Canadian Elections for Naifs and Cynics

A few years ago, I wrote a blogpost in which I described a blunt taxonomy carving political observers into two types.  I suggested that everyone falls somewhere on the line (which is a continuum) between political naifs, at one extreme, and politicl cynics, at the other. My central claim was that naifs believe that politics is fundamentally about devising and implementing good policy. Cynics believe that it is about acquiring and exercising political power.

While virtually no one is a pure cynic or unalloyed naif, I think there is no doubt that the distinction does articulate two clear approaches to understanding how politics does, or ought to, function. I also think that understanding whether a given columnist is coming at things from one side or the other can be a useful heuristic for understanding the argument that is being made.

At any rate, the original post gets tweeted and mentioned on social media fairly regularly by people whose work I respect and admire, so it suggests to me that I’m not the only one who finds the schema useful. We’re into the election season now, so I took some time to sketch out an election primer for naifs and cynics. There’s obviously a lot more to say, so I might see if this post can be expanded over the course of the upcoming federal campaign. (I’m also happy to take requests or suggestions for other ways of expanding the analyis).

Some Guiding Principles

Here are some truths I take to be self-evident:

1. Everyone is a naif about their own political committments.

2. Everyone is a cynic about their opponents’ political committments.

3. Everyone is a meta-cynic about politics. That is, both cynics and even naifs are more interested in appearing cynical (or naive) to members of their tribe (of cynics or naifs) than they are interested in actually adhering to cynical or naive principles.

4. We could all stand to be a bit more cynical about politics, and more naive about our meta-political committments.

One final throat-clearing: I’m on the record as a somewhat naif cynic (as opposed to a cynical naif). That is, I think that in politics, the pursuit of power is and ought to be the central ambition. For a more extensive explanation of my views, you can check here.

Ok with that on the table, let’s get started.

Elections for Naifs

What is an election? For naïfs, an election is the opportunity for a national debate. As Andrew Coyne puts it, an election is “a conversation among the voters”, the outcome of which is a collective decision about what policies we should like our government to implement over the next four years or so.

The writ period is the time we have set aside for this conversation: the media deploys its resources to cover and facilitate that conversation, people open their doors to candidates, the pundits weigh in on how that conversation is going and try to help improve it. On this view, the longer the writ period the better, because the more time spent deliberating and debating, the sounder will be the reasoning that ultimately prevails.

Platforms: The most crucial element in an election for naïfs is the party platform. This is the document that lays out the policies the party promises to enact once in power. Ideally, the platform advances a consistent package of evidence-based policies, properly costed out, with a sincere and credible plan for how the money will be raised and the policies implemented.

Debates: For naïfs, debates between leaders play a key role in the election to the extent to which they are able to facilitate and amplify this national conversation, focused on the various party platforms. Debates should be about the substance of major issues – Defence, Foreign Affairs, Health Care, the Environment – such that voters are left enlightened and informed with respect to the choice they face. By the same token, naïfs dread talk of the “knockout blow”, the largely fictitious moment when one leader completely pwns another, destroying his candidacy with one snappy line.

Polls: Naifs tend to decry polls and the effect they have on the nature of the conversation among voters. Polls, according to naïfs, reduce elections to “horserace politics” or a “popularity contest.”

The Vote: The ballot box is the moment when the naïve voter gives his or her verdict on the outcome of the national conversation. By casting a ballot, the naïve voter chooses one candidate over the rest, or one party over the others, in the aim of giving that party a mandate to enact its platform.

The electoral system should aggregate these votes and translate them into seats in parliament in a manner that reflects the proportion of votes received. Power, that is, should be proportional to support. A party that gets 15% of the votes should get 15% of the seats, which should then translate into 15% of the power that the government exercises. A majority government should only be installed if a party indeed receives a majority of votes.  Hence the strong support amongst naïfs for electoral systems that involve proportional representation, and the source of the strength behind the slogan “make every vote count”.


Elections for Cynics

What is an election? For the political cynic, an election is what Schumpeter described as a competitive struggle between elites for the peoples’ votes. It is first and foremost a mechanism for the orderly transfer of power and the cycling of elites; or if you prefer, an election is an instrument that allows the people to throw the bums out (and replace them with a new set of bums).

The writ period is the time we have set aside for this competition to play out. The role of the media is largely to heckle, to cheer and jeer, and to analyse, much like fans in the sporting arena. For cynics, a longer writ period serves to demonstrate certain things about the relevant players – their stamina, their resources – but as that arch-cynic Kim Campbell put it,  “an election is no time to discuss serious issues.”

Platform: Cynics don’t put much stock in party platforms as statements of policy. For the cynic, the party platform is more like an online dating profile than it is a curriculum vitae. That is, the cynic doesn’t much care if the policies are ideologically consistent, properly costed out, or have coherent implementation strategies. Rather, the platform is how the party signals its leadership of a political tribe. The platform is ultimately how the party defines its market niche in the competitive struggle.

Debates: Cynics find debates useful to the extent that they allow voters to evaluate which set of elites they will entrust with the business of governing. And so the cynical voter will be less concerned, during the debate, with the details of policies and their implementation. Instead, the cynic looks for how the debates signal leadership traits such as competence, coolness, and charisma. The sparring nature of debates is appealing to cynics precisely because it provides the opportunity for these traits to reveal themselves. If a party leader does suffer a “knockout blow,” for the cynic that signals much about that leader’s ability to handle the pressures of high office.

Polls: Cynics love polls, precisely because the election is a popularity contest. Following polls is like following the announcer’s call of the Preakness or the Belmont — it’s a gauge of how the race is going, and we all get to cheer on our favourite political tribe.  At the same time, polls allow parties to evaluate their progress and adjust their strategies accordingly. Public polling allows voters to calibrate their own voting strategy in light of where the electorate seems to be headed. So for example, if a cynical voter is hell bent on throwing out the current set of bums no matter what the cost, she might change who she plans to vote for by looking at which opposition party the polls say has the best shot at winning.

The Vote: For cynics, voting is foremost an exercise in tribal support and affiliation. The cynic votes for the party whose brand or identity they find most appealing, regardless of platform specifics. At the same time, for politically disaffected cynics the major function of the election is to enable democratic control over the cycling of political elites. As noted in the previous section, the cynical voter might then be inclined to vote strategically: It will matter more them that “their side loses” than “my side wins”.

Because political power is indivisible and rival, enabling the cycling of elites is the crucial function of the electoral system. Its effectiveness is to be measured by how well it accomplishes this, not by how it allocates seats or apportions power. In a society marked by deep diversity and profound disagreement about the proper goals of the government, an electoral system that that allows power to be gained and controlled by a workable plurality of voters might be not only acceptable, but even welcome.

Homework:  Read the Liberal Party’s recent Real Change manifesto, and try to place it on the naive/cynical continuum. Once you have done that, try to give that placement a cynical interpretation. That is, ask yourself what political tribe are the Liberals trying to appeal to with this manifesto.


Canadian Elections for Naifs and Cynics — 2 Comments

  1. How an individual views the manifesto says more about that individual (naif/cynical), than anything else. I think at heart I am naif, but I’ve been around long enough to see a lot of it cynically.

    One thing I would say about the manifesto is that it is crafted by a group of people, some of which are naif policy wonks and some that are cynics who focus on what will sell. There is a selection mechanism in play when creating a document like this:
    Both types bring policy ideas (good policies and policies that will “sell”)

    1) policies that fit both groups will stay
    2) policies that are “good” but that won’t poll well will be removed, but might find themselves in an omnibus bill later.
    3) policies that are “bad” but will sell well might find themselves in the manifesto as a means to the end of getting elected (for the greater good). The ones that get cut won’t find themselves in bills down the line unless the party needs to bolster support, or might come up at the next election (again as a concession in order to win and do good work).

    The end result is that everything in the manifesto can be correctly viewed as part of a cynical calculated move for votes.

  2. That’s not very cynical. A cynical view is that elections are a way that elites have evolved of competing without the expense and disruption of violence. The election cycle is a test of who can hoodwink the voters most effectively, measured to a fair extent by who can attract the most allegiance (which is to say, money) from various elite subgroups. The media’s job is to police the process to make sure that nobody who has weird naive ideas about appealing to the voters with policies inconvenient to elites is able to effectively communicate such ideas to the voters.
    Sometimes, voters do intrude on this process. If they’re annoyed enough by the incumbents’ fouling up, it can disrupt the money-translates-to-votes calculus. But that’s an unintended, unwelcome hiccup in the system.

    Furthermore, not only are platforms and slogans largely pointers defining a brand for a political tribe, but those platforms and slogans are mere advertising; they have little to do with what a party might actually do once in office, and furthermore the party generally has no intention whatsoever of even benefiting the political tribe they appeal to–they are merely a means to an end. All political parties (capable of surviving the policing of media) are dedicated to enriching some subset of the country’s elites, specifically the subset that bankrolls them, typically at the expense of the majority of voters including those in their own “base”.

    That’s cynical. Note that it does not completely co-incide with my own views, and certainly doesn’t co-incide with my views of how things ought to be. It’s just an example of what I feel real cynicism about politics represents; I don’t think your description really reaches an end of that spectrum.

    I’d like to say something about the role of ideology. I realize that’s often seen as old fashioned, but we’re talking about politics and political parties here. I personally don’t think anyone, no matter how post-ideological they might consider themselves, can actually avoid having an ideology of some sort; if it’s tacit, they just don’t know what it is and so it is likely to be full of contradictions and unexamined assumptions. But a political party arguably should have an explicit ideology, some organizing view of the world which shapes their ideas of what are desirable ends, what means will be effective in reaching them and so on. And if they hold such an ideology, it is desirable that their policies should reflect it and be directed to the benefit of the people their ideology says are important.

    Thing is, I see this as a naive view. But the closest the schema in the article comes to dealing with such things seems to portray them as part of a cynical approach: Policies which are there not because of some kind of careful costing based on neutral accounting or something, but because they appeal to a political tribe, are seen as cynical. This doesn’t really differentiate between symbolic policies which amount to mere advertising, or say boutique tax cuts which the party itself doesn’t feel represent sound governance but which benefit some segment they want to appeal to, on the one hand, and policies which represent the core ideology of the party on the other, like a Labour party putting in policies to strengthen unions, or a Conservative party pushing for a flat tax or something. Yes, the latter will appeal to the party’s political tribe (union members or believers in trickle-down, respectively), but they are also expressions of the party’s real beliefs, and I don’t think it’s cynical to imagine elections representing a serious contest between worldviews rather than just a competition of managerial plans within some sort of assumed neutral background.