Are We Consumers, Citizens or Merely Subjects?
“Choosing a politician is like choosing a product in a store. If you are good at influencing people’s product choice, chances are you should be good at influencing their political choice.”
I saw an interview earlier this week with Susan Delacourt, the Toronto Star reporter who has just published a new book called Shopping for Votes. Her basic premise is that politicians and their parties have begun to treat taxpayers as consumers rather than citizens. She gives a number of examples including the change in how political parties advertise and set short-term policy to support her theory and much of what she had to say makes some sense.
She postulates that there are two types of voters; citizens and taxpayers. She considers those who sees themselves more as taxpayers than citizens to have short-term ‘want’ goals and who see their vote as a way of getting something for themselves while citizens are more interested in the long-term benefits of good governance to the country.
While most of what Ms Delacourt has written is accurate, I believe it only scratches the surface and her conclusions miss a more fundamental truth. There is no question that there are those among us who put immediate wants ahead of long-term realities and we often see special interest groups advertising for a candidate who is promising to give them some immediate benefit even if it is at the expense of other taxpayers or long-term government debt.
But I think her premise is too simplistic. Lots of consumers make careful and considered purchasing decisions for the benefit of themselves and their families. Health coverage, life-insurance, houses, cars and mutual funds are all long-term life-improving investments made by consumers.
I spent a lot of years in strategic marketing and advertising and what political parties are doing merely resembles consumer marketing.
To be sure, they’ve incorporated some of the techniques but have not grasped the fundamental understanding that there is a synergistic relationship between the provider and the consumer. It is an ongoing relationship built on trust, quality of product and customer service. The kiss of death in consumer marketing is to fail in each or any combination of those areas.
In politics, they understand that they rely on us to obtain and maintain power and to fund their governments but it ends there. They fail to grasp that they have a responsibility to us that extends beyond getting elected and passing legislation.
Most of us see ourselves as citizens or taxpayers or consumers or some combination of all three but government doesn’t. They see us as subjects in much the same way as the old monarchs used to see the people of their realms. They understand that they do not rule by divine right as jolly old kings like Henry VIII believed but beyond needing us to get elected and to fund government, they fail to see us as very useful at all.
They call us taxpayers and stakeholders but in fact what we really are is shareholders and those people we elect and that they appoint all work for us. In the good old days, everybody worked for the king. Unfortunately, too many of our elected politicians have forgotten that we’ve actually moved on from that idea.
Elections are trust agreements. Political parties are meant to put forward their vision, their legislative program and the people are meant to decide which one is the one they believe is right for the country. If and when (as usually happens) the elected government of the day reneges on its election promises, it breaks that agreement and violates the trust of the people.
It’s like purchasing a new something or other that doesn’t actually do what the advertising promised it would do.
It also undermines the foundation of our democratic rights as citizens.
We see it happen all the time regardless of party. Indeed, there isn’t really much difference between the parties once they’re elected to office. They only flaunt their ideological beliefs when their looking for support during an election.
The current Conservative Government ran on a conservative platform but has eschewed conservative values and principles to maintain power. It has avoided any discussion on abortion for example and addressed the 2008 recession in pretty much the same way any progressive government might have done.
Whether it’s the current Conservative Government promising not to eliminate income trusts during an election and then turning around after the election to eliminate them or promises by the Liberals to eliminate the GST only to keep it after the votes were counted, the simple fact is that the people have the right to make the decision. Once that decision is made, regardless of what the politicians think, it is there responsibility to act upon it not to do what they want after the election simply because they think the people made the wrong decision.
In a democracy, the people have the right to be wrong. It is, after all, their country and their government.
Too often, politicians and their parties fail to understand that they were not elected to rule us but rather to govern on our behalf. I was reminded of that again yesterday with the release of a report on the costs associated with the cancellation of two power plants by the Auditor General for the Province of Ontario.
If there was ever an egregious example of putting political interest ahead of responsibility to provide good governance on behalf of the people, this was it.
During the last election, the incumbent Liberal Government of Dalton McGuinty made a decision to cancel construction which was already underway for the two plants in an attempt to save five Liberal seats in the election. The cost of that decision was revealed in the AG’s report as $1.1 billion. That’s not Liberal money that was spent to get someone elected – that was our money – money intended for other things like health care, infrastructure and education.
It is nothing less than a form of theft – stealing money provided by taxpayers and used improperly and one would have thought, illegally. Certainly, in the real world where politicians seldom go, it would be.
Even when we try to protect ourselves, politicians put self-interest ahead of their responsibility to serve rather than rule. In Manitoba, there was a law requiring the government of the day to put any proposed tax increases before the people to allow the people to approve any increase in their taxes.
It’s an old principle – no taxation without representation and if you don’t have a vote on whether or not a tax should be levied, you have no representation and it’s based on the simple premise that the money belongs, first and foremost, to the person who earned it. They have a right to participate in the decision about whether or not to give more of it to government.
The current government ran in the election on a promise of no tax increases but once elected, announced that they were going to raise taxes. That ‘after-the-election about face not a new phenomena in politics and happens too often. Fortunately, the people of Manitoba were protected by a law requiring government to put new taxes and tax increases before the people. Unfortunately, the government arbitrarily used its power to simply repeal the law and take away the people’s right to decide.
That isn’t treating people as either citizens or consumers. It is treating them like subjects to be coddled and stroked at election time but pretty much ignored between elections.
The other issue is that most people are fed up with the ongoing attack ads. They work but only primarily with the 10% of swing voters. Most thinking voters, who already support one party or another, find them distasteful and with good reason. They want to know what a party stands for not simply what it opposes.
In other words, they want to make an informed decision but they are denied that opportunity by the negative attacks made by all parties. Walmart will never run ads accusing Target of improper product purchasing. They understand that negative marketing affects not just the target of the ad but the entire industry.
And that is precisely what is happening in politics today.
The entire profession is being undermined. Even those politicians who may well be people of integrity with a sincere desire to serve are increasingly looked upon with suspicion. More and more people are turning their backs on the electoral process because they don’t see the point of voting when politicians break trust after the election.
In the end, I believe that despite the fact that political parties have torn a page or two from the consumer marketing handbook the fact remains that there is a significant difference between consumer advertisers and politicians.
Consumer advertisers understand that their customers are gold. Without those customers, they have nothing but warehouses full of products. Politicians only remember us when they need more money or our votes. The rest of the time they serve only themselves and that, my friends, is the difference between being a citizen shareholder and merely a subject.
We are governed by those who denigrate our political institutions, erode trust in government and undermine our democracies. You only have to look at the current mess in the United States where Congress and the President have failed to avoid a partial government shutdown. Their battle for political advantage has taken priority over their responsibility to govern on behalf of the people.
Politics is no longer about governing and the marketing of political parties is not about providing ideas to the electorate from which they can choose.
Politics has become a world of its own; a battle between rival clans for power. As for you and I – well, we’re just subjects of the realm and unless we start putting aside our petty differences to take back our nations from those who want to rule rather than govern, we might just as well practice bowing and tugging our forelocks whenever the great and mighty drop by to ask for our votes.
If we don’t Ms Delacourt may yet prove to be right.
© 2013 Maggie’s Bear
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