Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Greens Can Learn from Wildrose: Appeal to the Heart, and not the Mind

I’ve been reading a number of blogs over the past couple of months which have been outspoken about the volcanic rise of Alberta’s ultra-rightwing Wildrose Party since their first MLA was elected in a provincial by-election. Comparisons have been made between the upstart Alberta Party and our Green Party, whose incremental increase in popularity over the years can better be described as "glacial". What can we Greens learn from the Wildrose Party?

An editorial in today’s Globe and Mail by Gary Mason really got me thinking about success. Although Wildrose has only at this time experienced very limited electoral success with 1 MLA elected, that’s still more electoral victories than all of the Green Parties at the Federal and Provincial levels in Canada have to their credit. Wildrose, however, has been out-polling the governing Provincial Conservatives for some time now, and they are deemed to be a serious threat to upset the monolithic balance of power in that province.

So what are they doing that the Greens aren’t doing?

For me, a lot of it has to do with messaging. Wildrose has been delivering a very popular and populist message: smaller government, better management of the economy, and a better life through increased profits and hard work. They point to Ed Stelmach’s PC as the Party who dropped the golden goose-egg of the Alberta economy the moment that the global recession hit home. With all of the wealth accumulating in Alberta, surely to goodness the PC’s could have been a little more prepared to weather the storm.

With this message, which has more to do with what the Wildrose isn’t than what it is (it’s not the status quo PC’s), the Wildrose has been increasing in popularity, especially among conservative voters, which are apparently fairly numerous out Alberta way. In many respects, Wildrose appears to be a mini-Reform Party.

Gary Mason’s editorial in the Globe, though, worked my blood into a bit of a frenzy, as he reports something about Wildrose’s Leader, Danielle Smith, which I didn’t know. It seems that Danielle has latched onto another popular message when it comes to Climate Change. Mason reports Smith as having expressed in a speech to the Canadian Club of Calgary that the "science [of climate change] isn’t settled", and went on to quote from Lawrence Solomon’s book "The Deniers".

Whoa. That’s. Wild. This woman wants to be Premier of Alberta. And her conclusion regarding the science of climate change is that it hasn’t been settled yet? Oh my. This is a very dangerous woman, leading a dangerous Party.

But getting back to my original question, can we Greens learn anything from Wildrose’s rise? Yes, I think we can, but I don’t know that it’s all that useful. You see, Wildrose as a political party, takes the easy way out. They are great at criticizing the current government for not doing things the "right way" (figuratively and, in this case, literally).

They offer little in the way of concrete solutions of their own, and instead offer up vague, but feel-good assessments of how things might be different if they were elected. While vague, these feel-good assessments make people, well, feel good about a future in which Wildrose forms the government. Less taxes, more business opportunities, fewer handouts to the roustabouts who won’t work, smaller government with fewer civil servants pocketing hard-earned tax dollars; less red-tape for businesses. Nothing here has to be specific.

And that’s because it’s clear that Wildrose is after the hearts of Albertans...and not their minds. Or maybe it’s better to say that Wildrose is appealing to the wallets of Albertans, rather than to their rationality. For a political party, it can be very easy to win the hearts of voters before you actually have to implement anything. So right now, Wildrose, as the new kid on the block, has a free run to say whatever they want, and no one can challenge them on their past record.

We Greens, also without a record, would presumably be able to do the same. But we’ve always come at politics from a much different perspective. We’ve always aimed clearly at the voter’s minds when we go a-campaigning. Even when we try appealing to the hearts of voters with internet videos of children at risk from climate catastrophe, we are actually still trying to capture the minds of voters, asking them to think about the next generation when they cast a ballot.

Well, Greens, guess which approach works best in politics? Go for the hearts or go for the minds? It really should come as zero surprise to anyone that if you really want political success, you go after the hearts of voters and not the minds.

Now, many may think that the climate change catastrophe offers more than enough emotionality for us to campaign for people’s hearts, and not just their minds. I know that a lot of us personally are very worked up about climate change. But for most Canadians, climate change remains something to worry about in the far future, and not something which directly impacts their day to day life. As a result, yes, they may agree that someone has to do something, but then they change the channel and move on to Tiger Woods’ marital woes. Margaret Wente explains this well in an editorial also found in today’s Globe and Mail.

The message we Greens try to deliver is decidedly not a populist message. Yet it’s a message which we clearly aren’t going to try to stop delivering. We try to change it around and focus on positives, because even with our political naivety, we know that no one is going to vote for the Doom and Gloom Party. We try to be hopeful and full of optimism, but at the end of the day the sorts of changes which are Party advocates for aren’t yet on the minds of a majority of voters. We remain "out there" somewhere: largely out of touch. As long as plants respire, wanting to tax carbon emissions as pollution is going to be a bit of a hard-sell.

Sure, some who take a close look at our Party might realize that there are a lot of positive things going on. They may even realize that we’ve got policies galore to address just about every conceivable issue out there, likely more policies than all of the other Parties put together. If anyone wants to know what we really stand for, well, they can find out and review our policies in all of their undigested glory.

Wildrose, on the other hand, has something going for it which we don’t. Zeitgeist. Without much in the way of effort, Wildrose has tapped into the feel and emotions of our time. And it will come as some surprise to us Greens that what people are feeling and sensing right now in 2009 isn’t primarily that urgent action is needed on climate change and democratic reform. Instead, the urgency of the moment demands a robust, growing economy, with jobs and a bright future for everyone willing to work for it.

In this "moment", we Greens are seen as an obstacle to that "personal" future. In that future, if the lefties and big government got out of the way, we’d all be better off. This recent recession was, after all, brought on by a housing bubble which popped: banks lending money to people who foolishly couldn’t afford to repay it. Or because of big-government spending adding to our debtload. Or because of the greedy unions. Or because of China.

What compelling contribution do we Greens have to offer voters when it comes to this "all about me" future? What can we do to intervene to make voters believe that our message is actually one of hope for the voter himself? Where mixed-member proportional voting and greenhouse gas emission pricing fail to resonate, what can we offer?

I believe that we’ve got a card hidden up our sleeve which we rarely play. Whether that’s because we don’t get the chance to play it or because we feel the need to explain why we’re playing it when we try to (which takes far, far too long), we hesitate to use it, and instead fall back to appealing to the minds of voters. We’ve got a big, emotion-laden card to play. And Greens, I think the time has come to play this trump.

If Wildrose’s popularity, in part, has to do with their stand against taxes, let’s trump the right-wingers where it hurts their small "c" support most, and start reigning in those small "c" conservative voters ourselves. If the ultra-right wants to cut people’s taxes so that there’ll be more money in the wallet to spend on the future, Greens it’s time to talk up how our own call for Income Tax Cuts goes way beyond anything currently being contemplated by the right-wingers.

Are you upset with seeing almost half of your heard-earned money disappear to the tax man off of every paycheque you earn? Vote Green and we’ll reduce your income tax burden by up to 1/3 of what you’re now paying! If you want to leave the green in your wallet, vote Green. And you can feel good about doing so too!

Greens, if want to experience electoral success, it’s time to put away the rhetoric about the environment and the democratic deficit. People already know where we stand on those issues anyway. And yes, I know that income tax cuts are actually an environmental issue, but try getting that message across to the Canadian public, especially through the mainstream media, and it’s just not going to translate. The Environment and the Economy remain, in 2009, two separate and unequal pillars, with the economic pillar standing first and foremost, looming over all else.

If we want to elect MP’s, MPP’s and MLA’s, we’re going to need to win the hearts of voters through their wallets. And that’s why we need to focus on cuts to personal income taxes. That’s the message we need to deliver to the public.

That, to me, is the lesson learned from the rise of the Wildrose Party. Maybe that’s a hard lesson for we Greens, who have generally relied on rationale, scientific arguments to convince others that action is required. But what are we here for, if not to elect some MP’s and transform our society? If we’re going to do so, we need to deliver an appealing message to the here-and-now voter. Cutting personal income taxes is that message.


Anonymous said...

Good analysis Steve and a good message!

Stuart Hertzog said...

Let me get this right: according to your analysis, the main message of the Green Party should be "We'll cut your taxes?" Did I get that right, Steve? Or was this posting a subtle joke?

Seems to me that if a voter really wants that, he or she has quite a few more focussed anti-tax parties from which to choose. What would be special about the Greens if it's just a "me-too" party?

And come to think of it, what exactly is the specific message of the Green Party that several other and more successful political parties haven't already hijacked?

The real problem is that the Green Party has no idea of how to position itself in a unique and authentic way that appeals to even ten percent of the voting population.

Anonymous said...

@Stuart - you posed a question and then answered it yourself. The Greens have no messaging strategy and that was what Steve was point out. The WAP have a very clear, very personal message and it works. The Greens, when they have a message, is utopian, vague and clearly doesn't work.

Once the Greens figure out to craft a message, then they can start crafting regional messages. The low tax message resonates well in Alberta, rural Canada and most places with high big-C Conservative numbers. There is nobody else talking low taxes and the Harper Team isn't doing well on the financial side. There are serious votes to win with a good financial message.

Will that same message work in Toronto? Not likely. But if you want to replace blue MPs with Green ones, then you have to appeal to blue voters.

Simple in design, complex in delivery.

Rural said...

“it’s time to put away the rhetoric about the environment and the democratic deficit. People already know where we stand on those issues anyway”

Ouch! Unfortunately those things are far more important than making promises that we cant keep and have no chance of being able to implement in the foreseeable future. Unless we keep on pounding on that “democratic deficit” those currently in the seats of power will make it all but impossible for change (other than THEIR idea of change) to happen.

The message that the Greens will do Politics differently and more openly that the rest is perhaps the single message that people need and want to hear.

Democracy requires dialog, please join us at

Sudbury Steve said...

Mark, Stuart and Rural: thanks for your comments so far! I only have a little bit of time, but I thought I’d take a quick moment to clarify a few things.

First off, what Mark is saying about messaging is absolutely right. Last election, we had candidates running around the nation saying pretty much whatever they wanted, emphasizing pet issues sometimes to the detriment of staying focussed on Vision Green. Oh, but wait a can one stay focussed on a 150-page document? Yes, sure, we had a smaller “Platform”, but our the distillation of party policy remained between the covers of that document. The speaking notes provided by the Party to the candidates, the ones which emphasized key messages in soundbites easily digestible by the voting masses through 10-second media clips were, to say the least, non-existent. Our message was all over the place. And the few opportunities we had to speak to a national audience, instead of telling them what the Green Party would do, we largely squandered those opportunities by either bashing Stephen Harper or telling voters not to vote for us!

Sudbury Steve said...

(comment continued...)

Now, in the next election, I suspect that our candidates will be better prepared, and we’ll have more resources at our disposal, and a better-crafted message. A couple of elections ago, the Conservatives ran a great campaign, emphasizing only 5 key items (four of which I can’t remember, but reducing the GST to 5% sure as shootin’ sticks out in my mind).

People already know us as the environmental party. They’re likely already familiar with (or would assume) that we are for more transparency in government. But those messages will fall flat with the electorate, because they do not distinguish us in any way from the other Parties!

To wit: the Conservatives have already campaigned on more accountable and transparent government, and they will campaign on that plank again. Whether people believe them or not is another question, but they’ll be able to point to all of their successes and toot their own horn. Ditto for the environment. Actually, on the environment they’ll be able to trumpet their successes loud and clear: over $600 million dollars invested in new technologies to reduce greenhouse gases! Nevermind that it’s the carbon capture and storage fiasco that’s eating up all that money. Voters will hear about the massive investment, and that’s what will stay in their minds.

The Liberals and NDP will also campaign on the environment and on transparency in government. And all parties will campaign on not raising taxes, and providing benefit for working families, and offering hope, courage and vision and blah blah blah. Most of the time, though, we’ll be trying to tear each other apart like rabid dogs.

If we want to really find resonance with voters, we need a compelling message. Declaring that the End of the World is Nigh isn’t going to persuade a lot of voters to cast a ballot for us. Saying that we’ll do things differently isn’t helpful either, because everyone knows we’re not going to form government. Pointing to the emerging “green economy” and saying we’ll invest in it is, well, also not compelling because no one really knows what that means (is that building wind turbines or fuel efficient Hummers? Maybe it’s growing corn for ethanol...or replacing coal fired generating plants with green technology, like nuclear energy). If we start speaking about sustainable development, curbing carbon emissions, the democratic deficit, peoples eyes will glaze over.

What sets us apart from the other Parties which can be easily communicated and which will resonate with voters? There are a few items, but I would argue that the best is emphasising personal income tax cuts. While it’s true that not everyone pays income taxes, most voters do. Personal income tax cuts must be one of 4 or 5 key messages that we deliver, and should be the first and primary message to voters. “Vote for us and we’ll cut your income taxes by 1/3. You’ll have more money in your wallet and you can decide how to spend it.”

We have a lot to learn from the other Parties. If we want to experience electoral success, we need to learn. Finding a few key items which resonate with voters, and which stick in their minds, is the first step. Media exposure is the second. Staying on message is an over-riding principle. If we don’t have the resonating message reported in the media, we aren’t going to experience success, no matter what our policies are. Politics is a public relations game right now, and if we want to elect Green MP’s, we will have to play it throughout Canada.

Link Byfield said...

Sudbury Steve,

You have made an impressive attempt to really understand our party, and its growing appeal here in Alberta. And in my opinion you have it about half right.

Both your party and ours appeal more to morals than to self-interest -- it's just that in our case, the morals being appealed to are more deeply felt, because we are generally more hopeful about the role of humanity in the natural order of things than you are.

Tax cuts, frankly, are of limited appeal, even in the business community. We advocate them not because they are popular so much as that they are necessary.

But what speaks loudest of all is that the same values and virtues which made Alberta successful in its first century will ensure its success in the next one: thrift, courage, self-discipline, indepence of judgement, generosity, family and, especially, hope. The striking characteristic of Albertans long before oil was found at Leduc is how forward-looking we are, and always were.

We love the spectacular beauty of our province and we love economic growth. Albertans are determined to have both. If the present PC government is voted out, it will be because we in the Wildrose Alliance are more determined than anyone else to ensure this dual imperative succeeds.

Anonymous said...

@Link - Thank you for the comments. I, personally, appreciate them. I spent 5 years in Alberta before returning to my native Saskatchewan last year and know your reputation well.

@All (except Link) - consider Link's statement closely, "If the present PC government is voted out, it will be because we in the Wildrose Alliance are more determined than anyone else". While messaging is a part of politics, the vital part is hard work. It's getting the organization ready and the volunteers prepared. Not in one riding but, for us, 308 ridings(83 for Link!). I follow a couple of WAP'ers on twitter and I see their announcements for forming new constituency associations. They understand that they won't form government by electing only their leader Danielle Smith. For the WAP, there are no safe seats in Alberta so getting Ms. Smith is just as much of a challenge as getting Ms. May elected is. The difference is that the WAP wants to elect a caucus if not a government, the Greens are only focused on one seat.

Erich the Green said...

@Stuart and @Steve

Steve is bang-on. The most significant difference between Greens and any other party of the right or left is the plan to totally overhaul our tax system as a way to boost social justice, protect and restore the environment, and maximize the benefits of diversity.

Our aim should be to remove ALL taxes on human productivity - income tax, sales tax, payroll tax. Instead, public goods should be funded by capture of economic rent, the unearned income which currently widens the wealth gap and deepens poverty. This will provide more than enough funds to provide necessary services, with room for a universal citizen's dividend besides.

Putting the full cost on resources and waste will also drive the most efficient use of resources, reduce real waste to zero, and align profit with protection of our natural heritage/capital.

The realities of electoral politics mean we must focus, first and foremost, on the Green Tax Cut this will provide most citizens. The follow-on is that those who are wasteful or who monopolize resources to themselves will be fiscally penalized, and those who attempt to capture publicly-created wealth for themselves will be thwarted.

The reason that we, unlike other species, are destroying our own habitat is that our human societies have broken the feedback loops which should inform every individual, business, and community. By restoring those loops, we empower and encourage every actor at every level to become sustainable. Only by setting rules that compel individuals, businesses, governments and all others to live sustainably (rewarding them when they do, punishing when they don't) can we marshall all the forces that will be needed.