Why parties are campaigning on aspirations, and how that can make for shoddy politics.
In the current Ontario election campaign, the province’s three major political parties are not dealing in policies so much as they are advertising their aspirations. Nowhere is this more evident than in Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak’s cavalier response to the finding, by prominent economists, that the math behind the PC’s “Million Jobs Plan” adds up to a whole lot fewer than a million jobs. Tim Hudak’s reaction, as reported by the Toronto Star, is effectively a shrug. “You can have a debate between economists all day long … They might argue is it 100,000 jobs or 150,000 jobs created by lower taxes on job creators,” he said. “It’s a fine argument, but we’re all agreeing it’s going to create jobs. My point of view is that if you have the lowest tax on job creation of any state or province, that’s going to put a lot of jobs here.”
So apparently they just settled on a million because it sounded good. Chances are, though, the Conservatives never really expected the public to believe that they would create a million jobs. The point to be sold is that the Conservatives are in the business of creating jobs, and, hey, they aspire to create a million of ‘em. So voters who are sympathetic to that aspiration—with its finer-grained messaging about lower taxes—probably won’t care about the details. It’s great branding, but it’s shoddy politics, and it plays right into the cynicism of voters today.
Of course, the Conservatives are not alone in this game. Selling aspirations is part and parcel of politics—but it’s the degree to which those aspirations are genuinely achievable that makes the difference. The flagship Liberal promise in this election is an Ontario Pension Plan, which is enormously aspirational, hugely complex, and plays straight to the aging demographic. Yet, while the proposal has attracted its share of criticism—related to, for example, labour mobility implications, the income floor at which it kicks in, the independence of the administration, and whether it is needed at all given the CPP—nobody has said it can’t be achieved.
The NDP is interesting in this respect because this time around (and unusually for the NDP, the party of big, ambitious social policies), they are betting that cynical voters will see right through the aspirational nature of the programs being sold by the Liberals and Conservatives, call them misleading, and say “A pox on both your houses.” And yet, voters aren’t flocking to the NDP in solidarity with that party’s official stance of disgruntlement. Why? Ah, there’s the rub—the NDP hasn’t offered anything aspirational! They have branded themselves as the party that “Makes Sense.” But sense and sensibility, out of the hands of Jane Austen, are thin gruel in an election campaign. NDP voters have traditionally been the most aspirational of all, and the most unabashed about their aspirations. They know that the goals of social justice and redistributive economics are unlikely to be met easily or quickly, but have always focused on the big, thorny issues, and often played the long game. That’s why for so many years in Canadian politics, the NDP was thought of as our social conscience—important to have, but a little too righteous actually to put in charge. In this campaign, however, their lack of aspiration has backfired, making them seem petty rather than pragmatic.
The great irony here is that even while citizens decry politicians for making promises that can’t be delivered, we all secretly want to be taken by the hand and shown the path to glory. In America, they call it “the vision thing.” But because we’re Canadian, it’s a little lower-key—a yearning for aspiration, an attraction to rosy promises and, perhaps, a touch of wilful collective blindness. Not for nothing do we have the term “courting the voter.” Because it is romance, really. Can you see the sunset? The dark lies just beyond—but never mind that. For now.
Dina Graser has been an arts producer, lawyer, and community planning activist; most recently she was the community and stakeholder relations director at Metrolinx. She was on the original steering committee of Active18, and co-founded People Plan Toronto.