This will be a long article (apologies) and I do not want to derail a thread but I think it touches on what is most important in politics right now and more important, it provides at the end advice to parties, individuals and public policy answers. This is in Canadian politics but it applies to international politics as well.
After a great deal of thought on this I am going to start a thread trying to explain the loss of the left and the success of right-wing populism. I have been seeking some kind of unifying theory and believe I have found it.
I have suspected that this is related to technology as this is the most consistent element across the globe.
In the past I put this down to the rise of social media. While I think this is definitely part of it, it cannot explain it adequately.
I will attempt to lay out what I think the critical change is. You may see I touched on this in response to the comment about Scheer in the global warming thread post 271 here: http://rabble.ca/babble/canadian-politics/canada-and-global-warming-state-denial?page=5#comment-5499751
I will late it out more completely.
Elections were for many years fought based on advertising to the mass electorate messages crafted based on majority opinions. Parties would use mass media to deliver what they believed would work based on general information from polls. This has ended.
The Liberals and Conservatives moved on but the NDP did not making its greatest single mistake of the last election.
First, the mass media age is over. People’s opinions are diverging as they each live in a news universe they custom design to support the opinions most comfortable to them. Parties on the right no longer use mass polling to craft their messages.
Increasingly people complain that their government does not represent them. This makes sense since that is no longer the objective or metric used. Trying to know what the electorate wants on an issue and then broadcasting to them through mass media is obsolete. Parties using this as a tool are getting creamed. Pollsters and journalists trying to determine directions of elections and position are making fools of themselves. This is not how it works any more.
Due to advance technology, parties who are up to speed know that the mass trends in the population are not relevant now. They also no longer campaign as they used to. The competition to raise the most money to spend during elections is also obsolete. Even election laws are out of date as they focus on the financial power each party has to spend on advertising during an election – which no longer decides elections. News about one party outspending another is also missing the point as that captures campaign spending.
This is how it works now:
The amount of money parties have between elections is the first critical factor. With that money they build the strategic communications tools used to run the election. The purchase of a system that stays current with potential voters, what their opinions are and the opinions that could change their vote, is how elections are won. The greatest part of this investment occurs before the writ is dropped.
Information about voters is kept in databases that do not just affect one election but serve to benefit the next so the advantage is cumulative. The positions of the parties with access to the information they need puts their party on track to win – in a way that journalists, pollsters and other parties cannot even see.
The party who does this properly, uses canvessing and polling information to break down the electorate. They know who their core supporters are – those who need minimal support to get them to vote for the party. They also know who the core supporters are for the other parties. This is usually more than half to two thirds of the population. Of the other half they know who is potentially receptive to them. This is probably only 1/5-1/4 of the electorate and as low as 10% of the general population. These are the people that can win them the election. They have also identified this group for each of the other parties.
They know the opinions of these people and they know which opinions which people will change their vote on. Usually only a small subset of this 10% of the electorate will actually vote on any given issue. They know who they are. They test the messages that get this small number of people to respond to.
As you can imagine this is expensive and the so-called populist parties are all over it. They are called populist because they are successful in getting home runs on these issues and lay claim to being for the people because they know which people to be for on which issues and in which way. This costs a lot of money to build and none of it needs to be considered election spending. Being right wing having access to more money to compete is critical since there is no limit to this activity as it is outside the writ period.
(While I am speaking using Canadian language, these concepts are being replicated across most countries with elections. Money has found a way to use technology to end run any election spending limit.)
As I mentioned, this technology is used not just to identify the small subset of voters that could move to a party but the people who could move to other parties. This information allows a real scientific approach to vote suppression. It is easier to suppress a small target just enough to make a difference when you know this. Vote suppression is a science and we have seen much discussion on the many ways it is done. It is a science informed by this technology and the money between elections that drives it and the money to record and retain the intelligence from one election to another. Gerrymandering is a science. Parties with this information and access to decisions have any other party at severe disadvantage.
With this a political party can take extreme positions that the majority do not agree with because they know what their base will tolerate and what will move the tiny fraction to them and what a larger fraction is willing to ignore.
Pollsters simply are out of touch. Polling would have to replicate this information. Some pollsters are trying – seeking to cross-reference previous votes, accessible votes etc. They do this because they are broadly aware that the parties are narrow-casting now and it is essential to get at the subsets for whom any policy or message can make a difference. However, a pollster cannot bring to bear the technology and information that a party uses in an election to each poll. As such polling is irrelevant. Because journalists tend to focus on the macro public opinion, most of what they say is also irrelevant. Pollsters have tried to manage the intensity of opinion but even that question is not accurate: you could say you care very much about something but based on your profile of other issues it might not be a vote changer.
The way elections are fought has changed so radically, that the journalists and pollsters are no longer equipped to report on it. (The issue of cell-phone in polling is a distraction from this more significant issue.)
The population is confused as increasingly the population is parsed to exclude unavailable voters, whose opinions do not matter, non-voters, whose opinions also do not matter, and secured voters who will tolerate a disconnect on a policy. The only people important to a position is the people who would change their vote on a particular opinion or message. This means that very small minorities – smaller than ever, often out of step with the majority, are able to drive success in an election. Appealing directly to these positions is modern populism.
Key to modern populism which has nothing to do with popularity, is apathy. Being able to exclude apathetic non-voters, exclude voters apathetic on an issue-by issue basis, allows parties to target only the people who will vote on each particular issue. This explain right wing extremism taking power even where the population is not extreme. Usually those most extreme views are the ones that will vote on a policy. Being careful to dial back the messages that will motivate a backlash is just as important.
Behind this is the sophisticated vote suppression and vote disruption techniques that may be targeted as directly as the vote gaining techniques. The knowledge of what will inflame, distract, motivate, is all at a level never seen before. It gives tools to fascism that if they were available in the 1930s, would have elected a pro-Nazi government in England and the US. This is not a return to the bad old days. This is the new dawn of a much more serious nightmare.
Once in power, the technology to oppress is also more advanced than ever, we are at the edge of the ability of a government to assassinate a person with a drone selectively in their own population. This has been used in “enemy” populations already for some time. The control, manipulation and dissemination of what a population sees is also well advanced. The Nazis did not have it this good.
We are in an Orwellian world: populism sounds like mass appeal. It sounds like it is mass appeal for the people, and we all know it is not. I submit that it is also nothing to do with mass appeal – it is targeted appeal.
Now, it is true that I am pessimistic and I do want to scare people into realization: here is the application to the present. Do not worry about Trump too much. He lacks discipline and is incapable of using this information effectively to avoid the backlash to his extremism. He will not listen to his party and use the narrow casting effectively. As a result he is likely to lose in 2020, despite the efforts of those in his party to use this technology. They will, however practice and when they have a more competent version of the evil Trump represents it will all be over.
But I do not want to end without a constructive point. How do other parties not on the right and systems guard against this?
First other parties will have to sacrifice to build these systems to compete. It is better for the NDP to lose the next election badly and invest in building a system to match that may only benefit in a later cycle for example. The next election will likely go to Trudeau who is less likely than Scheer to do lasting damage. A loss by the NDP is not fatal. Still it is not an either / or situation. The NDP could invest on a cheaper social media campaign while building this and hold back on the traditional media buys which are not very effective now. Use this money to build the new communications tools and use the next election to get to know the electorate so they can be on a level playing field. In the short term, the NDP has to talk to its members and use messages to them asking them not their opinions (these people are mostly supporters) but their help asking their friends and neighbours what it would take to vote NDP. What issue matter to them. The NDP has to start low tech while they build a system, to reach out, using their members, to non-members and non-supporters who could become supporters. This is more critical than the endless appeals for money to an over-tapped membership.
Public policy also needs to be argued for. Public opinion is now so sophisticated that it would serve the public to have advanced polling of a political nature, such as that used by the parties made available to everyone. Pollsters could use it to improve the data they produce, parties could share it and be on a more level playing field, journalists and political scientists could use it. It is not a bad thing to know what your population is most motivated to want. This more public data collection might level the playing field more than any election spending legislation now in force.
Secondly, given the cost and value of this, public policy must consider limits to spending in the non-writ period, defending per-vote subsidies, and consider block funding to create access to this technology to all parties. Our process would be improved.
To the individual, there is something you can do now. Never before has apathy been so weaponized. People should become more informed on the issues and report when asked that they will vote on them. This way they will be counted when parties seek to segment the population according to who is for, against and which of those will vote on an issue.
In this sense, while the system of vote segmentation and the role it plays in elections cannot be prevented, it can be made to be more balanced on all sides and with greater engagement, minority and extreme opinions can be challenged within it. If the parties learn that an extreme position will cost, they will take heed.