The audacity of fear

TheStar.com – Opinion – From crime to refugees to foreign policy, Harper’s Conservatives play on Canadians’ fears
Published On Sun Aug 29 2010.  Eugene Lang

Progressive-minded Canadians are bewildered.

As the fall sitting of Parliament approaches, opinion surveys show the Harper Conservatives retain a comfortable lead over all parties and in most regions of the country, save Quebec. A Leger poll released last weekend gives the Conservative’s 37 per cent support, suggesting they are again edging close to majority government numbers.

Yet the summer — normally a quiet time politically — has been noteworthy for a litany of seemingly serious government blunders. It began inauspiciously with the government’s billion-dollar weekend on Lake Fake, defining Canada’s hosting of the G20 meetings. This was followed by meltdowns in the leadership of the RCMP and CSIS.

Then we had the long form census controversy, where the Conservatives sparked a firestorm, creating an elite consensus against the government and resulting in the resignation of the head of Statistics Canada. And this month we had the veterans ombudsman excoriating the government for its alleged neglect of vets. It hasn’t been a quiet summer in Harper-land.

And yet despite these self-inflicted wounds, the Conservatives remain comfortably on top of all their political rivals. Why is this the case?

Political narratives play a big role in defining parties and leaders and in motivating electorates. And there are two tried and true narratives that tend to work: the narrative of fear and the narrative of hope. Both are particularly effective in times of distress, uncertainty and crisis — times like today.

Barack Obama figured out the narrative rule of politics in his successful run for the presidency in 2008, when the U.S. was mired in recession and war. His campaign was based on a clear, resonant narrative of hope for a better future, via a more activist state, in pursuit of a progressive agenda — in job creation, health care and environmental protection. Obama’s political manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, released two years prior to his presidential run, defined his winning election narrative.

The Harper Conservatives have also figured out the narrative rule of politics, only they have chosen to define theirs around fear. And it is working, largely because none of their political rivals seems to understand the narrative rule; none has been able to articulate anything even remotely resembling a hope narrative to counter the fear narrative.

Over the past year a clear, fairly bold Conservative storyline has emerged.

It goes something like this: The Harper government will allay the fears and insecurities of Canadians. It will protect us from the threats we see and perceive around us. It will make us safer. And there is real policy action giving substance to the rhetoric.

The government has brought in tough criminal justice legislation and has committed to building more prisons, even as crime rates are low and falling. The Conservatives have made clear their intention to acquire state-of-the-art military equipment, notably multi-billion dollar stealth-fighter aircraft, to protect Canadian sovereignty from foreign incursions. The deficit will be tackled aggressively — even in the face of a feeble economy — because it allegedly threatens our financial sovereignty. And the government will get tough with refugees who might bring terrorism to our shores.

A narrative thus emerges and takes shape, designed to tap into people’s fears and insecurities. Polls show it is working with a good third of the electorate.

The blunders, overreaches and angry partisanship that characterize the Harper government in the minds of progressives, certainly limit their electoral growth potential, but seem to have no effect in eroding that solid third of Canadians who are motivated by the fear narrative.

The antidote — the only way to undercut the fear narrative and erode its appeal — is through the politics of hope. In contrast to the fear narrative — which is about securing and protecting what we already have today — the hope narrative is about making us better than we are today.

It inevitably involves making a case for government as a force for good, as an instrument that can improve our quality of life, and as the entity that can build certain things that will make Canada a better a country and that won’t get built otherwise.

But no political party — left, right, centrist or green — is articulating the hope narrative and fleshing out the corresponding agenda to support it.

Perhaps this is because all parties are caught in the vice grip of conventional wisdom, which says Canadians no longer trust government and don’t think the state is competent anymore to build the things that can make Canada better. We live in an anti-government age that all political parties explicitly or implicitly endorse.

Nevertheless, until self-described progressive parties break free of the shackles of the anti-government mindset and articulate the hope narrative, the politics of fear will prevail.

Eugene Lang, co-author of The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar and a former adviser to Liberal governments, is co-founder of Canada 2020: Canada’s Progressive Centre, and vice-president of Bluesky Strategy Group.

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