Crawl Across the Ocean

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Politics of Exclusion

I remember back when I was young (when life was hard, and 64K was a lot of memory, blah blah blah), playing a certain simple video game. Basically, the screen was a big empty rectangle with a ball bouncing from wall to wall inside it. The object of the game was to start from the edge of the rectangle and draw lines to form smaller rectangles inside the big one. Once you had covered a certain percentage of the screen with rectangles you could move on to the next level. But if your cursor was hit by the bouncing ball while in the middle of drawing a box you lost a life, so you had to tradeoff building big boxes to save time versus building small boxes to minimize the chance of getting hit.

In a way, this game reminds me of a certain style of politics. In this style, a party views the electorate as a series of discrete groups and tailors its policies to appeal to as many groups as necessary to win election. So, for example, you might try to win the seniors vote (a big box) with increases to public pension plans. Or you might try to win over voters in a certain area by announcing spending projects in that region. Once you win over enough groups (build enough boxes) you cover a large enough percentage of the population and you win the election.

This form of politics is generally regarded with a bit of disdain. Terms like 'special-interest group,' 'single issue voter,' 'pork barrel politics,' and 'vote buying,' all carry a perjorative tone.

In 'The Unconscious Civilization', John Ralston Saul explains why we denigrate this 'aggregation of interests' type of politics,
"For the moment, I would like to expand on the particularity of gods, kings and groups. They cannot function happily within a real democracy - that is, within a society of individuals. They are systems devoid of what I call disinterest. Their actions are based entirely on the idea of interest. They are self-destructive because they cannot take seriously the long-term or the wider view, both of which are dependent on a measure of disinterest, which could also be called the public good or the common weal."

But for all that we criticize attempts to win power by appealing to a collection of group interests, there are worse methods. One approach which has recurred throughout history is to invert this process. Instead of identifying groups and appealing to their interest directly, identify unpopular groups to oppose, thereby winning over enough of the remaining population to win election / maintain support.

One advantage of this approach, the politics of exclusion, is that, unlike in the first approach where you actually have to repeatedly give people something in their interest to win them over, with the politics of exclusion you don't have to give people anything - all you have to do is punish the unpopular groups. This means that the government can implement both approaches at the same time. Win votes by punishing an unpopular group, and still have money left over to buy the votes of other groups.

Historically, popular choices for groups to punish have been ethnic and religious minorities - especially those which were more successful economically than the majority. Of course the Jews fit all those categories and the history there doesn't need me to retell it. In many parts of Asia, successful Chinese business communities have faced persecution, and here in Canada, the internment of the Japanese during WWII followed a similar pattern.

Fortunately, the second half of the 20th century saw the most obvious and odious of these tactics fall into disrepute, and while there are still politicians who look to punish ethnic groups for political gain, they generally have not had much success with this approach recently.

But tactics have moved on, and there are new groups to demonize. It has become a truism of American politics that if it is an even numbered year (i.e. one with an election) you can expect to hear Republican politicians talking about the threat posed by the gay community. Here in Canada, the Conservative government has adopted the same tactic but, recognizing that Canadian society is more tolerant of gays than
America, they have focussed their anti-gay rhetoric on immigrant communities, reckoning that since people in these communities have immigrated from socially conservative countries, they will be receptive to this message (thankfully, immigrants, to their credit, largely did not fall for this tactic).

One hazard of the politics of exclusion is that you lose the votes of the people you exclude, as voting patterns among gay people and Blacks in the United States demonstrates. This problem can be avoided by going after groups which can't or don't vote. Under don't vote, think the poor, especially welfare recipients. Under can't vote, think non-citizens (both legal and illegal immigrants) and foreigners.

Back in the U.S., the Republican party recently ran into trouble when it attempted to make political hay by promising to punish Latino immigrants. But when huge demonstrations erupted, the Republicans realized that they had, to go back to my game metaphor, tried to build too big a box and taken a hit. Soon they were backpedalling and trying to spread lies to blame the whole thing on the Democrats.

As for foreigners, there are any number of examples to choose from, the most recent one being Iran, already described as part of an 'Axis of Evil', and now cast as an ever more dangerous threat by administration talking points as the U.S. leads up to an election in the fall.

The last excluded group I want to talk about is 'the elite'. I put 'elite' in quotation marks because the so-called elite in question is not the extremely wealthy and well-connected families who own almost all of our media and wield extraordinary influence over our society (what I would normally consider the elite) but rather an abstract group of people constructed by an ongoing rhetorical campaign.

You'll see what I mean if I list some of the words used to describe this 'elite': 'Latte-drinking', 'Starbucks', 'effete', 'volvo-driving', 'academic', you get the picture. In the U.S., this abstract elite has been conflated with a particular word used to describe members of this elite - 'liberals'.

The ever helpful Wikipedia even has an entry on the liberal elite:
"An ad by the supply-side organization Club for Growth sums up many of the stereotypes: "Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs."

The fact that this hypothetical 'liberal elite' is being constructed as group to be punished for political gain is pretty obvious.

Consider this quote from Time magazine covergirl Ann Coulter,
"When contemplating college liberals, you really regret once again that John Walker is not getting the death penalty. We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors."

Or maybe buy this book by Jonah Goldberg, "Liberal Fascism : The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton" and while you're at the bookstore, get something for your kids as well, 'Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed!'.

Back in Canada, there is not, as yet, an equivalent to the American usage of 'liberal elite', perhaps impeded by the word Liberal already being occupied. But if you're wondering what prompted this post, it was me wondering why something Stephen Harper said the other day bothered me so much.

"The Prime Minister concluded, 'ordinary parents - people who work hard, pay their taxes and play by the rules - do not have a taxpayer-funded lobby group. They don't have the time to hold demonstrations, or make regular trips to Ottawa for news conferences. But they do support our plan.'"

The implication is that those who oppose Harper are not ordinary, don't work hard, don't pay their taxes, don't play by the rules, and are just taxpayer funded lobby groups. I was immediately reminded of something Warren Kinsella said about the recent federal election,
"It wasn't about Left versus Right. It wasn't about Urban versus Rural. It wasn't about East versus West. It wasn't about French versus English.

It was about us (the people at hockey rinks, holding cups from Tim's or Coffee Time) versus the elites (the ones who have never been on public transit, and who read the Sunday Times at Starbucks)."

Sound familiar to the stereotypes listed in the Wikipedia entry?

Reading the above quote from Harper I could just imagine he wished he had some Canadian equivalent of 'liberal elite' which he could use to demonize those who oppose his government.

History tells us that while the politics of aggregating group interests is not ideal, the politics of exclusion is even worse. So many of the things we look back on with regret originally stemmed from a plan to win votes by appealing to the majority's dislike or hatred of some unpopular minority, and I think that is why the quote from Harper bothered me so much. It clearly signalled that Harper planned to sell his policies not on their merits for the public good, and not (solely) by an appeal to the self-interest of certain groups within society - but by demonizing those who oppose his policy. Or in other words, by resorting to the politics of exclusion.


  • Riight.

    Appealing to those who 'work hard and pay their taxes' is dangerously divisive - obviously Harper is a demagogue (perhaps even an American-style demagogue - shhh, hide the children!) who must be stopped. On the other hand, appealing to those who hold 'Canadian values' is not, nor is presenting your ideas as a "Family First Agenda." I am eager to understand the distinction you draw between the way the three main parties present themselves.

    By Blogger deaner, at 4:05 PM  

  • Excellent post, Declan.

    The Harper quote bothered me for a reason quite different from the one you mention (although the reason you give is a good one too): what struck me was how, in Harper's universe, the absence of demonstrations and news conferences and trips to Ottawa somehow constitutes evidence that his platform has support! Because the types of people who support it aren't the type to hold demonstrations and such, so the fact that we're not seeing those demonstrations just goes to show that Ordinary People are supporting his plan in the very way that Ordinary People show their support: quietly and unobtrusively.

    Then again, I'm remembering a number of rather well-attended anti-gay-marriage rallies that were held (by Harper supporters) around a year ago. I presume that those rallies were attended by the same sort of non-rally-attending folks whom Harper claims are now supposedly silently supporting him. So this "my people are too dignified to attend demonstrations" bit? Not buying it.

    By Anonymous Moebius Stripper, at 6:01 PM  

  • Harper wasn't appealing to those who pay taxes and work hard, he was suggesting that his opponents don't pay their taxes or work hard. More specifically he was creating an image of a lazy non-ordinary person who just spends all their time sitting around spending their money from the federal government protesting and holding news conferences and suggesting that anyone who opposes his policy is part of this group.

    It is a leap to say that this is part of a Conservative plan to define themselves in opposition to a 'liberal elite' but not a big one.

    If you have some specfic comments by other parties that you want me to comment on, I can do that, there are many examples of this type of rhetoric and I hate them all.

    But simply calling a platform a 'family first agenda' is not nearly the same thing as it is not targetted to build resentment against a specific group of people.

    By Blogger Declan, at 6:05 PM  

  • My previous comment was directed to Dean, in case that is not obvious.

    Good point MS, I agree - One small correction though, it's not that the Conservative supporters are too dignified to protest - they're just too busy - because they are working so darn hard! That's probably why Timbits are so popular - because ordinary people don't have time to stop and eat a whole donut.

    By Blogger Declan, at 6:10 PM  

  • This problem can be avoided by going after groups which can't or don't vote. [...] Under can't vote, think non-citizens (both legal and illegal immigrants) and foreigners.

    A corollary of this is to make people who vote against you "can't vote"rs. Think felons. Take away a felon's right to vote, then make more things illegal or keep them illegal (e.g. drugs), then prosecute as felons people who vote against you and plead down to misdemeanors people who vote for you.

    Of course, it's probably just more efficient to "mistakenly" mark people in counties that largely vote against you as felons and then not tell them and then not let them register to vote once they've found out the error. Thank God that never happened!

    By Anonymous Nicholas, at 10:26 PM  

  • Good point about felons, Nicholas - the millions of prisoners who can't vote crossed my mind in writing that section, but I couldn't find a way to work it in to the post smoothly, so I left it out.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:14 PM  

  • Ah, yes, the hardworking taxpayers who don't have the time (or the money, remember) to eat an entire donut. And because they don't have the time to sit down and order, they use the drive-through window, even though they're all using public transit and hence not driving. I always see so many pedestrians lined up at those windows. Don't you?

    By Anonymous Moebius Stripper, at 7:43 AM  

  • Declan: I think the word your looking for is "do-gooders." I've heard it kicked around the right-wing blogosphere, though I haven't heard it used by any politicians.

    MS: Harper wasn't touting the lack of demonstrators in his favour as proof that "ordinary" parents support his plan. He made the statement "But they do support our plan" without any proof. Presumably this is based on either polling information or wishful thinking.

    And he was clearly conjuring up the image of a special-interest group (the "daycare lobby") who had a clear interest in promoting the Liberal/NDP child care plan. Of course, you can't say a plan is bad just because it benefits a specific group ("daycare lobby") as much or more than it benefits society as a whole (or, less generally, working parents). The benefits the "daycare lobby" accrues are irrelevant to whether the plan is good for Canada as a whole, and not something I am choosing to debate one way or another.

    Although, I must disagree with his usage of the phrase "pays their taxes." Don't we all pay our taxes? And I thought he didn't even like taxes!


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:44 AM  

  • " Harper's universe, the absence of demonstrations and news conferences and trips to Ottawa somehow constitutes evidence that his platform has support! ...the fact that we're not seeing those demonstrations just goes to show that Ordinary People are supporting his plan in the very way that Ordinary People show their support: quietly and unobtrusively."

    No - I think he was addressing the demonstrations, press conferences, etc in favour of the Liberal and NDP child-care plan. His claim is that a demonstration by a group (child-care workers, as an example) that expects to extract significant benefits from a particular public policy should not be taken as an indicator of broad public support. This is doubly true when the group in question receives government funding to publicize and lobby for policy changes.

    The absence of demonstrations in favour of the Tory plan canot be taken as "support" for the plan, and I don't think Harper was suggesting that it should be -instead, he was correctly claiming that it cannot be taken as an adverse reaction to the proposal.

    "But simply calling a platform a 'family first agenda' is not nearly the same thing as it is not targetted to build resentment against a specific group of people."

    But it is intended to characterize the NDP policies as 'family friendly' so that those who disagree with the NDP platform become 'anti-family.' I fail to see the fine distinction you do, Declan (and even moreso wth a party that claims to represent "Canadian Values"). This suggests to me that your disagreement with Harper's policies is leading you to see an "unacceptable" style of politics in his presentation of those policies, and blinding you to the fact that he is practicing politics in exactly the same way as the other maor parties.

    As I said on this topic over at oddthoughts, we have a politician claiming that "average people" support his policies: that is hardly a "Man bites Dog" headline, is it?

    By Blogger deaner, at 11:41 AM  

  • Fortunately, I don't think Harper's attempt to frame this past election worked, and I don't think his ongoing attempts at polarization will work. Try as he might, a single PM, no matter how smart he thinks he is, cannot change the ingrained political culture in Canada.

    Consider that the Conservatives lost seats in *rurul* BC in the last election. Here in the Maritimes, they managed no breakthrough, and this area is the most rural and most lacking in the types of "elites" the Kinsella mentions. Nova Scotia, I'm sure, has the highest per capita number of Tim's outlets, and the Conservatives were *third* in the popular vote this past election.

    The other problem (thankfully) for Harper is that this type of rhetoric won't fly in Quebec, which is precisely where he needs to win many more seats if he's to win his hallowed majority. Despite the wishful thinking of many English Canadian columnists and pundits, the Bloc is not going to disappear anytime soon, and the Liberals will remain as a presence in Quebec, albeit in a weakened state.

    Harper seems to think that he can reshape the country, even musing about unspecified constitutional reform. In the process, he's more than willing to sacrifice a whole array of past principles to political expediency. I don't think he'll succeed, but the Liberals and the NDP will have to do more to make that certain.

    By Blogger Josh Gould, at 11:48 AM  

  • Don - You make some good points, although I think outside of the bloging Tory world, 'do-gooder' might have too many positive connotations to use to characterize a group which opposes the government.

    Dean - "I fail to see the fine distinction you do"

    Fair enough, it is a fairly fine distinction at this point. I hope that you are right and it stays that way, but I'm not convinced - I guess time may tell.

    Josh - Yes, polarization is a good word as well for what Harper is attempting (in my opinion). I hope you are right as well, in that it will fail to work.

    I think the highest concentration of Tim Horton's is probably in Hamilton, but the Conservatives didn't do well there either, so I guess it is a moot point.

    By Blogger Declan, at 1:08 PM  

  • Gee whiz. I guess I forgot about the most inclusive, bridge-building, community-fostering campaign gambit of our recent past: the proclamation that a particular candidate "loves Canada" and the challenge that 'the other guy' doesn't love Canada. Tell me again how Harper is such a divisive force...

    By Blogger deaner, at 8:36 PM  

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