Opinion

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dwayne Buckle, 40 of Red Deer finished a 1,638-kilometre walk, in honour of his family. The 12-week, 82 day-journey wrapped up in Port Hardy, B.C. on Monday. Facebook photo
Red Deer man completes 1,638 km hike for cancer research

Dwayne Buckle, a Red Deer firefighter returned home Friday after his 12-week journey

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine deliveres to Canada are being delayed because of complications at their European distribution facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Delays of Pfizer vaccine delivery to impact Alberta’s vaccination plans

Alberta has administered 74,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine so far

Two inmates at Bowden Institution have tested positive for COVID-19. (Black Press File Photo)
2 Bowden inmates test positive for COVID-19

A pair of inmates at Bowden Institution have tested positive for COVID-19.… Continue reading

Salons and barbershops are able to open on Monday, the Government of Alberta announced this week. (Photo courtesy Pixabay)
Red Deer salon owner “relieved” business can re-open next week

The owner of a Red Deer salon says she’s “definitely relieved” her… Continue reading

Red Deer Valhalla Pure Outfitters owner Darren Schaedeli has seen a significant increase in those looking to tackle winter experiences. Some are trying their hand at "hot tent camping" as he did in the West Country several weeks ago.
Photo contributed
Central Albertans enjoying the great outdoors this winter

Stir crazy and beach-deprived central Albertans are embracing the great outdoors this… Continue reading

Lesser Slave Lake UCP MLA Pat Rehn. (Facebook)
Updated: Jason Kenney kicks Lesser Slave Lake MLA out of caucus

Pat Rehn will not be permitted to run for UCP nominations

Manchester United's Tobin Heath celebrates scoring against West Ham United during the FA Women's Super League match at Victoria Road Stadium, London, Sunday Oct. 18, 2020. (John Walton/PA via AP)
Double 1st: Man U men, women leading 2 leagues, play champs

Double 1st: Man U men, women leading 2 leagues, play champs

A group of Buffalo Bills fans from Toronto pose for a photo while tailgating in the parking lot of New Era Field before an NFL football game between the Bills and the New York Jets, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, in Orchard Park, N.Y. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Adrian Kraus
Being unable to attend Bills playoff games due to pandemic pains Canadian fans

Being unable to attend Bills playoff games due to pandemic pains Canadian fans

FILE - Chicago Cubs' Kris Bryant runs the bases after hitting a solo home run in the sixth inning during a baseball game against the Cleveland Indians in Cleveland, in this Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, file photo. Bryant is among roughly 125 players who entered Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, eligible to exchange salary arbitration figures with their teams. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)
Lindor, Bryant, Bellinger, Seager get big-money deals

Lindor, Bryant, Bellinger, Seager get big-money deals

Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash points during the third quarter of the team's NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in New York. (Brad Penner/Pool Photo via AP)
More NBA games off, as league continues struggles with virus

More NBA games off, as league continues struggles with virus

Washington Capitals' Jakub Vrana (13) is congratulated for his goal during the second period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
Vanecek makes 28 saves in NHL debut, Capitals sweep Sabres

Vanecek makes 28 saves in NHL debut, Capitals sweep Sabres

Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Collin Delia (60) makes a save after Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat (18) fell down during the first period of an NHL hockey game Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Stamkos, Palat lift Lightning over Blackhawks again

Stamkos, Palat lift Lightning over Blackhawks again

Canadian women's soccer team member Rhian Wilkinson is seen during a training session in Vancouver, B.C. Wednesday, April 21, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Former Canadian international Rhian Wilkinson leaves Canada Soccer coaching job

Former Canadian international Rhian Wilkinson leaves Canada Soccer coaching job

Tkachuk, Senators down Maple Leafs 5-3 in 1st game in 10 months

Tkachuk, Senators down Maple Leafs 5-3 in 1st game in 10 months

Most Read