Guess what? I have some non-news for you. The general election is still looming on the horizon. Like Lancelot’s endless charge at the castle to save the princess in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the uninitiated can watch it here), this edition of the national electoral contest seems likely to end abruptly in foolishness, confusion, wailing and a heap of bodies. But there is hope amid the madness. Before we get to that, though, let’s take a moment to reflect on the portents of carnage.

Though we are still several months out, the parties already appear to be pulling out all the stops, flailing about with whatever devastating implement they can at whatever target of opportunity presents itself: the Conservatives using ISIS videos to attack Trudeau; the Liberals (allegedly) attacking Mulcair’s bona fides as a true NDPer with news of a flirtation with the Conservatives; the NDP flirting with the embers of latent Quebec grievances in order to one-up Trudeau and the Liberals. These are three quick samples. The list could be innumerably long. Whatever your position on any of these issues, however, they point to something we all know: elections are definitely not about issues anymore, if they ever were. They are about winning. Sad but true. This is not to say they shouldn’t be about issues. It’s just an observation about what appears to be fact: parties want to win and they will resort to whatever tactics appear to give them a leg up.

In short, I believe the election strategies of all three major parties can most easily be summed up with one simple phrase: ”œPeople would be nuts to vote for that guy.” This is not the stuff of national dreams and inspiration, to be sure. But, parties have been using these tactics for years. The most egregious example may be the notorious attack on Jean Chretien in the 1993 electoral contest. But while that is one of the most extreme versions of this gambit, all parties do it. And they do it because it works.

There is nothing like anger and disquiet to motivate people to get out and vote. But what is new and alarming is the degree to which these attacks now dominate the conversation. And how much they seem destined to grow in importance. It is somewhat of a truism that people don’t vote for governments so much as they vote against governments. It should come as no surprise, then, that modern parties armed with all the tools of social media warfare would try to turn that trick on their opponents. Why worry about the small detail that you are the government when you can suggest that government under the other folks would be truly disastrous? Who knows? If you raise enough of a stink, a few more of your less-discouraged followers might be convinced to head for the polls and prevent those other folks from really ruining everything.

This seems unpromising if your end goal is achieving something in government. But that is where the silver lining lies. Parties are aware of how much the mud-slinging bothers people (even if it does motivate them to get out and prevent the other guys from winning). And at least two of them seem to be investing a significant amount of energy into telling us about the things they might do if they were actually elected. This suggests a level of caring that the bludgeoning tactics don’t. But there they are, slivers of hope shimmering on the horizon like the extended arm of the Lady of the Lake (clad in shimmering samite, etc., etc.): platform planks with positive visions for what might be achieved if this or that party were given the authority to govern.

So here is a novel idea: if you like the positive stuff, tell your local candidates how much you like it and that you would love to hear more. Andtell them that you plan to make your voting decisions using that positive platform info. And, please, try not vote for people who only have bad things to say. It will only encourage them.

If I were an unabashed optimist, I would have ended this piece there, at the end of that last optimistic sentence. But, sadly, I also study the effects of these shenanigans on your brain (see this earlier piece). It is not so simple. Whether you want it to or not, all that flailing about with negative attacks has a good chance of affecting you and your ultimate choice at the ballot box. That’s why they do it. But if you want an antidote, it’s amazing how effective talking through your decisions with another, sympathetic human can be. Tell them what you hope for and what you would like to vote for – not against. Make yourself explain it, get your reasons straight, and steel up your conviction. Then remember that conversation when it comes time to mark your ballot. Ask yourself: what am I voting for? If you do, you might just manage cast a ballot as an act of choice, rather than as a knee-jerk reaction based in fear and uncertainty. If we all do that, it might just lead to a little less weeping, wailing and foolishness the next time.

Photo: Drop of Light / Shutterstock

Tim Abray
Tim Abray is an academic, an award-winning communications consultant and a former radio news reporter. Tim's investigation of political systems is informed by 20-years of working with senior government and private sector decision-makers. His main research interest is looking at the effects of political communication on voter behaviour.

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