there are many very good policies that are appealing for a majority of voters (and thus benefiting the government if adopted). Implementing them should not be seen as Machiavellian.
Moreover, it is very difficult to imagine that most of those who run for the job of member of Parliament do it for their self-interest. In terms of financial incentives, many of these people would make much more money in the private sector. They don’t do it for money.
People also do not become politicians in the hope that it will allow them to have more free time. In fact, being a politician is a very time-consuming job, and for many it requires being away from home; just think about the size of the country and how many constituencies are not within a commutable distance from Ottawa.
To borrow an expression from psychologist Ashley Weinberg: the job should come with a government health warning, as it is a mental health hazard. Not only are politicians likely to develop mental health problems, but recent research has also shown that voters penalize politicians who suffer from depression (a mental health disease that affects many Canadians and should be the source of stigma) more than they penalize politicians who suffer from a physical disease such as cancer or high blood pressure.
Many people won’t be thrilled about the current election because they are simply not interested in politics. Political junkies are a minority of people, and this is perfectly fine. However, I find it troubling and unfair that citizens, especially those who do not closely follow politics, are exposed to a ton of negativity about politics and politicians. I hope that this text will reach people who are not interested in politics and thus less likely to be aware of the above considerations. Their vote choice should not be based on cynicism and misleading conceptions of Canadian politics and politicians.
I’m not calling for fewer critical comments. I just hope that they become fairer.
Jean-François Daoust is a professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh.
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