There’s a great moment in the first season of Mad Men when the men of Sterling Cooper—who have effectively hitched themselves to Richard Nixon’s would-be presidential star—view a JFK television ad, and suddenly realize what they’re up against. The ad is peppy, happy, cartoonish—a montage of image’s of the handsome Kennedy and his wife alongside a series of random Americans of various ages and stations (though not races or ethnicities)—and is utterly substanceless. Don Draper and company are taken aback by the breathtaking shallowness of the ad, but as ad men recognize the ad’s persuasive power ... especially when compared to Nixon’s ponderous and stern catalogue of his qualifications for the presidency.
One of the things I love about Mad Men is the way in which it so frequently subverts our accustomed understanding of certain cultural and historical moments and artefacts. The mythos of John F. Kennedy for us today (the version other than the unremitting lothario) is the eloquent and earnest, brilliant and dedicated leader who surrounded himself with the greatest minds of his generation. Nixon resides in the imagination as the self-obsessed, pathologically dishonest Machiavelli willing to do anything to attain and consolidate power. The first we like to imagine would have been a force for good had he not been cut down; the latter inaugurated a politics of skulduggery and character assassination that has been the norm until the recent election of Barack Obama.
Of course, neither of these portraits is entirely true or fair: Kennedy and his “best and brightest” have to bear much of the blame for Vietnam, and Nixon was (for all his faults) an accomplished administrator and diplomat. But their respective mythologies persist, which is why seeing the JFK ad was somewhat jarring—it has frequently been said that Kennedy was the first television president, that his victory was a product of this new medium that allowed his image of youthfulness, combined with his accomplished oratory, to sway the electorate. But those looking back on Kennedy with rose-coloured glasses tend to associate his televisual appeal not with the vapid TV ad seen above, but with such historic moments as the Berlin speech. It is, hence, a bit of a shock to the system to see said vapid ad and realize that Kennedy’s campaign not only exploited the shallowness of televisual sensibilities, but blazed a trail we’ve been walking since.
I’ve been musing on these questions this morning because of two things. One, I’ve been reading The Assault on Reason by Al Gore (speaking of candidates partially hamstrung by ponderous earnestness); two, there’s a particular turn of phrase that has been increasingly irritating me in the aftermath of our recent parliamentary silliness: the frequent recourse of liberal MPs and political commentators to the discussion of how to recuperate “the Liberal brand.”
I’ve always been a fan of Al Gore, and have a deep respect for him as a politician, statesman and just generally as a human being. The frequent assaults on him since 2000 by both the conservative and mainstream press have exemplified a particularly pernicious form of American anti-intellectualism that irritates the hell out of me, as well and scaring me a great deal too (plus, I have a certain sympathy for stodgy and pompous know-it-alls, having been justifiably tarred with that brush myself many, many times). The Assault on Reason is an extraordinary book, and one I’m now wishing I’d read when it was first published—though had I done that, it would have filled me with despair at the nadir of the Bush Administration and the uncertain prospect of what was to succeed them. It’s worth reading still however (Obama hasn’t been sworn in yet—forty-one days!), because it offers a trenchant critique of what happens when we allow mendacity and misdirection to rule political discourse in the place of reasoned and measured debate.
While we wait with bated breath to see whether Obama’s election will usher in a new era of pragmatic and transparent leadership based on rational debate, our own political situation in Canada makes me recommend The Assault on Reason as a fine book to be put in your loved ones’ stockings. Or perhaps, in this political climate, the stockings of your unloved-ones. Even as the Bush/Cheney/Rove style of politics is being shown the door by the American electorate, our own PM continues to play zero-sum partisan hardball and consolidate his party’s power by any means necessary. To quote Rick Mercer: “We've seen unheard of cooperation between political rivals all over the industrialized world. But not in Canada. Not with Stephen Harper ... No my friends, he has one goal and one goal only and it has nothing to do with governing: how can he use this crisis to destroy the opposition?”
What is perhaps most galling is the degree to which he continues to succeed. He made a drastic misstep that led to him almost being ousted by the coalition, but somehow convinced our GG to prorogue Parliament. He’ll return in January unrepentant but with a budget with enough gifts for the electorate that the coalition—which already looks dead in the water—won’t have a leg to stand on. And he’ll have managed, through some bizarre bit of political misdirection, to have transformed his blunder into political capital. And to those who say you can’t argue with success, I cry bullshit.
Why? Because it’s not about who wins and loses in Parliament, it’s about who wins and loses in Canada, and at the moment we’re all losing big time: because we have a locked and shuttered House of Commons at a time when we need leadership, because we have a prime minister more interested in holding onto power than genuinely working with the opposition for the greater good, because we have an inept and factious opposition, and because we’re pretty much a laughing stock. When Jon Stewart said the other night on The Daily Show that Canada’s biggest export is jokes about Canadians, I really couldn't do much more than sigh and silently agree.
All of which is why the incessant argument about “the Liberal brand” makes me want to knock people’s heads together. A political party is not a pair of sneakers or a celebrity fragrance, but we’ve arrived at a point where that’s exactly how we treat it. Harper &Co., according to a news report I heard yesterday, already have a series of Michael Ignatieff attack ads ready to roll out. Presumably they also had a series of Bob Rae attack ads in the can, and undoubtedly they’re assembling anti-coalition attack ads in the unlikely eventuality that the coalition is still drawing breath in January. The Conservatives have become masters of branding: they know that this is the strategy by which one comes to value or devalue something based on a set of associations detached from the innate value of a given object. They have been waging a very successful war against the Liberal brand since the waning days of Chretien, and have indeed succeeded in devaluing it dramatically.
Which is why we should remember that we're not talking about a consumer product here but a complex of elected officials, staffers, ideas, policies, and voters that cannot and should not be reduced to a set of simplistic catch-phrases, talking-points, and visual cues.
Which begs the question of why the Liberals allow Harper to control the debate. Every time an MP expresses their confidence in the “Liberal brand,” they’re playing a game they’ve been losing consistently. I can’t say I’m without ambivalence about Michael Ignatieff, but I take comfort in the fact that the Liberals seem to be getting their act together and ending, or at least suspending, their crippling internecine squabbles (the operative phrase here being “seem to be”). But Mr. Ignatieff: please don’t talk about the Liberal brand. Please don’t play Harper’s game. Granted, I’m not entirely sure what the alternative is, but then I’m not the newly appointed party leader presumably surrounded by a lot of smart political operatives. There is one glimmer of hope, however, which happens to lie to our south. Promise me you’ll think about how to change things.