Negative Campaigns: Is it in their nature or is the system to blame?October 21, 2008
Further thoughts on the recent Federal election. One of the reasons people are so apathetic and upset about elections and politicians is the negative tone that is so prevalent. It seems that one of the primary strategies for winning an election is character assassination. If one of your opponents has a perceived weakness then attack that weakness and forget about talking about policy or issues. A good example this past election was Liberal leader Stephane Dion. He had a perceived leadership weakness, which even he now admits. It doesn’t matter if it was true or not, the appearance was there that he was soft, elite, not decisive, not a great communicator. The Conservatives and the NDP went after that. They talked about policy as well, but you could argue they got a lot of mileage out of tearing down Dion. Just look at how much time Jack Layton spent attacking Dion in the debates. Whether Mr. Harper or Mr. Layton were doing it, it hurt Dion and in the end helped the Conservatives form another government.
Is there any way out of this? Isn’t this just because politicians are bad people who have no goodness left in them? Just empty husks of human beings who have sold their souls for power?
Call me an idealist, but I don’t think so. I wouldn’t remove personal responsibility from any choice a political leader makes, but the current electoral system we have provides certain incentives. Politicians are competitive, goal oriented people who optimize their behavior based on the system of incentives that is in place. The fact of the matter is that first-past-the-post voting lets you win government with much less than a majority (in this election, just 38% was needed). So there is no need, no incentive to appeal widely to everyone. The optimal strategy is clearly:
- mobilize your base
- try to cause infighting amongst your opponents to encourage vote splitting
- be vague enough not to scare off all the undecided voters
No one party is to blame here more than another, the system rewards you for negative campaigns that sow doubt based on character. It rewards a strategy of dividing your opponents against themselves. The essence of this strategy is that by dividing your opponents and unifying your side you ensure that many more votes on the other side won’t count. Thats because in our system the winner wins and the losing votes are thrown away. So, under this strategy, the Conservatives don’t need care if the Liberal voter they are convincing votes NDP or Green or Conservative. Regardless who they vote for, their vote will likely not contribute to the make up of parliament or its for you, either way you win, as long as it isn’t a vote for your closest opponent.
So, if we just set the question of the existence of good politicians aside for a moment, we’ll never get a better, more respectful campaign where these strategies aren’t optimal until the system changes.
In a proportional system, even if you attack one leader and shift their votes away, those voters will still be heard. Voters who are torn between two alternatives on the left, for example, will still contribute to the makeup of parliament if there are enough to pass the threshold. And in Canada the Greens and NDP regularly pass this threshold. What’s more, once people know this is how it works they will start new parties or vote for other alternative voices. The only optimal strategy then will be to appeal to the widest population of voters. Furthermore, you couldn’t burn all your bridges with character assassination of your close opponents, because if you want power, you may need to work with them to form government.
So next time you hear someone complaining about negative campaigning and blaming politicians think about how the system motivates their actions. One day we’ll have a better system (like May 12, 2009) Then we can see if politicians rise to the challenge of putting issues and ideas before character and strategy.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
A nice piece from the Fair Vote UBC blogsite
There’s another blog on electoral reform that was started by some UBC students in which they wrote an article that kind of follows along one of the themes in my "Why Change to BC-STV" post. In it, they discuss how our First-Past-The-Post system encourages campaign strategies that concentrate on character assassination, and demoralization of the voters of other parties as opposed to trying to appeal to the entire electorate.