“A national political campaign,” wrote H.L. Mencken, “is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.” After four federal elections in the seven years between 2004 and 2011, numerous provincial and municipal elections, and local by-elections, Canadians have become pretty much inured to this kind of political circus. Luckily, as Tom Flanagan assures us in Winning Power (echoing Mencken), political campaigns are a lot more entertaining than the day-to-day drudgery of crafting legislation. “Governance is dull,” Flanagan writes, “campaigning is fun.”
Flanagan has the advantage of experience in both theoretical and practical aspects of campaigning. He was a professor at the University of Calgary for 45 years and acted as campaign manager for both the federal Conservatives (in the 2006 election that brought them to minority government power) and Alberta’s nascent Wildrose Party in the 2012 provincial election. This experience has allowed him to create a breezy, accessible primer on the art of the political campaign, drawing on everything from primatology to game theory to Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric.
Winning Power is particularly good at elucidating the tactics politicians use to sway voters – fear, then anger are the most powerful motivators, says Flanagan – and providing a rudimentary outline of issues around campaign finance, negative advertising, and the modern reality of permanent campaigning between election cycles.
Flanagan being Flanagan, however, he cannot help but deploy statements that are, at best, provocative. Stephen Harper wore a suit for a 2005 announcement because “he has a weight problem and looks better in boxy business attire than in casual clothes,” and the notorious wrap on the Wildrose campaign bus – which featured an image of party leader Danielle Smith positioned in such a way that the bus’s double wheels looked like her breasts – was only picked up on by “the dirty minds of the media.”
It is this lack of an internal censor that almost ended Flanagan’s career as a public figure following an appearance in Lethbridge, Alberta, on Feb. 27, 2013. During an event dealing with the future of the Indian Act, Arnell Tailfeathers and Levi Little Mustache, two activists with the Idle No More movement, asked Flanagan to clarify comments he made in 2009 on the subject of child pornography. In his off-the-cuff answer, Flanagan questioned whether people who view child pornography should be imprisoned “for doing something in which they do not harm another person.” Tailfeathers posted a video of Flanagan’s response to YouTube with the title “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography.”
The result was a firestorm of condemnation on Twitter, in the press, and in political circles. Both Stephen Harper and Danielle Smith disavowed Flanagan, as did Alberta Premier Alison Redmond. The University of Calgary issued a statement decrying Flanagan and implying that he would no longer be teaching at the institution (Flanagan had already announced he would retire that June), and the CBC dropped him as a political commentator.
Persona Non Grata is putatively Flanagan’s attempt to set the record straight about the way his comments were misunderstood, and to issue warnings about the dangers of online mobs and a politically correct clampdown on freedom of speech in academia. In reality, the book is a sustained screed in which the author blames everyone around him for his predicament while resolutely refusing to comprehend why his initial comments might have been, at the very least, ill-considered.
Although he publicly apologized for his poor choice of words in the immediate aftermath of what he refers to as “the Incident,” Flanagan here seems to double down on them, asserting that he was “obviously driving toward John Stuart Mill’s famous distinction between direct and indirect harm.” The obviousness of this will not be readily apparent, even to the most sympathetic reader.
If Winning Power avoids (for the most part) personal invective, such language is all over Persona Non Grata. Pamela Palmater, a professor at Ryerson University, is characterized early on as an “Idle No More diva.” Manitoba MP Joy Smith is “a permanent ornament on the Conservative backbench.” Danielle Smith’s condemnation enacted “the human sacrifice that she had not performed in April 2012,” when several Wildrose candidates went badly off-message in the final week of the campaign. (An astute reader may recognize what all three of these Flanagan antagonists have in common.)
Flanagan raises some provocative questions about the limits of free speech to engage in theoretical speculation that tests the boundaries of conventional wisdom or morality. There is also a persuasive argument to be made against the judgmental impulse of an Internet lynch mob capable of destroying lives without recourse to due process or considered thought. Unfortunately, these salient points are drowned in a sea of self-serving, pugilistic rhetoric.
The print version of this review omitted Levi Little Mustache from the description of the incident on Feb. 27, 2013 in Lethbridge, Alberta. Q&Q regrets the error.