What to election campaigns actually measure? Ability -- or theatrical performance?




Consider this passage of this Toronto Star article from November 9, 1994:

Rowlands under fire at debate

…Hall and Meinzer peppered Rowlands for being absent at the crucial times when Toronto residents needed a calm, reassuring voice that said, "Someone's in charge." Two incidents support the view, they said.
Rowlands, 70, carried on with a city council meeting while Toronto residents watched Yonge St. erupt in violence in May, 1992, after a peaceful demonstration outside the U.S. consulate over the verdict in the Rodney King case.
And Rowlands didn't know a band of youths had terrorized merchants and swarmed people for several hours along Yonge St. this Halloween. She was caught off guard when asked about it the following day at an all-candidates meeting.
"It's important to have a mayor who knows what's happening in this city. You've missed the boat, June," said Hall.
Meinzer called it "inexcusable that the mayor, 16 hours after the event, doesn't know" the swarming happened.
Hall said that "after incidents like the so-called (1992) riot on Yonge St., the mayor has an obligation to speak" to the public right away. "I also believe it's important for the mayor to know what's happening in the city."
Rowlands said she was busy holding a council meeting during the 1992 incidents. But after the violence, she said, she "met first thing in the morning with black leaders and issued a joint communique which cooled out the situation."

Rowlands, not surprisingly lost the election. That was a turning point.

Now consider this latest faux pas from federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh when asked about Chinese Ambassador to Canada Lu Shaye’s article in the Hill Times (where he wrote “The reason why some people are used to arrogantly adopting double standards is due to Western egotism and white supremacy. In such a context, the rule of law is nothing but a tool for their political ends and a fig leaf for their practising hegemony in the international arena. What they have been doing is not showing respect for the rule of law, but mocking and trampling the rule of law.”):

“Sorry, who accused who of white supremacy?”

It didn’t play well, but considering the Liberal opponent just stepped aside given her own comments, political memory can be short. Rowlands bad luck was the debate happened too close to voting day and her opponents avoided stepping in the dog shit she did.

But campaigns are pretty much canned events and photo ops that don’t do very much unless the politician in question really screws up. The Hamilton Spectator once waxed on it during the last federal election on October 3, 2015:

There was a time when election campaigns were…spontaneous, intimate, passionate. Politicians said what they thought, and actually answered questions…
Reporters were allowed more access, and were discreet and respectful, sticking to the issues and overlooking what might then have been considered none of their business.
Today, those rules are gone and the campaign is a highly scripted event.
Journalists are kept at a distance, the farther the better. Questions are few; answers are evasive.
Politicians are told what to say, when to say it, how to say it, and to whom. Every line is memorized, rehearsed and focus-grouped. Any attempt to go off-script is dangerous, sometimes suicidal.
No matter how unpredictable the question, there is always a predictable response.
Unlike the stump speech of another era (so named because politicians stood on a stump to see above the crowd) today's are controlled, with picturesque backgrounds and obedient onlookers. The Conservative party events are by invitation only. The party even tried (and gave up) to put a gag order on attendees, making them promise not to transmit "any description, account, picture or reproduction of the event…"
The result is that today, voters are left with - well, they're left with the campaign we see before us: three leaders mostly unchanged in the polls since the day the election was called…
None of the leaders make many - if any - gaffes. But neither do they say anything remarkable. They do not use journalists to get their message out; they use social media or blanket the airwaves with multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns…

In other words, everyone was slumbering, and too deferential to dig. Now that social media allows a finer refinement, politicians are trying to rig the canned event so that no one can see, hear, or witness what is really happening.

Campaigns have never been empirical. They have always been theatrical. Even if someone makes a gaffe, often it is not a real gaffe; it is a mere flubbing of a line that looks bad in the context of a performance.

The qualities we ought to consider are slumbering we ignore because there is no way to measure it. Instead, we revere the irrelevant, and that’s a case of sanctioned insanity. Every once in a while some out-of-control vice explodes in spite the choreographed scripts, and they stand out.

Until someone even worse upstages it.

That is the question. Journalism played along and then got shut out when they couldn’t deliver voters.

The alternative to journalism has to create the measurements in order to empirically measure what is out there, and what it means.

Because in a Zero Risk Society, we take unwise gambles for no good reason at all…