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Dividing Canadians

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(Part two of a series)

Stephen Harper played the fear card and won, while the NDP made history by becoming the official Opposition.

Some pundits suggest this means Canada has become an ideologically polarized nation, but I say that's premature. While we may be on the way to becoming ideologically divided -- pushed in that direction by a hyper partisan, heavily ideological majority federal government -- the 2011 electoral results suggest something more primal is at play.

As I stated in yesterday's blog, the politics of fear can be exploitative, distracting and divisive. Here's how it affected the anti-Conservative choice in the 2011 federal election.

Let's start with Harper's preferred method of dirty pool: negative advertising. Politicos take it on faith that negative advertising works in election campaigns -- that they've become a necessary evil.

It's true that Canadians were exposed to some of the worst American-style negative ad campaigns in our federal history. Towards the end of the campaign, there were more than a dozen ads on the Conservative Party website attacking either the coalition or Michael Ignatieff. Those ads were repeated so many times, it would be hard to find a Canadian who couldn't recite the words "he didn't come back for you."

Pundits are right to point to the effectiveness of these ads in framing Ignatieff. In the post-election hand wringing, some blame the Liberals for waiting too long to let Ignatieff define himself to voters. Those who insist that negative advertising works will point to the Ignatieff smear ads as an example that they work. They will overlook the ineffectiveness of the Liberals' attack ads on Stephen Harper, criticizing him for 'contempt of Canadians' and more. They will overlook the role attack ads play in sustaining the politics of fear. They will not necessarily tell you how they work.

Negative advertising 'works' under certain conditions. Even if it's inflammatory, negative advertising has to have a ring of truth. It helps if the attack ad speaks directly to a targeted, niche market of voters that you know you can mobilize. The ads have to be seen repeatedly for them to stick in the voter's mind. And the party initiating the attack has to have an answer for those who flee the person subject to attack.

Harper's answer to the Ignatieff attack: trust me to manage the economy. Polling indicates Harper was playing from his strengths and speaking to Canadians' undercurrent of worry about our economic future.

For those who didn't trust Harper -- those who fear what he might do with a majority government -- they had four possible options.

As a counterpoint to the politics of fear, the Liberal Party appears to have coasted on the fumes of "the Natural Governing Party" one election too many. The Bloc campaign had a sluggish feel to it. Harper's politics of fear took advantage of these two parties in their hour of disarray, reducing the choices for Canadians who truly feared a Harper majority.

As for the discouraged voter -- those who have given up waiting for a leader to appeal to them and decided not to vote -- they might represent a quiet casualty of the politics of fear. Some Canadians who decided not to vote in this election may have simply gotten turned off of the toxic nature of the campaign. Some may have struggled to make a decision that felt right.

Fear can be paralyzing, but fear is usually looking for someplace to go, and sometimes the antidote to fear is hope. It certainly helped some Canadians view Jack Layton differently in this election. Jack, with his warm smile. Jack, with his Canadien hockey shirt, hoisting a beer. Jack, risen from his sick bed to do what we all hope in the face of health adversity: fight the beast down with grace, with pride, with the fortitude it took to become an electoral David to Harper's Goliath. In Quebec, le bon Jack.

Jack Layton had captured, if for a brief moment in time, the aspiration that resides alongside the slow simmering worry in Canada: the hope that we can overcome adversity and thrive. That cane he hoisted above his head at rallies became a symbol of strength; of defiance against long odds.

And, for a few days, Canadians sat on the edge of their seat wondering whether a phenomenon no pundit or pollster had predicted, this NDP tide of support dubbed 'the orange wave,' would crescendo into an 'orange crush.'

Two things happened in the final days of the election that possibly stemmed the NDP tide, and both were products of the politics of fear.

The first was the kind of low-down dirty smear that turns Canadians off politics (or turns off high quality people from running for politics): the unfounded massage parlour smear.

Pollsters noticed the orange wave continued in the days following the smear story, and therefore theorized some Canadians were so turned off because of the smear that they were abandoning the Conservatives in support of Layton. The smear was appearing to have the opposite of its intended effect but time ran out to really judge it.

Since the smear didn't *appear* to be enough, it fell to Harper to detonate a series of fear-mongering verbal bombs in final day campaign speeches. He went after Jack's smile, of all things, suggesting Canadians couldn't trust him to make big decisions because tough decisions are "not all smiles and snake oil."

In another fear-mongering effort, Harper warned Canadians that gas prices would go up under a NDP government -- a claim so baseless Harper should be held to account for it post-election, as gas prices have risen since he secured his majority government.

It's possible that if the election had gone on a few days more, the smears and attacks would have had an effect on voters. At any rate, the attacks came too late in the game to crush the wave.

The New Democratic Party made history by becoming Canada's official Opposition. Two federal parties lay in disarray and, quite possibly, total ruin. And one startup, the Green Party, finally secured its first seat in Parliament, supplanting a cabinet minister and opening up new possibilities for that party.

Traditionally, the NDP could be relied upon as a positive protest vote, but with Layton rising to the potential of official opposition or more, the Green Party possibly stood as an alternative for those wishing to cast a positive protest vote -- especially in ridings where it seemed safe to do so without allowing a Conservative candidate to come up the middle. Even still, the Greens captured a smaller share of the vote than last time.

Add it all up and what the election said to me was: Canadians are not ideologically polarized. They didn't vote 'left' or 'right' -- as the wise Alex Himelfarb quips "Canadians don't have wings, left or right." At least not yet.

Election campaigns are designed to tap into emotion. In the 2011 federal election, worry was a strong undercurrent -- and the politics of fear drove some new voters toward Stephen Harper, in search of economic stability. But it also drove some new voters toward Jack Layton, in search of a counterpoint to the politics of fear.

They voted based on deep Canadian values: pragmatism, fairness, caring. For some voters, Harper tapped into the first value. Layton tapped into the second two.

Tomorrow's blog examines the new potential to reach a broader audience with Canadian progressive values.

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