Political Perspectives is produced by the students and faculty of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, Canada's oldest journalism school.


Cultural polarization

Posted by cwaddell under Election 2008, Election 2008 Campaign strategy, Election 2008 Faculty links

Andrew Cohen

So Stephen Harper is now training his artillery on artists, actors, writers and poets. He sees votes in beating up the country’s cultural elite.

“I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a bunch of people, you know, at a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers, claiming their subsidies are not high enough … I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people,” he said on Tuesday this week.

A rich gala. Subsidies. Ordinary people. Here is a populist’s lament. Mr. Harper didn’t use the word “elite”. He didn’t have to.

He wants the people to know that he doesn’t like this pretentious crowd, which is why you won’t find him at those fancy fundraisers at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. He sends his wife instead.

Here’s the spirit of George Wallace, the scrappy, segregationist governor of Alabama, who gleefully painted his enemies as “pointy-headed intellectuals.” When Mr. Wallace poured out his invective, you could see the dirt under his fingernails and the sweat on his brow.

Mr. Harper is no George Wallace, but his broadside shouldn’t surprise anyone in a targeted campaign pitched to specific voters. The point is to create differences between us (the people) and them (the snobs), playing off one against each other, appealing to that deep well of resentment in the land of the Tall Poppy.

This is a strategy. It is the same reason that Mr. Harper proposes cracking down on juvenile crime, even as criminologists tell him crime isn’t rising and his punishments won’t work. No matter; tough talk sells among rock-hard conservatives.

Ironically, the Prime Minister has spent the campaign trying to show his soft side – wearing a sweater, kissing babies, playing the piano. Now he’s showing off his folksiness. Soon Mr. Harper, who has an MA in economics, will start droppin’ his “g’s.”

But culture matters. While Mr. Harper’s $45-million in cuts to the arts may have little “resonance” in English-speaking Canada, they are an issue in Quebec, where both Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton are exploiting the issue. Mr. Dion even announced his promise to increase spending on the arts last weekend in Place des Arts in Montreal.

Mr. Harper knows this, which is why he isn’t pushing the anti-cultural line in Quebec, where he sees his majority. When he was asked to repeat his “gala” comment in French, he shrewdly refused.

 (This column originally appeared in the Metro newspapers.)

Andrew Cohen is a member of the faculty of the School of Journalism and COmmunication at Carleton University and most recently the author of Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson.