The Narratives that Prevailed (and those that didn’t)

With the dust now settling, I’ll interpret the campaign from a narratological perspective. This is substantially different from the traditional electoral politics approach. In the latter, political parties are seen as dividing the electorate up into segments (“slicing and dicing”) and in their platforms proposing sets of policies to appeal to these segments. If a party wins the support of enough voters in enough segments, it will win the election. One challenge in this approach is classification – how to reduce people’s multi-dimensional lives to homogeneous population segments – and a second is coherence – how to write a platform that is more than a shopping list of (possibly conflicting) policies.

The narrative approach to campaigning focuses on leadership, historical continuity, and coherence. It postulates that people are voting as much to choose a leader as to choose a set of policies. In choosing a leader, they are evaluating a candidate’s (that is, a party leader’s) life experience and inferring from it about how he or she would perform in office. Candidates present essentially the same set of experiences – the same story – to the entire electorate. When a leader presents a platform, he or she is telling a comprehensive story relevant to the entire electorate. In this approach, candidates are talking about where the country has been and where they have been, and, if elected, where they would take the country and how they would lead it.

In the electoral politics approach, competition involves either parties bidding against each other by offering more to particular groups of voters, or going negative by attacking policy proposals that they claim will hurt the interests of segments other than the one at which it was directed.

In the narrative approach, campaigning involves a struggle of competing narratives. Each party and its candidate is trying to frame an attractive and compelling story for itself and a repellent story for its opponents. The goal is to make both stories stick.

As in previous posts, I’m using my four quadrant narrative model to categorize these stories. The vertical axis refers to the country and whether it advances or declines. The horizontal axis refers to the candidate and whether he or she achieves or fails to achieve a personal ambition. An incumbent party wants to tell a story that under its stewardship the nation has advanced, and that that its leader has in some way grown in office. If that party is elected, the nation will continue to advance, which justifies the fulfillment of the prime minister’s personal ambition. This is the upper-left quadrant of the four quadrant model. An opposition party wants to take issue with the incumbent party’s interpretation of recent history, and argue that its policies promise the best hope of national advancement, and that its leader is therefore worthy of personal advancement to prime minister. The upper left quadrant is the high ground, and incumbents and opposition struggle to seize it.

In contrast, the lower-left quadrant represents the low ground, and each party is trying to force its opponents onto it. It associates decline for the country – either in the past or projected into the future – with the realization of ambition on the part of a party leader. In effect, the country will suffer if the leader achieves his personal ambitions.

The results of the election can be interpreted as three leaders (Elizabeth May, Jack Layton, Steven Harper) successfully claiming the high ground in the upper-left quadrant, with two, Michael Ignatieff and Gilles Duceppe, being forced to the low ground of the lower-left quadrant.

Elizabeth May’s policy goal is to preserve and enhance the Canadian environment. She wisely chose to run in a constituency that is among the physically most beautiful in the country. Her winning message, given force by her exclusion from the leaders’ debate, was that she would most effectively advance this goal from a seat in the House of Commons. This outcome represented a clear alignment between her vision of national renewal and the achievement of her ambition.

As I argued in my most recent post about Jack Layton, he combined an optimistic personal narrative of cheerfully overcoming illness with advancement for the voters through improving health care and more generous public pensions. He had the advantage that both the Conservatives and the Liberals ignored him until the last ten days of the campaign. Because of his personal circumstances, when the attacks did come, they focused on the cost of his promises, but did not attempt to disrupt his personal narrative.

Stephen Harper’s initial narrative, as I argued in my post of March 28 that analyzed his first television ad, focused on a story of successful economic recovery for the country combined with Harper becoming an internationally significant statesman. That message changed during the campaign, and Harper redefined personal advancement as becoming the leader of a majority government. By portraying himself as the facilitator of economic renewal, Harper argued that his personal ambition served the public interest: a win-win. His surrogates, for example, Preston Manning, emphasized that Harper is a “trained economist.” And, given the widespread perception of economists as people who don’t have the personality to become accountants, Harper’s low-key self-presentation was certainly in keeping with his message.

Michael Ignatieff made the fatal mistake of allowing the Conservatives to write his narrative through their attack ads that associated bad economic policy (from a conservative perspective, tax-and-spend) with the fulfillment of his personal ambition. That a market-oriented party succeeded at portraying a man who has spent his career thinking about the mutual obligations of state and citizens as acting solely out of personal ambition is deeply ironic. The fact that as thoughtful a group as the Globe and Mail editorial board saw fit to ask him the question posed in the attack ads – why did you come back to Canada ? – meant that Ignatieff never developed a compelling personal narrative encompassing his pre-political career as scholar and public intellectual and his return to Canada as a political actor.

Not adequately responding to what he now calls a campaign of “personal vilification” had, I believe, another effect on Mr. Ignatieff. He carried a huge burden of pent-up anger against the Conservatives and Mr. Harper, in particular, for his role in authorizing the campaign. The anger was finally released in the debates and in his campaign. By and large, voters are more attracted to cheerful optimists than angry prophets. When Michael Ignatieff chose to play the latter role, it was easy for Jack Layton to assume the former.

With the clarity of perfect hindsight, Mr. Ignatieff should have responded to the attacks when they first came. But how? The Liberals didn’t have the money to buy negative advertising. What Mr. Ignatieff could have done, inexpensively, was to have spoken in depth and unapologetically about his career as writer and scholar. He could have associated himself with the internationalism of the careers of Mackenzie King, Mike Pearson, and Pierre Trudeau. He could have shrugged off addressing Americans in the first person plural as intended only to get their attention, hardly a renunciation of citizenship. He could have presented his returning to Canada not as an ego trip, but a decision to personally fight for Liberal values. Perhaps the Liberals could have introducing an amendment to the Elections Act to ban political advertising when there is no formal election campaign. Or perhaps Ignatieff could have sued the Conservative Party for defamation. The Liberal Party might have sponsored a competition to crowd-source the best anti-Harper attack ads and “not just visiting” responses to the Conservative attack ads, and posted the winners on its website.

Finally, Mr. Duceppe and the Bloc Quebecois. They were seen by the Quebec electorate, particularly nationalists, as having done little to advance Quebec’s interests, while having enjoyed the salaries and perks of federal MPs. They were ripe for the picking when the NDP came up with a better story.

If there are lessons to be learned from this election, and I think there are, the most compelling is Mr. Ignatieff’s on the necessity of preventing your opponents from writing a story you cannot revise or replace.

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