A briefing note for progressive thinkers on the celebrity bombast of the political right

I’m often tempted to weigh in on the popular appeal of bombastic, right-wing celebrity politicians, yet I hesitate when smart commentators say exactly what I was thinking – people like the brilliant Rick Salutin of the Toronto Star, Marcus Gee in the Globe and Mail, or Charles Blow in the New York Times. They always nail it.

But recently, I started to have thoughts that may not have been covered in the relentless carpet-bombing of Donald Trump and before him, Toronto’s notorious mayor Rob Ford, not to mention Boris Johnston, the demagogue behind the ‘Brexit’ referendum. ROFO, BOJO, and Trump are the heralds of new kind of leadership in this millennium.

It’s become clear to progressive thinkers that we need to take the appeal of right wing buffoonery more seriously. To do that, we have to get inside the heads of people who respond to it and to that end, I would like to offer five diverse and idiosyncratic observations.

These five points are about markers in our daily life that illustrate how ordinary people come to see themselves as completely separate from politics and policy. I believe that it is only out of that void that people find themselves responding so passionately to a certain type of celebrity leading an aspirational charge toward solutions that go nowhere.

In this briefing note I will talk about:

  1. What I have learned from participating in opinion polls
  2. My take on a popular British soap opera and what it means to live a truly ‘personal’ life
  3. The narrative of ‘brokenness’ that pervades the media and political rhetoric
  4. The reaction against ‘political correctness’, or the weariness of carefulness
  5. The rebellion against facts and evidence in public discourse

 

  1. What polling taught me

For 32 years, I could not participate in a telephone poll. The telephone conversation would always start in a promising manner. “Yes, I am over 18, I live at the address you noted, I own my home, I don’t belong to a political party, and I am undecided in the next election.”

Then they asked whether anyone in the household worked in a job that had anything to do with the media. My answer was “yes” followed by a click.

When my spouse changed her job in 2009, I was suddenly free. I awaited the next call from a pollster in an ecstasy of anticipation. I finally qualified.

The first question the pollster asked was whether I favoured shorter wait times in hospital. The only possible answers were ‘yes’ or ‘no’ so I answered yes.

The second question asked whether I thought government solutions to gridlock were important. Again I answered yes.

The third question asked if governments should do more to address climate change. Once again, I said yes.

The fourth question asked if governments should do more to combat poverty and homelessness. “Yes,” I said emphatically.

Then the pollster asked a question that floored me: “Would I like my taxes to go down – yes or no?”

I started a brief argument with the interviewer, noting the absurdity of the question given my answers to the previous ones. I was informed that it was a standalone question unrelated to the other questions. I thought for a moment. “Well of course – in total isolation from anything – sure I would like to pay lower taxes.”

So this is how it happens that pollsters come to conclusions such as that in a recent Angus Reid poll on a guaranteed minimum income in Canada:

“Most Canadians want government to expand the services it provides, but they don’t want to pay for it.”[1]

After my first polling interview, I reflected on the sequence and the logic of the poll questions, the answers they elicit, and what they taught me. What polling teaches is that that government somehow represents a smorgasbord of goodies that you can choose not to pay for.

After 32 years in the polling wilderness, I was being welcomed into a frame of reference for public policy that is intensely personal: I should be able to get everything I want and the role of government is to provide it to me personally. We talk personally, one on one, with the pollster. The pollster frames the questions so that I agree my taxes should go towards the things I want. And I should be paying less for all of it.

Polling entices us to be part of a world that is aspirational. But polling results are preposterous in the extreme when they welcome us to an easy smorgasbord of free solutions.

Progressive thinkers operate in a frame of reference that is more like a focus group than a polling interview. There, a facilitator notes conflicting answers and gets people to think about and debate intended and unintended consequences. But focus groups don’t get reported in the papers. Polls do.

The world of the progressive thinker is characterized by the cut and thrust of debate, the marshalling of verifiable evidence, the discipline of relevance, and an abiding interest and belief in the importance of public policy.

The frame of the poll is the frame of unimpeded desire where there is no debate, where evidence has no role, relevance is unimportant, and public policy is a canard.

I watched a woman being interviewed in a small town in England that voted heavily in favour of Brexit. She warned the interviewer that she had no interest or understanding of government policy. When asked why she voted for Brexit, she simply said (and I paraphrase) “Well there are people here that shouldn’t be here, aren’t there?”

This is a woman who lives in an intensely personal world. The celebrity bombast of the right has unimpeded entry to her world, because it understands her frame of reference very well.

 

Coronation Street and the truly personal life

For years, I watched the CBC television news from 6:00 to 6:30 p.m. and then made the quick switch to Power and Politics, or turned off the TV to listen to CBC’s As it Happens. What else would a self-respecting policy wonk do over the dinner hour?

But every so often, I got distracted by other things and forgot to make the channel switch. That’s when a program that I would never consider watching called Coronation Street from Britain came on the television.

I began ever so slowly to get pulled into the lives on ‘Corrie Street’.

One night when there was a lot of political news from Britain on CBC, the switch to the intensity of personal emotion on Coronation Street suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks.

None of the characters on the show ever discuss policy or politics. They do not weigh in on climate change, gridlock, taxes, hospital wait times, or anything at all in the public sphere.

I said to myself: “This can’t be.” So I watched Corrie Street for months on end, ditching Power and Politics and its endless brokering of spin and sophistry.

I was fascinated with my voyage into the lives of fictional people who relentlessly lived completely personal lives. Not once was a topic of public concern raised. The curtain was completely opaque, a perfect firewall.

It occurred to me, that if you never discuss public policy, never weigh evidence, never debate your peers, never think about public policy, never raise an issue and never disagree or agree on a public matter, then you lead a completely personal life.

But leading a completely personal life has a curious default. Politics are therefore also personal.

Bingo! I want a mayor who returns my phone calls.

The narrative of public policy and public life is one of tradeoffs, of struggle, of bargaining, of debate, of discussion, of complexity and of compromise. The narrative of the exclusively personal life contains none of this. It receives its oxygen from a doctrine of liberty – not the liberty of nations or social groups – but our own personal liberty.

So, when Boris Johnson talked about “Independence Day,” progressives heard it as a lie. But on Corrie Street, Independence Day means personal independence. I can go on living my own life in my own way and government will give me everything I asked for in the polls.

 

The narrative of societal ‘brokenness’

“Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t win anymore. We can’t do anything right.”[2]

–Donald Trump

 

I have spent part of the last few years on a personal journey to understand political conservatives. Whenever I chance upon a Ford voter or a Trump supporter, I try to engage them. They are admittedly straw polls with no evidentiary rigour.

That said, to me it is interesting that most of their lives tend to be absorbed with personal things and events: family gatherings, children, in-laws, vacations, hobbies, and so on. Most do not debate politics or public policy. They debate the futures of their parents or children. They tend to view those involved in politics and government as unrepentant fraudsters.

They favour media programming that dishes a diet of crisis: fires, high gas prices, scandals, shootings, knifings, explosions, and accidents. They seldom if ever listen to programming that delves deeper into social issues. They feel helpless in shaping public discourse and are much attracted to press reports on ‘brokenness’.

The media often defaults to the ‘brokenness’ card: our ‘broken’ health care system, our ‘broken’ child welfare system, our ‘broken’ social assistance programs, our ‘broken’ transit and road systems.

This is too bad. The brokenness card has no shades of grey. There is no complexity. There is no redemption. Whatever we build again will be broken at birth.

The brokenness sets the bar low for celebrity bombast on the right. The argument goes like this:

  • Nothing gets done anyways.
  • All they do is waste our money.
  • It’s all broken.
  • They line their own pockets.

Bingo! I want a President who says everything is broken and our personal lives have been invaded. I want a President who will make things right and promises me a protected personal life replete with the walls and the isolation I crave. And by the way, others have to pay for it.

It does not matter that the celebrity blowhard of the right is not competent to do the job of a public servant. At least if you vote for celebrity blowhards, you are ‘shaking things up’. And no damage can be done to anything that is already irretrievably smashed so there is no prospect of things possibly getting worse.

And if you are lucky, the celebrity blowhard will call you personally – the only thing in political life that makes any difference.

 

The weariness of carefulness

Most of us are vigilantly careful of what we say. We strive not to be hurtful. We practise the golden rule in our public and private spheres. It comes almost as second nature to be careful and kind.

When we inhabit the world that is close to us – our personal world – we know how to be careful and it is not wearying. But for those who live personal lives most of the time, the public world is harder to navigate. They don’t know the right phrases, the bits and pieces of code, or the right thing to say: persons with disabilities as opposed to ‘the disabled’, for instance. Those who live mostly personal lives get caught more than those of us who frequent public spaces and gravitate toward public discourse.

What are we to make of the woman in Britain who said there are people here who were not supposed to be here? She was trying to be politically correct. She did not name names, nor races or nationalities. Yet to the progressive mind, she got it terribly wrong. She actually made it worse by not naming those who “should not be here.”

‘Political correctness’ can be extremely subtle and contextual. During the Olympics, we celebrate gender difference (separate events), nationalities (shirt colour), and skin colour (first black woman to win gold in the pool). But in slightly different contexts, pointing to gender, colour, and national differences is just dead wrong.

For a person who lives primarily a ‘personal’ life, this subtlety of context is difficult and frustrating. How am I supposed to get it right if I don’t know when I can make distinctions and when I can’t? There is no rulebook.

That’s why it is so liberating when a Donald Trump or a Rob Ford uses the forbidden phrases and thinks the forbidden thoughts. All of a sudden, all the proscribed ways of collecting people by race, gender, colour, nationality, religion, sexual preference, disability, and biography become fair game and a matter for celebration.

Celebrity bombast in the form of ROFO, BOJO, and Trump exploit this weariness of carefulness. They completely ignore the subtlety of context and thus become heroes to people who live intensely personal lives.

 

Away with the ‘tyranny of evidence’

The progressive thinker wants to live in a policy-led world, where decision making is based on evidence. Let’s think about this for a bit.

Progressives like to think in terms of policy-relevant evidence framed in value-free terms supported by scientific rigour. The problem, as behavioural economists have discovered, is that values frame evidence and not the other way around.[3] The data that we cite can be used for opposing purposes.

For example, a shooting incident with an assault weapon can be used by the progressive as evidence for the need for gun control, just as a libertarian can see the same incident as evidence for the need for more citizens to take up arms.

Donald Trump does not accept the tyranny of evidence. He welcomes you to a world where bad people are kept away, where everyone personally defends themselves and where everyone pays their own way.

There is no evidence that a wall between Mexico and the US will keep out rapists and drugs. There is no evidence that the vote for Brexit will lead to people leaving who “shouldn’t be here.” There was never any evidence that Rob Ford could raise the money for a subway. There definitely is evidence that more guns don’t lead to fewer shootings.

But all that evidence is completely neutralized if you live in an opinion poll world where aspirations are far more important than facts.

This befuddles progressives. Their evidentiary standards relate to something they call the real world, which they assume is inhabited by all of us. But celebrity bombast does not live in that world.

Celebrity bombast invites us to live in a world where welfare recipients will get jobs when they are cut off assistance. It is the world where people would stop committing crimes when punishments became harsher. It’s not the facts that matter – it is the appeal of being invited to an aspirational world where bad policies would actually work.

A world where easy choices prevail and contradiction and consequences don’t matter. A world where everyone lives a completely personal life, isolated from the vagaries of the public square. A world where you don’t have to watch what you say and the only people you meet are people who “should be here.”

A world where you get everything you told the pollster you wanted.

[1] http://angusreid.org/canadians-want-government-expand-services-provides-dont-want-to-pay/

[2] Donald Trump in a television debate reported in The New Yorker, August 31, 2015

[3] http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/mday/files/day_fiske_downing_trail_inpress_shifting_attitudes_using_moral_foundations_0.pdf

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