Candidates behaving badly: What happens when we get caught up in ‘gotcha politics’?
Chances are there’s something you’ve done at some point in your life that you wouldn’t want the entire world to know about.
And chances are, if you ever run for political office (or work for someone who is), the entire world will know about it.
Canadians were reminded of that this week when two Conservative candidates were dropped and an NDP staffer obliged to apologize. This was for urinating in a mug, making harassing calls and posting them online, and criticizing the Catholic church on Twitter, respectively.
The Tories’ Toronto-Danforth candidate Tim Dutaud was dropped after videos surfaced of him making prank calls that derided people with disabilities and appeared to involve faked orgasms.
NDP leader Tom Mulcair’s communications director Shawn Dearn apologized for two-year-old tweets calling the Catholic church homophobic.
And that’s only this week: Liberal candidate Ala Buzreba, who was running in Calgary-Nose Hill, apologized, then stepped down for four-year-old tweets that called people racist, bigoted and suggested one user’s mother should have gotten an abortion.
The NDP’s Kings-Hants candidate Morgan Wheeldon resigned after comments he’d made on Facebook criticizing Israel were recirculated online.
“It sends a message to everybody else and every other political party: ‘You could be next,'” said Memorial University politics professor Alex Marland.
It’s changed the way political war rooms campaign and the way media organizations and the public evaluate their candidates. Twitter, which helps parties vet their own social media histories and plumb opponents’ for fodder, shut down an independent service that tracked politicians’ deleted tweets last month.
“There’s just an absolute perception nowadays that candidates cannot be off-message,” Marland said.
“In the past, candidates could behave in bizarre ways and … it would happen in a small area of the country and nobody would hear about it, and if they did it was two weeks later.”
Now, everyone knows you said something dumb instantaneously.
That constant lookout for what Marland calls “bozo eruptions” can weed out bad candidates — but it can also mean parties favour safe, boring candidates guaranteed to toe the party line.
“From a very early juncture, before they’re even in Parliament, people are learning that what the centre says, goes,” he said.
“The parliamentarians who are there are the ones who were elected on the basis of understanding their ability to act as independent agents is quite limited.”
And while many criticize whipped caucuses or media clampdowns, it’s tough to argue for openness when saying something out of line results in online condemnation.
“It’s very clear the expectation from the media is that there should be conformity,” Marland said.
“You end up getting a conformity that doesn’t allow for good public policy, because good public policy should allow an open environment.”
That in turn can discourage free-thinking nonconformists from entering politics altogether.
“Who on earth would want to enter politics nowadays when your life is just ripped apart in public?”
Canada’s in an era of “gotcha politics” as more information about people’s pasts is more available than ever, says communication firm Navigator managing principal Will Stewart, and we’re still figuring out how much of a role a person’s online past should play in that person’s future.
But Stewart predicts Canada’s political outrage cycle will cool off somewhat in the next two elections.
“I think we’ll lose our sensitivity to it,” he said.
Until then, candidates are in a bit of a bind:
“We want to know who you are as a person, just as long as we like who you are as a person,” Stewart said.
“Sometimes you just can’t win.”
It’s not so much that “bozo eruptions” shouldn’t be discussed publicly, Marland argues — he’d just favour a more measured approach to consequences.
“If a candidate has behaved in a questionable manner I think this should be brought to the public’s attention,” he said.
“The question, really, is what is the sanction? … You have this online mobbing occurring that I think is not good.”