There is a federal election campaign looming, and I’d like to ask you a question: what are election campaigns about? For most people, busy with their lives and responsibilities, I suspect this is one of those questions that falls into the category of ”Too obvious to be asked.” It’s the kind of question that can generally expect to be greeted with reactions ranging from quizzical looks to naked impatience. It’s an election. Duh.

But I am going to suggest this is a question that should not be shrugged off so easily. Before we make our mark on election day, I think we should all take the time to ask – and answer – this question for ourselves. Your success as a voter and citizen may depend on it.

Allow me to explain.

In the last few weeks, with the expectation of an election call some time this year, there has been a minor outbreak of electoral soul-searching among politics-watchers. A few pieces in particular come to mind: Paul Hillier’s piece in the Hill Times on the persuasion tactics used in campaigns; Don Lenihan’s reflections at National News Watch about two visions of electoral democracy in conflict; and, now, a piece on this blog from Lauren Dobson-Hughes about the struggle of civil society (and NGO’s in particular) to make a dent in campaign debate. What all of these pieces share in common is that they all reveal the fundamentally instrumental nature of contemporary election campaigns: in the minds of strategists, elections are for winning.

More and more, it seems that winning involves using methods of persuasion that have very little to do with the give and take of debate. As Hillier points out in his piece, the traditional method of using information to persuade is passé. Information is dead weight in 2015. What you need to do is destabilize voters with emotional cues that poke at their vulnerabilities and insecurities (see: zit cream ads). Then? The candidate needs to swoop in and capitalize on that moment of vulnerability by coming across as the perfect combination of Superman and Linus’s blanket.

I’ll put my cards on the table here. I have a problem with that. If winning is the only goal, the operatives are right: pushing vulnerability buttons is definitely the way to go. But my real problem with that is what that kind of approach is doing to our brains – and to our democracy.

Our model of representative democracy was crafted back in the 19th century, an era that was drunk on faith in the twin gods of education and the human capacity for reason. The prevailing wisdom of the day was that human beings could reason their way through anything, given the right education and the time and space to do it. From that viewpoint, a bad outcome could be written off to poor breeding, bad reasoning or both. We can still see this formula echoed today. When things go poorly with a government or elected official (see: Rob Ford), we watch as the media searches to explain the failure of the electoral process in terms of bad reasoning or unruly mobs (see: Ford Nation).

As a society, we worship at the church of reason. Here’s the problem: our unconscious is not there worshiping with us. We are creatures of habit. And some of those habits are hard-wired in and date back to well before Rob Ford and Immanuel Kant. The basic hardware that lies behind the thin facade of diaper training and a decent education is still pretty reliably uncivilized. Scare us well enough and we will react to protect ourselves. Activating that defensive reaction makes for great strategy if your only goal is to stir people up and motivate them to DO SOMETHING. Like, say… « Vote for me! » But using that vital mechanism for such dubious purposes has consequences. Fear breeds distrust. When we are negatively impacted by something our brains work hard behind the scenes to help us avoid it in future (ever had food poisoning? How long before you ate that food again?). That cannot be good for participatory democracy.

So, as a voter, what can you do? For starters, ask yourself the question that led off this column: what are campaigns for? And then remind yourself that they are for asking questions, demanding answers and engaging in dialogue. And, when you find yourself pulling away and saying, ”There is no point, they are all crooks and they’re not listening anyway,” blame it on your built-in wiring, push through it, hold your nose and demand better. When we engage in dialogue and ask each other tough, honest questions it gives our tiny, undernourished capacity for reason a fighting chance against our paranoid, protective, unconscious mind.

And strategists: if you want to win really badly, by all means push that panic button. But if you want to build a society based in mutual respect and dialogue and actually get something of substance done that will make your grand kids proud, drop the consumer marketing tactics and back away slowly from my unconscious mind. If you fool me, or harm me, or threaten me, I won’t like you very much any more. It’s only human, after all.

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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