The Politics Of Important Irrelevances
On Separating Importance And Electoral Relevance
I mostly don’t do political commentary.
I obviously commentate on politics, and sometimes my rantings are just complaints about things that piss me off at any given times, but mostly what I do is electoral commentary. It’s not to say that one of those is better than the other, but they’re very different things. To cover politics for the electoral consequences is different than to cover it for the policy ones, even if a lot of the time they’re interchangeably covered.
Take, for instance, Friday’s revelation that the Liberals are amending their gun bill by removing the most controversial provisions of it. How to cover that choice is very different depending on what lens you want to refract it through – it’s a huge policy change that will change a ton for the actual owners of these guns. Electorally, it’s a nothing burger – the number of 2021 Liberal voters affected by these changes will be minimal, and to the extent they exist (mostly Indigenous Liberals in the north), the Liberals listening should solve the problem.
The fact it’s an electoral nothing burger isn’t an argument for not covering it, or for not caring about it – actually, much the opposite. I think we need substantially more political coverage, and much less electoral coverage. Chantal Hebert’s Star column yesterday is the best example – Chantal used the fight about the Islamophobia advisor to paint Trudeau as out of touch with voters. I’m sorry, but it’s a crock of shit – you want to defend the position that the Quebec elite are putting out there, that Quebec and Quebecers aren’t racist, then say so. But this idea that this will be electorally salient is a sock of shit.
The problem is, we have too many people who aren’t working at any form of singular purpose – we have too many reporters working as pundits, too many pundits pretending to be forecasters, and too many people who end up not being particularly good at either. What we need is a media that covers electoral impacts and policy impacts separately, and doesn’t treat “this is bad but voters don’t care” as salient analysis. Those are two separate and distinct thoughts that deserve to be treated separately, but too much of our media doesn’t.
And it’s making us all stupider.
One of the things that we’ve learned in recent years, both in Canada and globally, is that how Governments are seen comes down fundamentally to whether or not they get the big things right. It’s not really about the record in totality – for good or for ill – but about whether or not the Government was deemed to get the big thing right. Why did Doug Ford win again in Ontario? Because he was judged, on the whole, to have handled COVID well, or at least well enough. Why did Boris win a stonking majority in 2019 despite the Tories having been a disaster for the two years prior? Because he was in the right place on the only issue people actually gave a shit about, Brexit.
Look at Trudeau winning in 2019 despite SNC and Blackface, or Trump coming really not particularly far from winning the electoral college again in 2020 – Trudeau was deemed to have done a decent job despite the scandals, and Trump didn’t get the thrashing many expected because despite the scandals, the economy pre-COVID was good and the COVID relief they did helped a lot of people. Think about all of the various things that were going to be the “end” of Trump – health care, child separation, Grab Em By The Female Anatomy, She’s Not Hot Enough To Rape, the first impeachment, and 4000 examples I’d rather gauge my eyeballs out than relive. None of them were it.
What ended up beating Trump was a combination of Joe Biden being a bit less repulsive to white working class voters than Hillary and there being more socially liberal whites willing to move Trump to Biden than there were socially conservative whites willing to move the other way, in large part because Trump got more of those voters in 2016. If you want to say that some of that revulsion that existed in 2016 and didn’t in 2020 was sexist, you can make the argument, but fundamentally, little of what animated discussion of why Trump would lose ended up mattering in any way, shape, or form.
What we always end up getting confused is that there are x number of column inches that have to be filled in a day, and y hours of cable news coverage to fill, and so it’s easier to fill those hours with panels of pundits and thinkers than it is to fill them with new reporting. It’s harder to cover a new, bespoke issue every day or every week, and easier to just have a rotating cast of pundits who will fill those two segment blocks. The problem is, sometimes you have political scandal to talk about when the panel comes on, and sometimes you have a European war, and yet, same panel, every week at the same time.
It's why we get newspaper columns on the legality of the Emergencies Act from the same guy who two months later would say that the CBC should give Jordan Peterson a platform for a climate talk for the sake of balance. It’s why we used to have to suffer through Stockwell Day’s mostly incoherent ramblings all the time on CBC, because it’s easier to block out 12 minutes for “Stockwell Day and [insert Liberal & NDPer here] Yell At Each Other” than to have to fill that time with actual reporting.
And so, what’s the result of all of it? A political press that incentivizes the worst of politicians, that incentivizes the kind of vapid sloganeering from the opposition and the kind of non-answers that Trudeau is so fond of. The lack of hard reporting means that everyone is doing a bad imitation of a freshman psych undergrad, guessing what the electorate will care about through the looking glass.
What we need is a political press that actually divides the two very different jobs – of discerning what does matter and reporting that to the public, and then the election analysts, who know how to look at the data as to what matters or not. This isn’t about me, fundamentally, it’s not – it’s about things like Brad Wall claiming the Mainstreet poll from this week, which had the Conservatives up 4 nationally but down 1 in Ontario, was near majority territory for the Tories. It’s, of course, not, and his blithe use of “well Harper got a majority with just under 40%” is the exact kind of thing that literally anyone who has looked at the electoral map and the polls could tell you is dogshit. (Also, given what we know about polls at midterm – remember when O’Toole’s CPC was in the mid 20s in vote share and on track for 80 seats? Yeah, exactly. Shut the fuck about the polls.)
This is about using the resources of journalism in this country better, to actually better inform our population. What we have is rent a quotes, too often – people expected to have opinions on literally everything. It makes us worse off at every stage of the game, because instead of people with actual expertise in either policy or politics, we have people having to cover both of them. Jack of all trades, master of none, etc etc.
If the Government loses, it will not be because of all the reasons that a lot of the pundits are talking about. It will not be because of overzealous attempts to ban firearms on how CanCon regs are interpreted as regards to online creators and platforms. It’s not. It’ll be because either the upper suburban middle class is getting fucked economically and vote Conservative even though they don’t like Poilievre, or because the angry young are pissed about the fact that they’re stuck living in the burbs and not where they actually want to because of housing issues, and either don’t vote or split the vote with the NDP.
Getting the big things right is what sinks or swims incumbent governments, but there’s a lot of other things that happen that get coverage, and so we get the conflation of “bad policy and the government shouldn’t do it” with “bad policy and therefore the government will suffer for it,” which are not the same thing.
If we want a better educated electorate, better separating electoral analysis and Hill coverage would make us all smarter, and stop everyone from ignoring issues just because they’re not electorally significant. And it would save us all a lot of bad takes about what voters care about in the process.
Right on! Evaluating the merits of policy is demanding, however, while speculating about the electoral consequences is easy - though effectively useless!
Great read! Thank you!