Friday, January 7, 2011

Stephen Harper and the Bare Majority of Emotion

President Obama with Prime Minister Stephen Ha...Image via WikipediaSo I was thinking... I was thinking not merely that Stephen Harper is a conniving, manipulative, self-interested control-freak - because that's hardly news. No, it occurred to me that believing that Harper is conniving, manipulative, self-interested and a control-freak is the great non-partisan equaliser: it's the one thing that Canadians of all stripes can agree on. There is no-one, forget even partisans but probably not even family members, who would disagree with this assessment. It just so happens that Canadians are divided between the 65-70% who believe Harper is a conniving, manipulative, self-interested control-freak and as such would not vote for him, and the 30-35% who believe Harper is a conniving, manipulative, self-interested control-freak and nevertheless (or perhaps even thus) would still vote for him.

There's a lot you can draw from that conclusion, mostly about how little we expect from our politicians. Or about how desperate we are for solid leadership that we'll take anything we can get. But what occurs to me is that it shows something remarkably aware about Harper, and as much as anything else it'll be the one thing that gives him the best chance of capturing his longed-for minority. It is this:

All politicians realise, though few will admit it, that in any specific riding, once you've secured 51% of the vote, you're wasting your time trying to do anything with the other 49%. A win scraped by is as good as a landslide. When Harper's Conservative candidates in Alberta rack up votes in the 70th percentile and higher, it looks good on paper but means nothing in the House of Commons. Squeak by at 51% - or, in a multiparty electoral battleground, the mid-thirties will probably do - and forget the rest. All politicians know this, but Harper alone seems genuinely comfortable with it.

More to the point, though: just as it's a waste of time trying to win over any more than 51% of the electorate, it's a waste of time trying to be loved when being liked is enough. Or not even liked so much as 'respected enough to give your vote to'. People like Pierre Trudeau and, in his own way, Brian Mulroney had this kind of need to be loved: harper doesn't seem to have that. Once a voter accepts him enough to cast his vote for him or his party, any more effort on that voter is wasted. Who needs love? Love doesn't earn more votes than merely liking. Harper is loved by very few people in this country, yet he's managed five years in the PM's chair.

The obverse, of course, is that on a vote-by-vote basis, just 51% is enough and any more is a waste, 49% is no improvement over 0%. A riding that cannot be won is worth no time whatsoever, and a person who cannot be made to 'like' Harper on the most elemental of levels might as well loathe him. There's no difference between mere dislike and outright revulsion: neither transfers to a vote. Harper is probably well aware that there are large areas of the country where he is hated with a vehemence. The thing is, though, that - having sat down with a map of Canada, a calculator and a team of advisors, has decided that he just doesn't care. Not merely in the terms of 'acceptable loss'. Trudeau was probably aare that he'd never win over Alberta, for example, and developed a strategy accordingly. But I would bet that it still bothered Trudeau, on that basic level where humans just want to be loved. I'm sure Trudeau at his most megalomaniac moments dreamed of being loved from coast to coast. Harper, a different kind of megalomaniac, simply doesn't. I am sure he harbours no such dreams and is comfortable with being hated, so long as he's able to hang on to power.

This might be no newer than Niccolò Machiavelli, but it still feels new to have a prime minister so brazenly beholden to Realpolitik principles that he's completely forgotten to have human emotions. But still, if anything will, it's that that will get Harper his majority.
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