25 September 2012

Tone, Standards and Political Suicide #nlpoli

The song from MASH was wrong.

Suicide is not painless.

And political suicide is more painful to watch than any other kind.

Paul Lane is a Conservative member of the provincial legislature.  He is especially active on Twitter and provincial talk radio.  When he isn’t tweeting about Muskrat Falls or re-tweeting government news releases, he is giving us updates about his latest trip to a local church tea.

Lane tossed out this observation on Twitter on Monday:

lane's latest

Your humble e-scribbler offered this comment to Lane who, after all, was dismissing an opinion based solely on who held it:

And @PaulLaneNL , your opinions can be - and usually are - dismissed even more easily than that. You set and maintain low standards.

Lane evidently didn’t get the point.  His response was – apparently – to “block” SRBP on Twitter.  It’s an entirely futile gesture, by the way, since his Tweets are public and therefore are still available to anyone who wants to read them.

Some people feel this sort of display means something.

Anyway…

For those who didn’t get the point, dismissing an opinion because you don’t like the person who holds it or because you want to stereotype them, is a way of shooting yourself in the foot with a double-barrelled shotgun.

Basically, a politician who takes that sort of view invites everyone else to apply the same standard to his or her own position.  On a controversial issue, Lane has already limited his chances of success at winning over new people to his side because his comments might be right.  He’s told them it is okay to dismiss him just because he is Paul Lane the Tory. 

Not exactly very sensible, eh? You’d think this would be obvious to a guy representing a party with 33% support in the recent polls.

Evidently not.

Look at it another way. Politics is about options and choices.  If you start dismissing ideas just because of where they came from, you never know when you could be looking at the magical solution to a knotty problem. And tossing it in the bin.

In this case, Lane decided to dismiss all reporters and editors and put them  - essentially - into the category of ”Political Enemy”.  That’s just worse by another order of magnitude.

Lane evidently doesn’t understand that reporters and editors are important for his political success now and in the future. They remain an important way for him to get information to his constituents.  Get it? They are a medium for Lane’s communications.

Medium.

Media.

You can be the King of Twitter.  You can be the God of Open Line.  But in this neck of the political woods, reporters and editors have a lot of clout with voters.  Pissing them off in public is not a good idea.  You can lose an important medium of communication in the process.

Some people put this sort of thing down to amateurism.  It’s basically in the same league as the attack on Tom Osborne.  In the political world Paul Lane operates in, there are only three types of people:  there’s “us”, there are “enemies” and then there are “potential enemies.”

“Us” is a very small group.  They get praised.

Everyone else is attacked.

All the time.

No exceptions.

The system is binary in that respect.  In any given situation,  people like Lane make one of two choices and more often than not the choice is “attack”.  Doesn’t matter if the person on the receiving end is a former Premier and leader of your party or a guy you never met but whose comment pissed you off.

The approach is purely American, imported by the Conservatives in 2001 when Danny Williams took over as party leader.  It’s another aspect of the permanent campaign that SRBP has been writing about since 2006. The Tories raised it to a fine art throughout Williams’ tenure and they continue to practice the art of the perpetual campaign. It’s pretty much all they know.

As political scientist Diane Heath noted in her 2004 book Polling to Govern, campaigning “requires the redefinition of opposing positions as adversaries.”  Give a listen to the local Tories or read their comments and you will recognise pretty quickly just exactly how faithfully they do that.  The local Tories have now refined it to the point where any position that isn’t their own is automatically labelled as an enemy position.

Lane isn’t alone in attacking the local media.  Danny used to pound away at them every fall at the annual Tory convention in Gander.  His crowd laced into the CBC routinely, especially when someone reported Danny was having heart surgery. The anti-media line is a Tory staple and like the permanent attack, Tories keep doing it over and over and over, no matter what.

Funny thing how Tories keep going back to the same routines all the time.  It’s just like the way they keep talking about the need to change the tone. Shawn Skinner used just that phrase recently when he discussed what the Tories were planning to do about Muskrat Falls now that their slide in the polls hasn’t stopped.

Change the tone, said Shawn.  Like they hadn’t tried that tone-changing thing before. Not surprisingly, it was as effective as Paul Lane’s Twitter block.

If the Tories don’t change the tone, if they keep the same low standards for politics that lane keeps displaying, then they can expect to keep suffering the death by a thousand and one self-inflicted cuts.

-srbp-

3 comments:

Jerry Bannister said...

Hi Ed,

You're right about the trend in NL politics, but I'm not sure that it's a recent import from the States.

The biggest difference I see between today and previous political eras in NL history is that the current climate has all of the nastiness (and then some) of earlier periods, but none of the eloquence or humour. Attacking the media is a time-honoured tradition in Newfoundland politics.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) the armies of communication experts and twit-twattering, the political rhetoric in NL is less sophisticated today than it was thirty years ago.

It's worth going back to Robert Paine's _Ayatollahs & Turkey Trots: Political Rhetoric in the New Newfoundland_ (Breakwater, 1981). No one today can match the quick wit, the range of emotion, or the populism of Crosbie, Peckford, or Jamieson, et al., in their prime. Even when they were being nasty, they were often funny and usually shrewd. Today, it's just nasty, period.

As for whether the emergence of us-versus-them rhetoric and zero-sum thinking is an American import, what's interesting is that commentators in the US see it as due to a *decline* in the traditional American system of separation of powers and negotiation, and a rise of Westminster-style politics in Washington.

Jim Cooper, a Democrat Rep, has explained, "We've effectively lost our Congress and gained a parliament....we have the extreme polarization of a parliament, with party-line voting, without the empowered Prime Minister." Ezra Klein offers a good summary of this problem in "The Unpersuaded: Who Listens to a Presdent?" _The New Yorker_ (19 March 2012), which is, I think, available online.

The bottom line is that there is a crucial difference between nastiness and pettiness, and between anger and shrillness.

Best,

Jerry

Tom Adams said...

Here is Mr. Lane twittering his analysis back on June 11: ‏@PaulLaneNL
@edhollett @SandyRCollins You have zero credibility and so I will not waste any more of my time on your nonsense. #Clydelied

Can one hope that at least one of his caucus colleagues would encourage him to be less careless?

Edward Hollett said...

Tom: That's a fairly typical Lane comment complete with the personal crap, the hashtag that is intended to be partisan and aggressive but that winds up being laughable.

What is so remarkable about Collins and Lane, as examples of the Permanent Campaign type, is that they don't do anything but spout this kind of superficial, hyper-partisan drivel.