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The politics of fear: An election post-mortem

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The Harper government won its coveted majority. How did this happen? What does it mean for Canada? And what should progressives do before the next federal election, tentatively scheduled for October 19, 2015 -- 1,167 days from today. Over the next four days I'll be posting a series of blogs chronicling my effort to make sense of the May 2 results. I'll also offer considerations for progressives to get us through the next 1,167 days.

(Part one of a series)

This blog post attempts to explain the power behind the dominant frame at play in this election: our economy in peril.

The frame was set by Stephen Harper, who spent 37 days dismissing the democratic need for an election and focused with laser precision on this message: Trust him -- and only him -- to manage the economy.

A minority of Canadians rewarded Harper with a majority government; the rest voted for the NDP, Liberals, Bloc or Greens. Roughly 40% of Canadians chose to sit at home while one of the most dramatic election nights in our history passed them by.

Those are the facts. My disappointment with the plethora of federal election post-mortems stems from this: many pundits are simply reciting the facts and borrowing them as conclusions.

Some question the efficacy of the perennial call for strategic voting. Some blame vote splitting which, in a smattering of ridings, is blamed for helping to elect a Conservative. Some say the Liberal and Bloc campaigns imploded.

This isn't analysis -- it's more like calling a hockey goal after watching it on replay.
Conspicuously absent from the analysis to date is the word 'insecurity'.

When it comes to explaining the electoral outcome, understanding the emotions behind voter intentions can be immensely helpful, especially for Canadians wanting a different result 1,617 days from now.

For my money, insecurity is the river that runs through it. Insecurity was there even before the recession, and it's in force to this very day.

Yes, we escaped the 2008 global recession relatively unscathed, compared to Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Spain, the UK and the U.S. -- to name a few. But even before recession darkened Canada's doors in late-2008, I witnessed in focus groups "a slow simmering worry" brewing among Canadians.

In the lead-up to the 2008 recession, during the best of economic times, Canadians were taking on epic levels of household debt.

Research from Statistics Canada, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and elsewhere documents a disturbing rise in income inequality over the past generation, reversing what, post-World War II, had become a more egalitarian, compassionate Canada (though not a perfect Canada).

Research also showed that Canadian households were working longer hours, toggling multiple jobs and relying on multiple income earners in the household just to keep afloat.

A concentrated number of elite Canadians were getting so rich from economic growth that it was starting to look like the 1920s all over again -- for the lucky few.

But a growing number of Canadians were admitting to pollsters they were one or two pay cheques away from financial disaster. In essence: They were one piece of bad news away from having the dream of a middle-class lifestyle fall to pieces.

That worry was more pronounced in early spring 2011, when we engaged Environics Research to go back into the field to take the pulse of Canadians.

We asked Canadians: Is the recession over? The majority of Canadians in our discussions told us it may be over in technical terms, but they were still feeling the weight of recession.

The more we probed about the impact of recession on their lives, the more we realized just how many Canadians were touched by the downturn in some way. They had either lost work, experienced reduced job hours, or took a pay cut due to recession -- or they knew someone who had. The worry was more palpable than ever.

Likely, it stemmed out of insecurity: political (an unstable, hyper-partisan minority federal government situation) overlapping with economic (a fragile global economic recovery with all eyes on how low America can go and not implode).

Canadians live in an affluent society. We don't always realize it, but we live in top 10 richest nations on the planet. No one wants to slip into a state of decline. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Canadian economy didn't get hit as hard as other countries during the recession. But we still feel vulnerable.

The thing about insecurity is that it breeds fear -- fear of change, fear of chaos, fear of decline.

The politics of fear exploits, rather than protects. It distracts at a time when we need focus. It divides when what we need is unity.

What we saw in Canada during the 2011 federal election was a master at the politics of fear -- Stephen Harper -- playing the game like his life depended on it. And he won.

Tomorrow's blog looks at how the politics of fear affected support for the opposition parties in the 2011 federal election.

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