When Tom Flanagan writes a book, Canada’s political class pays attention. The Calgary political scientist isn’t the only person to wear the badge of “former adviser” to Prime Minister Stephen Harper — that legion of insiders turned outsiders seems to gain new members every month. But he’s the only one who keeps turning his inside glimpses of politics into highly interesting books.
Flanagan’s latest, Winning Power: Canadian Campaigning in the 21st Century, has landed with lucky timing. Though it was finished before the Conservatives unveiled their Fair Elections Act this past winter, the book is a thorough look into the nuts and bolts of campaign machinery, essential for anyone wanting to delve into the many measures of the Conservatives’ efforts at electoral reform.
More significantly, Winning Power explores aspects of modern Canadian campaigning not reined in by the Fair Elections Act or even mentioned in the 240-plus pages of the Bill. Flanagan has given us another book that tells the story behind the story of Harper government strategy. Why does the Fair Elections Act fail to curb the power of advertising, political databases or the nonstop, between-elections electioneering that has come to be known as the permanent campaign?
Because, as Flanagan explains, they are the most crucial aspects of modern campaigning in Canada and ones in which Harper’s Conservatives have an edge they are not about to surrender.
Flanagan may not have the same inside access to Harper’s strategic plans he once had. But he knows how the Prime Minister thinks, and that’s what makes his book so worthy. It’s not just a look at how we got to here politically, but a glimpse over the horizon to where we’re going.
Winning Power is in many ways a sequel to Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, the book that cost Flanagan his relationship with the politician he once taught in university and then served as chief of staff and campaign boss in the 1990s and early 2000s. Flanagan has joked that Harper’s Team turned him into the Leon Trotsky of the Conservative Party — minus the icepick-in-the-skull ending that awaited the exiled Russian revolutionary after his falling-out with Joseph Stalin. Flanagan has acknowledged that Harper was not pleased that the professor chose to write about the campaign strategy that led to the 2006 victory, and the two old friends have had no contact since Harper’s Team was published in 2007.
Because Flanagan no longer enjoys inside access to Harper’s ever–evolving- political manœuvres, Winning Power is written from an educated spectator’s perspective on federal politics. The insider’s intelligence in this book comes from Flanagan’s more recent experience running the ill-fated Wildrose campaign during the 2013 provincial election in Alberta.
Both perspectives, though, are valuable. As Flanagan himself notes, he is one of the few political scientists in Canada who know the business in theory and in practice.
“That unique combination is this book’s comparative advantage,” he writes in the introduction to Winning Power. “This book won’t make you a winning political campaigner — it takes years of experience (and good luck) to do that. But it will make you a more informed observer of Canadian elections and campaigns.” Indeed it does.
For Shopping for Votes, my recent book on how political marketing works in Canada, I had to reach back to the mid-20th century and postwar Canada to explain how much of our political culture had been transformed to a transaction between marketers and consumer-citizens. Flanagan steps considerably farther back in human history and evolution to frame the nature of modern campaigning, beginning his book with some musings on chimpanzee culture, as well as the ancient Latin and Greek foundations of political science.
In so doing, he grounds his exploration of campaigning deep in the roots of anthropology and military strategy. If you’ve been wondering why politicians sometimes behave like animals or warriors, the opening chapter of Flanagan’s book contains some entertaining — and enlightening — answers. “Campaigning speaks to the very depth of our primate being, because it involves following a leader, picking sides and fighting against enemies,” he writes. “Governance — statecraft — is difficult, technical and often obscure. Campaigning — stagecraft — is hard to produce but, when done well, seems easy to appreciate. Governance is dull; campaigning is fun (for primates like us!).”
From there, the book dives deep into the theories that underlie campaign strategy: “positioning,” “triage and concentration,” “persuasion” and, of course, “money.” It’s when we get to the chapter on money and the permanent campaign, though, that Flanagan really starts to give us the combined benefit of his multifold experience as professor, pundit and practitioner.
As the man who helped invent the Conservatives’ colossus of a voter database, the Constituent Information Management System (CIMS), Flanagan lets us in on a secret: sure, the Conservatives are master fundraisers, but it costs a lot of money to raise a lot of money. “All that telephone contact and direct mail does not come cheap,” he writes. “In 2010, for example, the party spent $7.2 million to raise $17.4 million, so the net income from donations was only $10 million.”
What’s more, Flanagan reveals that the Conservatives’ state of financial dominance, far from rock-solid, is in fact fragile, even vulnerable to the whimsical fates of politics: “As Senator Irving Gerstein, chairman of the Conservative Fund, likes to say, ‘Message equals Momentum equals Money.’ But if the grassroots lose confidence, the money can dry up overnight.”
No wonder, then, that the Fair Elections Act seeks a Mack-Truck-sized loophole to keep much of the cost of fundraising out of parties’ campaign expense limits. As long as parties are communicating with previous donors, defined as anyone who contributed more than $20 in the past five years, the Fair Elections Act would allow those voter-contact expenses to stay off the official reporting accounts. Thanks to Flanagan’s book, we know why. Those costs are huge for the Conservatives, and the party won’t always be surfing on the financial waves of momentum that power provides.
Moreover, Flanagan suggests that the end of public subsidies for political parties — currently being phased out to zero by the 2015 election — is going to set off a wild scramble by all parties to find new sources of funds. He notably resurrects an old idea that the Conservatives once put forward as a fundraising source, but have since appeared to abandon: a scheme by which Canadians could check off a box on their tax returns to direct dollars to their chosen party.
“My personal opinion is that it would be worth trying because the costs would be low and the system has several features that might be widely attractive across the political spectrum,” Flanagan writes.
Might that be an idea we will see again from the Conservatives, if not in amendments to the Fair Elections Act, then in subsequent electoral reforms? It wouldn’t be the first time that Flanagan resurrected Conservative policies from the prepower days that were enacted once the party gained power. The “defunding” of equality-seeking interest groups, for example, was floated in Harper’s Team and became a reality not long after Harper became prime minister in 2006.
Flanagan has joked that Harper’s Team turned him into the Leon Trotsky of the Conservative party — minus the icepick-in-the-skull ending.
Flanagan suggests that the end of public subsidies for political parties may hasten a merger of the Liberals, the New Democrats and the Greens, though he says that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is the wild card in this equation. “Perhaps the safest way to talk about the future is this: unless Trudeau succeeds in resurrecting the Liberals, the three parties of the centre-left will face a joint financial shortage after 2015.”
As for Trudeau, Flanagan confirms the Conservatives’ worst-kept secret: that the Liberal leader is the one they’re watching closely in the run-up to 2015. The threat, Flanagan tells us, comes not from Trudeau’s policies but because the Liberal leader may be best positioned to take advantage of social media’s political potential.
“He is handsome and has a famous name, and there is something charismatic about his personality that tends to draw people, even though he doesn’t have much to say in conventional terms,” Flanagan says of Trudeau. “Now that he is Liberal leader, it will be interesting to see whether his team can make social media work as well for him as it did for [US President Barack] Obama. This could become that kind of game-changer that Dick Morris has written about, because no other current party leader has the right characteristics to take hold of social media.”
The political insider part of the book is a dissection of the 2012 Wild-rose campaign in Alberta, for which Flanagan served as campaign manager. This was the election that confounded the predictions of the Canadian commentariat, most of whom forecast a Wildrose win, only to see the provincial Conservatives snatch a late-in-the-game majority. Flanagan turns the campaign into a case study for the book’s broader insights, seeking to explain what went wrong for Wildrose and why the campaign he ran didn’t end with the victory that everyone expected.
As Flanagan notes, Wildrose tried to model itself on the winning 2006 federal Conservative campaign, complete with the patented list of five promises and “taxpayer-friendly” policies. But all campaigns are different, and what works at the federal level may not work at the provincial level, and vice versa.
But though Winning Power doesn’t fully unravel the gap between the expectations and the surprise result for Wildrose, Flanagan does dissect the defeat. He concedes the mistakes made — especially in the ways Wildrose failed to capture soft Progressive Conservatives in southern Alberta. He admits the party failed to do enough research on its own candidates or come up with better answers when asked about climate change. Ultimately, he says, the flurry of mistakes demonstrated to those crucial “soft PCs” that Wildrose wasn’t ready to govern. And, wearing his academic’s cap, he tends to agree.
“As a campaign manager, I was bitterly disappointed to lose, especially after thinking throughout the campaign that Wildrose was ahead,” he writes. “There is only one way to play politics, and that is to win. Losing sucks. But as a political scientist, I can’t criticize the outcome.”
Flanagan is one of the few political scientists in Canada who knows the business in theory and practice.
The permanent campaign is the main innovation in federal politics since Flanagan wrote Harper’s Team and, while we may not like the reality of 24-7 campaigning by our politicos, he says we’re stuck with it. The normal activities of campaigning — fundraising, voter identification and, significantly, advertising — were once occasional features on the political landscape that were put on hold between elections, so politicians could get on with governing and legislating. But as Flanagan chronicles, campaigning between elections is now common, indeed necessary.
“I suspect that the permanent campaign, including pre-writ advertising, is here to stay at some level, even though many observers profess not to like it. Regardless of likes and dislikes, legislative remedies seem politically difficult to enact and loaded with unintended consequences worse than the alleged evil they are supposed to ameliorate.”
I’m somewhat less resigned or pessimistic than Flanagan about our long-term acceptance of all aspects of the permanent campaign, especially when it comes to advertising. I’m not sure, for instance, that citizens are going to permanently tolerate their dollars, whether from taxes or donations, being spent on massive, politically self-serving ad campaigns. In Ontario, all government ads are vetted by the auditor general to ensure that they’re performing their role as public information, not political propaganda. The same enforcement mechanism could easily be translated to the federal level.
The public may also be ready for a code for politics like that of Advertising Standards Canada, and for regulations that would level the financial playing field on political ads between elections as they do during them. Why should political parties need to play fair on the advertising front only during the writ period? Suffice to say, the Fair Elections Act is virtually mute on the subject of advertising, despite its importance to modern campaigning. Ditto for databases, which remain unregulated privacy domains in the Fair Elections Act.
If Flanagan holds a darker view (a hard realism, he’d probably say), it does not diminish his books’ contribution to a deeper understanding of where Canadian politics is heading. He is a sharp chronicler of how digital media and Big Data are reshaping the way politics is done and campaigns conducted. And it comes from the rare vantage of someone who understands not only the large theories that form politics, but the knife fights that define it on a day-to-day basis. Both have huge impacts on the health of our democracy.
Harper’s Team taught us much about how the Conservatives came to power. Winning Power has a lot to say about how they’ve tried to hold on to it and why the Fair Elections Act — what it does and does not try to fix — is an important part of that effort. It’s becoming clear we will need another Flanagan book, after 2015, to see how it all worked out for the Conservatives, or where it went wrong.
A review of Tom Flanagan. Winning Power: Canadian Campaigning in the 21st Century. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014.