Friday, April 1, 2011

DAY SEVEN: Tea Leaves, Mass Psychosis and Narratives

For those who drop in and check out the election related news links I've been posting and my comments you've probably noticed I have some talent for being able to read tea leaves, but for all I know perhaps it's just a talent for the bleeding obvious. There's little need to be cocksure about this. After all, most in the progressive Canadian blogosphere had also noted that the Liberals started this election season off smartly and that their campaign had quickly gathered momentum. This sentiment was backed up by yesterday's early poll numbers. But there's five more weeks to go and so while it's a good sign for those of us who wish to see someone other than Stephen Harper as Prime Minister there's a lot of drama to play out yet and it has little to do with tea leaves and fond wishes for change. For those running to win and earn the privilege of governing, it's more about narratives than anything else. People like a good story... and will vote for it!

 Narratives in fact are far more important than good policy ideas and facts. Studies have shown that facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. They are not as compelling as a narrative that appeals directly to gut emotions. One study conducted at the University of Michigan found that some when exposed to the facts actually became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were no antidote to misinformation.
Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
This is not good for democracy or for progressive causes. Wrong-headed policy based on false assumptions and beliefs has the potential to cripple whole swaths of the working classes as it is doing as I write.

This means that it's not enough for the opposition parties in this election to be in the right about the issues or to be able to demonstrate the undemocratic nature of the Harper Tories. They have to find themselves a narrative that stirs Canadians if they expect to oust the Conservatives from power. Michael Ignatieff has found the story he wants to tell the Canadian people and it's in his description of his family, who he is and has been as he asks to be Canada's Prime Minister. He keeps his story simple and straightforward but it's a pretty good story: He's the son of Russian immigrants, he was a student, a thinker and author of seventeen books, a professor at some pretty great institutions, and now he's not just a politician but a public servant. To help tell his story he has even latched onto a Bob Dylan tune, "You're Gonna' Have to Serve Someone," as an anthem emblematic of how he feels about the job he's applying for. As for the story behind the policies that he's fighting for, they are aimed at and framed as fighting for Canadian families which is a good story in of itself.

Of course this is what the Tories will now set their sights on tearing apart as they are sure to continue their rank imitation of their American right-wing cousins. Looking at their agenda and platform it's hard not to notice a dearth of policy ideas that sound like reasonable strategies for dealing with the problems of the 21st century. All that's visible is a politer version of the Republican tea party types that march across the TV screens whenever the channel is tuned to the news -- the attacks even sound the same, "tax and spend liberals..." etc.. And in fact there have already been attacks from the right on Iggy's dad. The tactic is exactly like those the Republicans use and their excuses are the same too: they blame the victim saying you brought him (Iggy's Father) into the conversation so we have the right to attack and smear him.

Well, the thing is, they don't! But if they have no shame in the lies the disseminate and there is no act that stretches the boundaries of partisanship for its' own sake too far then it has to be confronted by the opposition with more than just the bare facts... they have to meet it head on with a better story.

Now these are swift-boating tactics I'm alluding to and I fully expect to see more of them in the coming weeks. Attacking Iggy's dad is a precursor to the stream of attacks that are no doubt on the way. It sure would be great if Canadians found it all too cynical to support in any fashion but it'd be crazy to rely on that because the one thing we have learned in this era is that attacks work, and in fact one of the reasons Ignatieff has had such a hard time garnering any momentum these past couple of years is that his character has been under unceasing assault from the right and it has had the desired effect... up until now.

Over at Alternet.org Ian Mitroff writes about this lack of reliance on the truth as a kind of mass psychosis and argues compellingly:
Until progressives not only have a better understanding of how emotions fundamentally shape political issues, but also incorporate them into their appeals, they will continue to lose the hearts and minds of the wider populace.
He concludes that this doesn’t mean that politicians should give up trying to reason with those who disagree with them. It's just that that reason devoid of emotion won’t persuade anyone so go tell that story. Don't let anyone undermine it. Defend that story as if your political career depends on it, because it does.

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