Mitch Heimpel: Our politics have become a live wire for a reason
Political parties are deliberately feeding off one another's controversies.
By: Mitch Heimpel
When most people hear the term “stray voltage,” they think of hydro wires.
But if you want to understand what's happening in our highly polarized politics, you have to know the other meaning of the phrase. The term, in this context, was coined by former senior Obama advisor David Plouffe, and at its core, the theory is this: people pay attention to and engage with controversy. That engagement commits people to a side — an issue they’d never previously thought of becomes something they either support, or oppose, often strongly. Stray voltage, thus, becomes an effective way of getting ideas into the public sphere.
Does this sound familiar to anyone yet?
Intentional controversy isn't new as a marketing tactic. Being banned used to be a key way to sell everything from books to music to movies. The tag "banned in Boston" was so common that its reach covered many great 20th century literary works, and even rock artists like the Everly Brothers. Almost always, banning something has increased its popularity.
But, traditionally, this tactic has been confined to the realm of commercial marketing. Politicians — notoriously controversy averse creatures that they are — have understandably tried to avoid it. That's because they were talking to ordinary people who paid attention to current affairs only during elections. The rest of the time the electorate was able to live relatively comfortable existences and had other priorities — the great vast Canadian middle that populates suburbs and exurbs from Cole Harbour to Coquitlam. Needless controversy risked putting such people off a candidate.
What's important to understand about stray voltage is that, when used as a political tactic, it engages non-voters. Traditional political communications target the traditionally political people, and that still has a role. But stray voltage is how you go out and get the growing mass of people who are so politically disillusioned that they’ve effectively dropped out of the system and need to be reached another way.
It’s an entirely different strategy with an entirely different audience. What makes stray voltage “stray,” is that it can rouse support (or opposition) from unforeseen corners. The Obama team understood this implicitly, and often employed the tactic when they were on the defensive. That's important because, as we know, the connections the current Trudeau government has to the Obama team are deep and well documented. In fact, I would argue that if you understand the Trudeau government as an Obama cover band (the quality of which is entirely up to the reader), its governing philosophy makes a lot more sense.
Stray voltage is effective because it gets attention. First, in the news. Then in the “fact-checking” of the news. Then in the media coverage of both the coverage, and the fact-checking. It's immersive controversy.
Think back to President Obama's “you didn't build that” statement from the campaign trail in 2012 to get a taste of what I mean. Lightning rod. Bang. Conservatives immediately went on the offence to attack the president for being out of touch with small business owners. Progressives went to the barricades to defend the president and to attack "the rich.” It was covered endlessly. It’s still talked about in the conservative blogosphere.
Fast forward, and hop the 49th parallel. "The budget will balance itself," "phase out" the oil sands, "small fringe minority" … all of these are examples of the same stray voltage tactics. Even the people who oppose these comments are ultimately serving the speaker’s political interests by focusing on it.
Here's the thing about stray voltage. It works. But as any electrician will tell you, the second you put a charge into something, it becomes more dangerous.
So, one day, the stray voltage is "small fringe minority," the next day it's firing the Governor of the Bank of Canada. If you don't think those two things are the same thing, the same tactic, you are quite simply wrong. Stray voltage is too useful for parties to ignore. They’re all now pushing the same envelope.
Targeted controversy engages the previously unengaged voters. It also increases fundraising numbers. As we're seeing in the Conservative leadership race, it increases party membership sales. But it also catalyzes political polarization. It constantly ratchets up the temperature inside the reactor that is our political system. Because every time you compare something to the Holocaust, you are invariably calling someone somewhere a Nazi, whether you use the word or not.
It is so successful that political parties now have no incentive to ever stop doing it. If anything, they're incentivized to increase the dose. They're incentivized not to apologize when they offend, because offending was the point. Also, and this part is key, apologizing makes them sound like a politician. If you're using a tactic that is trying to mobilize traditional non-voters, the only thing you're not allowed to do is sound like a politician, even when engaging some of the most cynical tricks of politics.
This is a fundamental change to our politics, which for decades was about persuasion. Stray voltage prioritizes engagement, tribalization and motivation. It is, as a result, the perfect tactic for social media. It's not a coincidence that it became predominant in the Twitter age.
But it's also going to — as sure as we're all reading this — have some really nasty outcomes. In some places, it already has.
It's kind of precious, even to the point of being only slightly insulting, to watch the political class (of which I am a paid-up member) react now as if we didn't know this would result in someone accosting a politician in public, as a man did during Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s recent trip to Alberta. Of course it would. We all have the social media metrics that tell us, without equivocation, that our most controversial statements and policies drive the most engagement — and the most donations! We've even gotten to the point where we quote the other team's latest outrageous fundraising letter, in our own even more recent outrageous fundraising letter.
Every step our major political parties have taken in recent years has done this intentionally. No party is innocent. By the way, that includes the voters. Politicians are doing it because we are buying it. If we stopped, they'd stop ... eventually ... maybe.
We don't build houses directly under transmission corridors for a reason. Stray voltage.
Building a country under them is dangerous for exactly the same reason.
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This seems to be very much driven by social media. The controversy drives engagement, which tells the algorithm to serve the content up in more feeds, which drives the public discussion and fundraising.
I suspect, though, that this feedback loop will evolve. Remember when television advertising could drive huge behavioural change? We tend to get inoculated to stuff after a while. So time may soften the impact, but that doesn't help our current polarization.
We as citizens could start being more thoughtful in what we like and share on social media. Engagement drives views -- the content you engage with is more likely to gain a wider audience. Maybe we should all take that responsibility more seriously.
Moreover -- partisanship is a kind of tribalism that seems to measure success as getting all the policy goals *you* want done. That's not a great measure in a democracy where pursusion and compromise are built into the system. And where good ideas might come from anywhere. We're getting to a point where success is getting the policy goals YOU want enacted no matter what -- that 'your side' wins. That's not a reasonable goal ... Effective governance can't be about whether 'your' side wins.
As a close, I was just watching the latest Polievre video on the need for governments to use plain language. I am far from a PP fan, but it was a well-done, reasonable video that makes a pretty non-controversial point: that jargon makes it difficult for citizens to navigate government programs and hold governments accoutable. It was probably the most non-controversial thing I've seen him put out yet it's still getting negativity on Twitter. If we can't agree on things as basic as this, it's going to be hard to find constructive policy compromises on things that are legitimately challenging!
Good article - Trudeau has clearly inspired Pollievre to use the same tactics. I have Trudeau Derangement Syndrome - I admit it - just hearing his voice makes me physically cringe. However I think the 'small fringe minority' attack on the convoy protesters has backfired on him. I know many moderates who have commented on how offensive it was - particularly as more information about the vaccines comes out. His doubling down on vaccine mandates for travel is also turning off large segments of the otherwise politically indifferent class. Of course the two things are related as he clearly has a stubborn streak about never backing down on a bad decision.