Politicians, as everyone knows, survive on their popularity with the electorate. They do good things; their popularity goes up. They make mistakes; their popularity goes down. It has become common in our monetized society to use the metaphor of political capital, which politicos earn and spend like wages. As if they earned them the same way. As if.
I prefer to look at it more simply as political brownie points. It brings up the image of a good little politician going out to the media and saying, “Look, Brown Owl. Look what I did. Do I get a point? Huh? Huh? Pleeeeeese?”
Brownies can get these points in two ways. The first is through merit badges, where they perform certain tasks and pass certain tests. The second is a more nebulous process of doing “good deeds,” whatever those are deemed to be.
Likewise a leader or party can get political brownie points in two different ways. One, they do something that is actually to the benefit of their constituents. Two, they do something that makes them look good.
So someone like Justin Trudeau only has to walk up to a microphone with his accomplished and politically active wife at his side and make some reference to feminism, and the nice Brown Owl journalists fawn all over him and chalk him up a whole bunch of political brownie points. Or he performs a delicate balancing act of negotiations and gets all the recalcitrant provinces to agree on an important policy, a measurable accomplishment that gets him a merit badge and a whole lot more points.
The problem that you have noticed already, I’m sure, is that only one of these sets of brownie points is based on real worth. The other dwells in that nebulous realm of political hype and crowd psychology that baffles most of us. It is quite possible, or at least it was in the past, for a politician with a reasonable slate of legislation in hand to be turfed out of office by losing all his points for behaving in a personally reprehensible manner. We now discover that it is likewise possible for a politician get elected completely on the grounds of his political hype, providing almost no concrete evidence of the ability to perform anything for the good of his constituency. Brown Owl was definitely not on her game south of teh border last fall.
Popularity is Popularity. Or Is It?
However, there are no grounds for complaint, because brownie points seem to be brownie points no matter how or why they are gained.
But therein lies the danger. While points gained through the adulation of the fickle masses may seem to be of equal value to those gained through concrete action, they are not. Unless the politician can point to a merit badge and say, “I did that,” he is on shaky ground.
I think it fair to assume that south of the 49th parallel the politician who depends completely on hype for his popularity will find his brownie points evaporating rapidly when his constituents see how poorly he handles the reins of office.
Oil the Right Type
On the Canadian front, the ruling Liberals have done an excellent job of amassing “real” brownie points on the British Columbia ecological front by promising firm controls and government-financed safety measures for oil transport systems. They have then spent those points immediately by approving an ecologically risky project that has the support of a large number of Canadians. It is their opponents who are depending on emotion and hype to stop the operations, which does not put those people in a very strong position.
“Pay to Play” Politics
And at the moment, the federal Liberals are heading into a food fight that has the possibility of losing them a lot of brownies. (Sorry, mixed metaphors are my métier.) They have been acting in an irresponsible manner for years, and the fact has finally wiggled its way into the media and into the consciences of voters. The “cash for access” method of raising money for political parties has gone out of favour with almost everyone, including the Prime Minister’s own guidelines, which his party now chooses to ignore. I know it sounds stupid, but when it comes to a choice between political capital and the cold, hard variety, even the best-intentioned politicians lose their sense of perspective.
And now the Prime Minister himself has tossed a lot of personal points out the window due to his cavalier flaunting of his contacts with the rich and famous. And, worse than that, he didn’t bother to follow the rules, accepting a ride on a private helicopter (forbidden by parliamentary ethics) without showing any regard for the consequences. It looks like Justin has inherited his father’s penchant for thumbing his nose at his critics. But the elder Trudeau did it with calculation and for good reason. The son seems to do it by mistak, or through an inbred sense of entitlement that says he doesn’t have to jump through the same hoops as the hoi poloi.
And this brings us to the key point. When Trudeau sees his stock of brownie points running low, what should he do? Shouldn’t he immediately find a couple of solid, publicity-creating, good-for-the-country actions, like announcing progress on the election reform process, or cancelling “pay to play” fund raising? Study up for those merit badges, Justin, and they’ll stand you in good stead.
Nope. He shuffles his cabinet (completely meaningless in terms of real political action) and then goes on a glad-handing jaunt across the country. Give me a break. Sort of like the average spoilt brat who messes up and then hauls out the old, aren’t-I-cute smile that will make everything better and allow him to continue his selfish ways.
If Mr. Trudeau wishes to demonstrate to the voters of Canada that he is, truly, the empty-headed dilettante his opponents have suggested, he couldn’t do a much better job than he is doing right now.