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The campaign is a hologram — make-believe tensions over minuscule differences: Neil Macdonald

We have all, even the smartest of us, suspended disbelief and settled down for an extended stay in Potemkin village.

Well, all right, Potemkin village may not be the most accurate analogy for an election campaign. The original creation of Grigory Potemkin was a fake, portable village created to convince power — an 18th-century Russian monarch — that all was well in the realm. The modern election campaign is created by power in order to convince the realm that all is well, and, further, that its inhabitants are being presented with new information and a clear choice.

But close enough. The campaign is a hologram, the result of an agreement between political parties, the news media, corporate entities, the chattering classes and, to a certain extent, the voters themselves, although the voters are often the least important participants — they remain an abstract entity, variously patronized, cited and ignored by the big players, until the one day every four years when they get to be very important indeed.

For a set period, we agree to pretend that old is new, vapid is substantive, and make-believe is reality. Our journalistic institutions’ definition of “news” — a dodgy notion even in normal times — becomes a shape-shifting exercise in relativism.

Oppo Research

Take, for example, the regular drops we’ve been seeing of Liberal party oppo research, the daily cherry bombs that have left one Conservative candidate after another dripping in their own words. They’ve been aimed precisely and timed exquisitely, generally appearing in tweets about some candidate making an appearance the same day with party leader Andrew Scheer.

Almost none of it is new. Most, like the tweet featuring Scheer’s 2005 denunciation of gay marriage, or the Ottawa-area Conservative candidate’s gormless palling around with the white nationalist agitator Faith Goldy, or the extensive anti-gay and anti-Muslim social media postings of another Tory hopeful in Mississauga, Ont., is a matter of public record. Any decent reporter could have found the stuff, but it would just sound weird for a reporter to start revealing things already on the public record.

When it is tweeted out as part of an organized strategy by Liberal politicians, though, it becomes news, amplified by journalistic organizations, which then make it an issue by sending reporters to demand reaction.

The result has been more than the Liberals could have dreamed: video of Faith Goldy’s Ottawa-area pal fleeing from a news camera, and Andrew Scheer explaining his new policy of forgiving racist or homophobic remarks, except for the really nasty ones, as long as the candidate apologizes (a policy Scheer is presumably not extending to the Montreal-area candidate dropped by the Liberals for his remarks about Israel/Palestine and his musings that Zionists control American politics. He also, of course, sees no need to forgive himself).

My more thoughtful colleagues reflect on this news-creation privately. But they, like everyone else, are caught in a tide. It’s the campaign, and campaigns matter, because they allow us to contrast and compare, etc.

Which is fiction, too.

The plain Canadian fact is that relative to other Western democracies, the U.S. in particular, there isn’t much difference between our two main political parties.  

Both are deeply committed to extensive regulation, intervening in markets, significant redistribution of wealth, economic protectionism and restraint of individual liberty, to use the American term, for the good of the collective. Neither party has an effective climate change plan – as though there even is such a thing at this point – and they both seem to agree on running deficits for the next several years.

The plain Canadian fact is that relative to other Western democracies, the U.S. in particular, there isn’t much difference between our two main political parties.   (Paul Chiasson, Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

There is no one big issue on which they disagree to an extent that merits five weeks of constant coverage. There is no passionate debate about free trade, no imminent constitutional reform to consider.

But political parties must claim to be radically different from one another, and political journalism must play along, or else why exist? So the Liberals and Tories concentrate on what does distinguish them: their leaders. That in itself just about guarantees a campaign of ad hominem gooning.

The Liberals portray Scheer as a grinning thrall to authoritarian forces. They have successfully highlighted the clip in which he condemned gay marriage in an era when plenty of Liberals were doing the same, and another in which he promised tax credits to Canadians wealthy enough to send their kids to private schools (a policy the Tories have dropped, just as Justin Trudeau has dropped electoral reform), and a 2016 video in which Scheer acknowledges he would cut government spending, but cautions that the party must be careful in how it communicates any such policy to the public. (Just as prime ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin cautiously communicated their historically deep cuts as a return to the “virtuous circle” of fiscal responsibility).

Scheer, on a back foot, still struggling just to be recognized by voters, has cast Trudeau as soft on terror, soft on anti-Semitism, soft on criminals, a liar, a corrupt liar, and possibly a criminal liar. A moral scourge.

The prime minister who venally and illegally pressured his justice minister not to prosecute a big Quebec company for bribing Libyans, and also as a man who might, for some unclear reason, allow into Canada a “pedophile child killer” who is currently in a British prison, and whom the British say they aren’t sending us, and who is inadmissible to Canada in any case.

Most of this is manufactured, and all has been reported as news. In service of the voter, of course.

The gimlet-eyed Carleton University journalism professor Elly Alboim tweeted about the “wonderful irony” of a major newscast including “streeter” interviews asking people what issues are important to them, then following those streeters with coverage that reflected none of their concerns.

“The gap between media and voter agendas couldn’t be more obvious,” said Alboim.

National Post columnist Christie Blatchford had a similar assessment after spending the first week of the campaign travelling with Trudeau, listening to him happy-talk his own supporters, mouthing the same mush at every stop, rolling out reheated announcements.

The only real news of the week, noted Blatchford, was the Liberal media bus scraping the wing of the Liberal campaign plane, knocking the aircraft out of service.

And yet everyone on that plane filed multiple reports every day, because campaign, and because democracy. Yes, the parties are making some spending promises they may or may not keep, which might add up to a few hundred dollars a year for the average punter, but Blatchford, not a press gallery insider, is essentially right.

I can’t get little enough of it. I’ve followed all the parties for four years. I don’t need an additional five official weeks of mummery.

But the campaign is a totem. Democracy itself. It provides the news media an opportunity to pose as referee and watchdog, and voters, most of whom are already decided, a moment to imagine they are thoughtfully considering the leaders’ pitches and closing arguments.

So, onward. Weeks to go till we rest. As Rod Serling used to say, we have entered a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind.  

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

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