War Rooms and Democracy

By Jared Wesley on Sep 13, 2008

If Kim Campbell is right, and election campaigns are hardly the place to talk policy, they’re certainly no venue for political philosophy.  So, please forgive me as I wax (not so) poetic about the impact of modern campaigning on the quality of democracy in Canada.


Anyone who has attended a lecture by Tom Flanagan or Warren Kinsella has to respect these men for their skills, their wisdom, and (above all) their candour when it comes to discussing political strategy.  As former war room generals for the Conservative and Liberal Parties, respectively, each will keep you captivated with stories of how they out-manoeuvered their opponents on this day, or on that issue. 

It was during one of Dr. Flanagan’s guest lectures in my Political Parties course last semester that I came to realize just how strategic Canadian campaigns have become.  Tom told my students precisely how the Tory campaign machine identifies and targets voters in swing ridings, labeling specific households as strong or weak supporters of various political parties.  Once the initial data had been collected (whether through face-to-face discussions with the resident, slammed doors, or through information gathered from friends and neighbours), the Tories will flag only a certain number of houses for further contact.  Specifically, they’ll only return to those houses with ‘committed’ or ‘leaning’ Conservative voters.  (The same approach applies to the party’s more extensive telephone and direct mail programs.)


The strategy seems straightforward and logical enough.  Based on similar party playbooks in the United States, the Conservatives don’t want to risk offending their opponents’ base by knocking on their doors; thus, they stay away from those houses entirely.  They focus on their own base, and some ‘wobblies’ on the centre-right.  The strategy proved extremely effective in the 2005/6 campaign, leading Flanagan, Kinsella and others to declare that the Tories’ direct-voter-contact (DVC) program was the number one factor in earning the party enough close seats to secure a minority government.  The program has been improved and expanded this time around, we are told.  (Early polls suggest they’re right.)


Beyond strategy, however, one has to wonder how this style of ‘psychographic’ ‘narrowcast’ campaigning affects the quality of debate during Canadian elections.  (I’ll leave aside the privacy concerns surrounding the party’s database, which deserve an extended discussion elsewhere.)  If all parties are following the Conservatives lead – which many are, or would if they had the resources – what does that say about the nature of campaign discourse?  That is, if all parties are talking largely (or only) to their bases, to the virtual exclusion of the opposition, how much public “debate” is actually taking place?  Moreover, if parties are continually slicing the electorate into small segments of voters – soccer moms, CASCAR dads, religious conservatives, and granola eaters – what does that say about how well they define issues of ‘national interest?’  How much of a community are we, as Canadians?


I don’t mean to harken back to some mythical golden age, during which campaigns were truly “Great Debates.”  I know this type of divisive campaigning has a long history in Canada.  But I do long for the days when elections were devoid of front-page reference to “war rooms,” “battlegrounds,” “trench warfare,” and the like.  This is particularly true given the fact that our troops are in active service overseas. 


Democracy emerged as a solution to open conflict.  As Darin Barney explains, “War, not to put too fine a point on it, is a symptom of democracy’s failure, not its defining event, as we generally assume elections to be.”  If their responses on their final exam were any indication, my students agreed.  I don’t think I’m alone in joining them.

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