This weekend’s balmy Montréal weather provided me ample indoor time to consider the question of what’s wrong with political discourse these days. I’ve been sussing out a research project with a doctoral candidate in Communications Studies [ footnote: the more you learn about the important issues in modern politics, the more you realize that political scientists are the least likely to be studying those issues]. I’m interested in whether there is a problem with the way that politicians communicate to the Canadian public, how they are abetted by a (corporatized) press, and how one can do something about the register of political discourse without directly trying to regulate politicians or the press directly.
What’s the issue? The nature of the problem may strike a chord of ‘obvious,’ but I found clearly articulating the relevant shortcomings to be an incredibly difficult task. I think it’s best illustrated through the example I’ve had in mind while working through these issues, which concerns the uses and abuses of the ‘tough on crime’ discourse.
There is good evidence that being ‘tough on crime’, if what one cares about is reduced criminality and improved public safety, is very different from being ‘tough on criminals’, which focuses on the application of ‘appropriate’ punishment. Within limits, the Harper government’s gamut of strategies – higher incarceration rates, longer sentences, mandatory minimums, reduced bail opportunities – has little impact on crime rates. One could just as (or more) easily use ‘tough on crime’ language to refer to strategies effective in reducing criminality and recidivism, and thereby improving community safety: e.g. reducing poverty rates, focusing on community reintegration, promoting social inclusion.
Like ‘tough on stains’, a ‘tough on crime’ discourse conflates intimations of brusque treatment and an intention to rub out the underlying phenomena. There is nothing a priori inaccurate about using the phrase to refer only to retroactive condemnation of criminality; yet no washing liquid, no matter how caustic, could claim to be ‘tough on stains’ unless it effectively reduced the sign of such stains.
In saying they are ‘tough on crime’, the Harper government attempts to cover the field. The language they use implies both approbation and activism, painting the opposition as indolent and inattentive. The Canadian press in turn does a poor job of challenging those using ‘tough on crime’ language, or of critiquing its use by placing it in the context of either criminology research and discussion of criminal justice ethics. The result is occlusion of a debate about whether we should value criminal policy which gives victims justice by appropriately punishing perpetrators or social policy likely to reduce the number of victims.
Shouldn’t politicians interested in good policy want to speak with nuance, depth and complexity about their proposals, their likely outcomes and the values represented in those choices? They might but, when one faces a press without the time, effort or energy to report on those nuances, the politician likely to grab the headline is the one who speaks in headlines. In part, Harper’s government speaks in ‘tough on crime’ language because the press is willing to report it that way.
My thinking is that we need ways of having the real debates which sidesteps the evasions perpetrated by the political class and facilitated by the press. Here’s the conclusion from the first draft of the proposal, which gives a sense of my intuition:
…the promotion of public knowledge is the most, if not the only, effective method of intervening in the toxic relationship which currently exists between politicians and the press. Without public knowledge and support for it, the idea of democracy becomes a perversion, where the public is forced, essentially, to guess about whether their representatives have done a good job. At the extreme, the absence of public knowledge turns representative democracy into a farce. The goal is not to get politicians to speak in full sentences and explain everything they do to the public. The goal is to give the public meaningful access to the diversity of questions that can be asked, the answers that might be given and the impact of making those choices, when they are making political contributions to the design of public life. Worrying about politicians puts the cart before the horse.