Citizens or consumers? Talking politics with Susan Delacourt

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photo: flickr/marsmetn tallahassee

"Taxpayer," is Susan Delacourt's most hated word.

"I just think that reduces the sum total of people's relationship with government down to this idea that it's something they pay for," explained the Toronto Star senior writer and author of Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them. "This idea that government doesn't belong to people anymore -- that it belongs to service providers -- is a really, really reductionist way of looking at the world."

Delacourt spoke at the Canadian Labour Congress Convention on May 8, explaining to the assembled delegates from unions across Canada how politicians have effectively started to play the marketing game.

Delacourt spoke with rabble just shortly after the convention. This is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.


In the book you talk about how marketing has become key for political campaigns. Have you seen that extend to progressive groups, like unions, as well as political parties?

Not as much, no … I do think the idea that people are consumers first and citizens second … you can see some evidence of it.

At schools I see some evidence of it. In taking some courses and talking to professors, there is sense for example that people feel they buy their degrees -- they don't earn them. A lot of stuff has become transactional now too.

In the case of unions, the talk about union dues is like your tax dollars. Everything is something for which you have to pay money and get fair value in return. It is sort of the marketization of everything, that everything is a transaction.


In terms of people not being as civically engaged, do you think that's why people are more suspicious of unions and certain activist groups now then they may have been in the past?

I think it's true of everything. One of the first books I read about this whole phenomenon was Bowling Alone. The title comes from [the fact that] more people are bowling in the United States, but there are fewer bowling leagues. So it's not that's a problem of marketing from more overall trend.

I said in the presentation the idea that people will do things out of duty and sacrifice is a very 20th Century idea. Unions, educational institutions, workplaces and the political sphere all tend to lapse into this 20th Century talk when we know that the public is responding to this idea of everything as a transaction.


If I'm the head of a union, is the battle to go more towards that kind of marketing or do we have to re-educate people into becoming citizens again?

I think people have to be aware that everything isn't a shopping exercise, including their civic life. That was the modest goal of the book -- just to get people thinking about do we really want to be shopping for everything we do, including our political leaders and everything around us in civic life. Many of us grew up with the idea that not everything is that way. Whether we can get back, I don't know.


The CLC Convention ended with the new president saying that he's going to take on Tim Hudak and mobilize people at the grassroots level. Do you think its possible to defeat that kind of marketing machine at the grassroots level?

As a journalist, I steer away from giving anybody advice or even making predictions -- we tend to be wrong a lot lately. I think that the first step as I said is that I would like to see a demand by the citizens to be treated as citizens and not just consumers. I think that starts with talking to people as both. 


photo: flickr/marsmetn tallahassee

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