Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Impossible Conversations: Shopping for Votes

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Susan Delacourt's Shopping for Votes led, hands-down, to the most spirited discussion we've had. I called a time-out at two and a half hours in, and while a few people had to attend to other concerns, a solid handful of us talked about this book and the political ecosystem it describes for almost four hours. Lighter on reviews than usual, though:

Delacourt’s thesis is that consumerist marketing techniques have pervaded modern politics. She highlights how Canada’s political parties have devolved from ‘big tent’ politics toward micro-targeting. All parties spend significant funds in their marketing efforts, including data-gathering of the electorate - supporters and opposers alike. The party with the best data and marketing machine wins. Unlike the populism of years past, the modern-day effective political party gets its votes by salesmanship rather than statesmanship. The result, unfortunately, is that politics are reduced to the least-common denominator - a high-stakes popularity contest with the nation’s future at stake. 

Whether or not you agree with the underlying narrative about consumerism overtaking civics (e.g. citizens becoming taxpayers) in the political realm, Delacourt’s treatment of recent electoral history is reason enough to pick up the book. It sheds considerable light on the evolution of data driven politics that dovetails with the rise of New Public Management (NPM) making it the perfect – yet unintentional – companion piece to Savoie’s What Ever Happened to the Music Teacher?  Shopping is a must read. 

I read this book then immediately dug into our next, The Tragedy in the Commons by Alison Loat and Michael McMillan, a one-two punch that is, frankly, a bit of a downer. Neither contain foreign ideas, but the methodical exploration is worthwhile. In Shopping for Votes, the crucial idea for me was the shift from political advertising - highlighting the virtues of what’s on offer - to marketing - arranging your product around the willingness of possible buyers. It’s particularly concerning depending on whether those marketers consider the market to mean voters, or the sub-population of voters that has the greatest influence on a given election. My one complaint is that I found myself wishing that Delacourt wandered into the surrounding political ecosystem, but the book stays laser focused on the increasing use of consumer advertising techniques including, as Nick wrote, the use of data in politics.

Regardless, I absolutely recommend reading Delacourt’s work.

The question from this book that I think will hang for a while, including throughout our next book, is the relationship between Canadians and their governance: Delacourt paints it as a trend from citizen to consumer or taxpayer - and whether that is indeed accurate, or still the trajectory, has significant implications for how we approach systems like the one described in Shopping.

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