Why the Tea Party Narrative Failed North of the Border

Judging by the results of the June 12 Ontario election, Senator Ted Cruz’s renunciation of his Canadian citizenship makes good sense. Ontario “Progressive” Conservative leader Tim Hudak went south to get the Tea Party narrative from Grover (“starve the beast”) Norquist and other Tea Party ideologues. When retold in Ontario, the result was a stunning failure to connect with Ontario voters. It contributed mightily to the surprising outcome of a Liberal majority.

This election has confirmed a number of propositions about the role of narrative in political campaigning. First, successful narratives cannot be only about the past, but must project into the future. The Conservatives’ (and NDP’s) narrative of Liberal corruption, based on the 2011 gas plant cancellation scandal, didn’t convince enough voters that the Liberals would continue to run a scandal-prone and wasteful government. While Premier Kathleen Wynne took responsibility for the scandal, she was also able to communicate that it happened on her predecessor Dalton McGuinty’s watch, not hers.

In contrast, the Liberals were able to show that the Conservative’s Tea Party agenda (fire 100,000 bureaucrats and cut business taxes) was a throwback to the days of Conservative premier Mike Harris. The Liberal ads morphing Conservative leader Tim Hudak’s face into Mike Harris’s created a strong visual narrative link between the Harris Government in the Nineties and a Hudak Government in this decade.

Second, language matters. In their ads, the Conservatives continually referred to the jobs that would be cut as those of bureaucrats – useless parasites, as the Tea Party would have it. The interest group opposition that arose to the Conservatives’ promise reframed parasitic bureaucrats as dedicated teachers, nurses, firefighters, and police officers.

Third, the Conservatives message suffered from insurmountable internal contradictions. Leader Tim Hudak took to telling his personal story of adversity in the debate and in his speeches. His own adversity could be contrasted with the misery that he was poised to inflict upon public sector workers. His promise of creating a million private sector jobs while destroying 100,000 public sector jobs raised the obvious question of why private sector jobs are more valuable to society than public sector jobs.

The million jobs promise was contradicted by an egregious mathematical mistake in his platform, namely that the million jobs were actually a million person-years of employment. This failure of economic literacy – again, the subject of Liberal attack ads – was brutally damaging to any attempt to portray Hudak as a competent manager.

Fourth, the choice of a narrator matters. The Liberals chose to have Kathleen Wynne narrate some of their attack ads and, even when a “voice of God” narrator was used, she provided the American style tag-line: “I’m Kathleen Wynne and I stand behind this message.” This narrative choice helped demonstrate a measure of toughness that previously had not been part of Wynne’s public persona, and that she hadn’t been able to display in the debate. For a female candidate with a background in the helping professions, some edge isn’t a bad thing.

As the election results were coming in last night, I noticed that Conservative party strategists were attempt to spin that Hudak ran a campaign of ideas while Wynne ran a campaign of ad hominem attacks. That’s pure spin and nothing more. Both candidates presented their ideas and attacked the ideas, record, and background of their adversary. The difference was that in this campaign Wynne was Teflon and Hudak Velcro.

With Hudak’s resignation as leader, the Conservatives should rethink their two-decade long embrace of American-style conservatism, most recently in its Tea Party manifestation. Premier Wynne faces the task of enacting an ambitious platform (for example a new pension plan and major initiatives in transportation and infrastructure), moving the provinces finances to a balanced budget, and ensuring honest and effective government by a party that enters its second decade in power. But the challenges of governing are always more stimulating than the challenges of trying to figure out how to win power.


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