When it resists the most overt attempts at manipulation, you know your democracy is functioning well. Even when it produces the wrong outcome, you can be confident that it’s still working correctly and will eventually outlast the geniuses who think they’re gaming it. That’s the lesson I took from stories told in the recent books by Canadian politico, John Laschinger, and US politico, Donna Brazile.
It's worth noting because both tell tales about efforts to pre-empt electoral outcomes by eliminating choices, and in both cases, there is much to be learned from their failure.
Brazile’s case gets far more attention because scandal feeds journalists, and she’s working hard to keep the feast going. Laschinger is modestly Canadian, offering a less judgmental perspective on the nefarious methods he has employed and observed in election campaigns north of the border, but is chronicling something similar.
The common thread is that self-appointed elites are often tempted to make choices for the rest of us. Whether they are well intentioned or merely self-interested, the justification is that they know what is best and so must avoid disaster by reducing the likelihood of “wrong” choices.
There’s no better way of correcting an election than to reduce the number of candidates competing for a share of the vote. Although it may mean scrubbing sympathetic candidates to strengthen the “right” one’s prospects, it’s easy to see how the math works. Except when it doesn’t, which I contend is more often than not.
In Brazile’s case, they saw too many voters caught in the tractor beam of the Trump campaign, and with Clinton as the presumptive favourite to win her party’s primary, the big heads decided that Bernie Sanders’s populist uprising was a “wrong” choice for the party they controlled, and for America.
You always have to add that noble sounding clause at the end. Any selfish act can be made to sound patriotic if you make it about the good of all. The sleight of hand works for a while, but after many repetitions, it becomes apparent that every player on both sides of the aisle claims to be aligned with the collective good. Their interests and our interests, they would have you believe, are indistinguishable.
A similar phenomenon afflicted Laschinger’s last client, Olivia Chow, who fell victim to fears that one of the Ford brothers had a real chance of winning Toronto’s 2014 mayoral election. (I wrote extensively about this election in relation to our obsession with polling, how polls shape public opinion, Chow's decline in the polls, and how she could've turned her campaign around). Although municipal politics in Canada are ostensibly non-partisan, the media establishment acted with surprising unity, perhaps feeling guilty for their past legitimization of Rob Ford, weighed in heavily on the side of a Tory victory.
It should also be said that the diminished role of party politics in municipal elections tends to magnify the determinant effect of media on voter choices. Party apparatus tends over time to establish enduring relationships with journalists, editorial boards, and media executives. That degree of access and influence is largely absent in municipal elections, where support coalesces around a particular candidate for a single campaign, and then melts away until the next cycle. In these circumstances, print and digital newsmakers exercise greater power than when full time professional advocates are pressuring them to amplify the party line.
In the case of Laschinger and Chow, media elites accomplished by different means what Brazile accuses her DNC colleagues of doing to Bernie Sanders. Manipulative polling and fear mongering narrowed the field from five to three over the first half of the campaign, and, though Chow hung in there, hope was vanquished long before anyone had a chance to vote. Strategic voting, in the manufactured belief that only Tory could defeat Ford, caused just enough voters to cross over in time to ensure that Tory, in fact, won. Although Laschinger doesn’t explain Chow's defeat in this way, he’s only viewing the result for his candidate, without widening the frame to see how two other candidates were dismissed by the media earlier in the year. Moreover, he does not evaluate the election result for strategic voters who subordinated their hopes and values, believing that they had not choice other than to defeat Ford by voting Tory.
Here’s the catch: in both cases, efforts succeeded in eliminating others in favour of the candidate preferred by political insiders, yet both candidates failed to deliver on all, much, or any of the promise used to justify manipulation of democracy. The ends did not justify the means.
The arrogance behind Clinton’s march back to the White House raised questions of character that demotivated her party and gave fodder to attacks by the Republicans (and Russians, perhaps). By opting to award her the Democratic nomination, the party had to quell the more authentic Sanders insurgency, squandering an opportunity to legitimately win the primary and lead a rejuvenated party against Trump. In effect, the manipulation of process evinced public doubts about Clinton, leading to an inexcusably close race and ultimate loss to Trump. The improprieties revealed by Brazile led to the very outcome they were intended to avoid.
Likewise, the election of John Tory simply traded the Ford brand of buffoonery for a politically correct pursuit of the same dire policies. Although Tory isn’t a crackhead, he suffers a similar form of cognitive impairment. He hasn’t shifted the fulcrum of right-left, urban-suburban politics much at all, and exhibits the same resistance to evidence-based decision making as his predecessor (see my expanded critique for further details).
He has stubbornly defended retrograde practices, like police carding, until mystified by overwhelming opposition, for example. And, although he has declared poverty and homelessness as a priority, he broke the City’s piggybank to fulfill Ford’s dream of a $3.5 billion, one stop subway to Scarborough. (See my take on this here and here.) While paying lip service to cycling and pedestrian safety, it became clear that he was taking Ford’s side in the war on cars in a fight to preserve the elevated Gardiner Expressway, spending more than a billion dollars for a slight reconfiguration of a single ramp. So, for all the ethical compromise it took journalists and pollsters to champion Tory in July and August of 2014, very little, other than the Mayor’s suit size and demeanour, has been achieved by stripping other candidates out of contention in the media.
But this behavior changes us all. Because we Torontonians tolerated media legitimization of Ford in 2010, the delegitimization of Chow in 2014 was a little easier to accept. In Washington, many Democrats are prepared to tolerate the DNC’s jigging of the structures of democracy, telling people like Brazile not to “relitigate” the 2016 election. In both cases, these are guilty and embarrassed attempts to end an uncomfortable conversation about the process.
Still, people like Brazile and Sanders will persist, and the public will reward them for their candor, just as they punished Clinton’s people for their arrogance. They will also rouse themselves in opposition to Trump, as has been revealed in Georgia, Virginia, New Jersey, and New York.
It’s a little trickier to identify culprits in Toronto politics, where journalists, campaign financiers, and politicos, like Laschinger, form fluid, unaccountable allegiances around prospective civic leaders. Still, it’s important to try, like Brazile, to keep reminding people at every level of political engagement that the principle and practice of democracy is fragile. Short cutting elections by either media or party elites is fraught with danger.
You simply can’t do the right thing in the wrong way. Even if successful, the erosion of democratic principle isn’t worth sanctioning the exercise of unseen political influence because it comes at the expense of influence in the polling booth, where it belongs. Everyone knows that there is inappropriate access and influence at work in politics, but who benefits by making it dirtier than it already is? Hmmmmmm....
Don’t imagine for a moment that this discussion is all about politics. The same ethical dilemma faces us as consultants all the time. You can’t help feeling that the client doesn’t know what’s best for them, and it’s tempting at times to take unauthorized measures to achieve what you want for them. As in these political examples, its hopeless trying to do the right thing in the wrong way. Victories in the short term are outweighed by the loss of reputation and trust in the long term, and clients who don’t own initiatives that have been foisted on them, rarely sustain the effort needed for lasting success. It’s a tactical dead end that can spoil even the most exquisite strategy. Motives matter. Principles matter. They make the difference between winning and losing. Truly.