Opinion: Pandemic changed gamed for politicians

The retail business took a massive hit in 2020. So did retail politics.

COVID-19 radically altered a lot of ideas about the government’s relationship with citizens – especially the idea that voters are mere consumers in the democratic marketplace.

The usual politics of giving people what they want turned into a conversation in 2020 about giving people what they needed.

Political leaders also had to ask for more than just the votes of citizens – they had to ask them to wear masks, wash their hands and radically change the way they lived and worked.

A pandemic, it turns out, is no time for soft-sell and the usual political spin, hard as that habit may be to break. Many leaders in Canada did, though.

The most memorable quotes from Canada’s political leaders this year, when you think about it, were a far cry from the careful, focus-group-tested rhetoric that we are accustomed to hearing from the elected class.

“Enough is enough. Go home and stay home,” Justin Trudeau declared at the outset of the spring lockdown.

“You guys wanna go out there acting like a bunch of yahoos?” Premier Doug Ford asked a gang of antimask advocates in September. “Guys, give your heads a shake.”

In the political-marketing world, hard truths are usually avoided and voters are never ever told they are being stupid.

This was a luxury that most Canadian political leaders decided they couldn’t afford in 2020.

“Stay the blazes home,” Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil warned the good people of his province.

“The right to shop is not as important as the right to life,” Premier Brian Pallister recently told his fellow Manitobans. A few weeks ago, this same premier warned that he was forced to be “the guy who is stealing Christmas.”

U.S. President Donald Trump tried to market his way through the COVID-19 crisis, with disastrous results for himself and his fellow Americans. In fact, it is Trump, maybe the biggest salesman ever to occupy the Oval Office, who really damaged the business of political marketing during this pandemic and possibly beyond.

Trump’s massive marketing fail was truly exposed when Bob Woodward released his book “Rage,” based on hours of taped conversations with the president. Very early in 2020, as the book revealed, Trump had known of the dangers of COVID-19, but decided that his job was to give people what they wanted to hear.

“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward on March 19, less than a week after the worldwide pandemic was declared. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Trump’s lack of repentance about that approach spoke volumes about how he saw the job of leadership, and his view has not been an uncommon one in the age of political marketing.

If you believe that the primary goal of a political leader is to sell hope, much the way you’d sell soap, then the president was simply following a time-honoured practice. He wanted Americans to stay upbeat and keep spending money.

But it didn’t work. Trump will no longer be president in 2021 and Joe Biden’s main task on taking power will be wrestling with the damage that was done by a man who believed that everything – including a deadly virus and an election defeat – could be battled with false advertising.

Marketing hasn’t been a totally destructive force in politics – elected people have reformed a lot of bad practices by trying to be more accountable to their democratic “customers.”

But COVID-19 has provided a stark demonstration of marketing’s limits when things get serious. The duty of politicians during a national crisis goes far beyond dispensing tax cuts and government goodies, or doing the customer-is-always-right thing with the citizens. Sometimes people have to be told to stay the blazes home or stop being yahoos.

Retail politics, according to the official definition, is the practice by which politicians go out and try to have as much direct, face-to-face contact with the voters as possible – the whole kissing-babies-and-shaking-hands routine.

In pandemic-land, this would be called creating the conditions for a “super-spreader event” – much like those rallies that Trump kept holding before he lost the presidential election on Nov. 3.

Politics will return to business as usual at some point, maybe just in time for a federal election in 2021. But while there isn’t much to remember fondly from 2020, it was a welcome break from the kind of politics that sees citizens as shoppers and democracy as a cash transaction.

Susan Delacourt is a National Affairs writer.