This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on May 7, 2017.
A political landscape that is in permanent election mode is almost comically ill-suited for thoughtful policy implementation. As a result, large, difficult, and challenging projects fall by the wayside.
If you were flipping through the pages of your newspaper or the channels of your television last week and didn’t know any better, it might well have felt like the 2016 U.S. election was still underway, as the bickering between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump continued unabated.
Last Tuesday, a full eight months after Donald Trump’s historic presidential victory, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said that if it were not for WikiLeaks and the FBI, she would have been the 45th president of the United States.
While she did take responsibility for her loss, she proceeded to furnish comprehensive scapegoats that supposedly caused the loss, citing misogyny, Russian interference and questionable decisions by the FBI. The intent was obvious, and not particularly flattering on Clinton: to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Trump’s victory.
And, of course, unable to help himself, now-President Trump responded with a series of late-night tweets. At 10:51 p.m. he offered that FBI director James Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Clinton, and that the Russia story was just an excuse the Democrats were using to account for their election loss.
As Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
But as embarrassing as the Clinton and Trump media battle continues to be, it is merely the first round of Election 2020.
Just this week, former vice-president Joe Biden visited New Hampshire, a crucial battleground state in presidential elections.
Cue thousands of speculative articles and electronic media reports prognosticating on the 2020 Democratic contenders and on Trump’s electoral chances, with commentary bereft of any meaningful or substantive discussion even as the 45th president continues to hammer home new policies that have enormous affect for all Americans.
This should not come as a surprise. It has been observed for quite some time that we are living in an age of the perpetual election campaign.
But that doesn’t make it any less of a distressing situation. A situation that only encourages our politicians to play to the theatre of public life rather than to the difficult and challenging work of implementing thoughtful and meaningful policy. If governing politicians are in constant campaign mode, how will they possibly find the time to govern?
An analogy with the corporate world illustrates this point.
In business, nothing fuels more drama than the reporting of quarterly results. Executives who are lauded for their genius strategic approach one quarter, are panned three months later when a downturn or setback strikes.
The intense short-term scrutiny leads to short-term moves, activist shareholder foolishness, and other shortcuts aimed at bumping up the price of a stock. This ever-increasing pressure distracts leaders from a company’s long-term health.
Political parties and their leaders face the same stresses as corporations. But instead of quarterly results, the goals are poll numbers and fundraising dollars. Replace short-term business moves with short-term policy decisions, activist shareholders with angry and dissatisfied citizens, and other shortcuts with corruption and mismanagement.
But importantly, instead of a company’s long-term health being at stake, it is the well-being of an entire country.
Difficult problems require comprehensive and complex solutions. A political landscape that is in permanent election mode is almost comically ill-suited for thoughtful policy implementation. As a result, large, difficult, and challenging projects fall by the wayside.
The beneficiaries of permanent election mode are political parties, their candidates and the media. Parties receive increased funding and resources, aspiring candidates receive disproportional recognition, and struggling media companies that thrive on horse-race journalism have ready-made content.
The permanent campaign has arrived in Canadian politics, too. The government and opposition parties are now always preparing for an election. Increased political advertising between election campaigns, fuelled by the constant fundraising machine, is just one proof point.
The effect: ideology has been left to die. Rather than maintaining traditional party stances and long-term beliefs, parties and candidates quickly flip-flop, with a constant eye on public opinion polling.
As well, policy debates are muted. Political columnist Susan Delacourt has observed eloquently in this newspaper that the goals of campaigns are less about persuasion than about mobilization of the support and funds the parties have collected between elections.
These days, it has become commonplace for another election campaign to begin as soon as one ends. What’s unusual at the moment is the feeling that the last one hasn’t ended yet.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.