Discover more from The Line
Colin Horgan: Save us, per-vote subsidy!
Starve the outrage beast
By: Colin Horgan
In February 2022, Innovative Research published its opinion polling comparing reactions to the so-called trucker convoy parked in Ottawa that winter with the nationwide Coastal Link pipeline blockades in 2020. Feelings about the response from government diverged along lines of party affiliation. As did respondents’ reactions and to the idea that the government should sit down to meet with the protesters. Very simply, Conservatives thought the government shouldn’t meet with the protesters in 2020, but felt the opposite way in 2022 about the trucker convoy. The reverse was broadly true for Liberals and NDP supporters.
Big whoop, no surprise.
But in June, Paul Wells pointed to two slides from the research that visually mapped those divergent opinions, visually demonstrating the hypocrisy of partisans. For example, Wells noted that the question of whether meeting with protesters might encourage more protests “actually isn’t inherently laden with value judgements.” In either case — Coastal Link or trucker convoy — “it would absolutely have been possible to answer the same question the same way,” Wells wrote.
He’s correct, of course. But, for the most part, that’s not what happened. Instead, people’s opinions reflected the general stance of the party they supported. There was a small group of respondents who didn’t — “the people who don’t freak out,” as Wells put it. But Canadian politicians now tend to ignore the dispassionate and level headed among us. There’s no money in that crowd.
Messages are instead aimed squarely at the partisans — the people whose opinions flip-flopped between 2020 and 2022. The people who do freak out. There are lots of reasons for this, but one stands alone as the most compelling: freaking out gets the cash flowing. These people donate. Often repeatedly. And while those donations do fund the party, they also fuel a cycle of ever-deepening outrage designed to attract new supporters and harden the convictions of the converted. It’s understandable how people get sucked in; the content is compelling. But the ultimate result is bad. More and more people say weirder and weirder things, believe all sorts of nonsense, and generally make civilised political conversation impossible. But the parties need it this way. They need votes, sure, but that comes second. First they need the money.
What if they didn’t need that cash? What if the votes came first and the money second?
In 2004, Jean Chrétien’s government passed electoral financing legislation that included a provision for parties to receive $1.75 for every vote they received in an election, annually. This was called the per-vote subsidy. In 2011, Stephen Harper’s government scrapped it. All parties lost access to a lot of money. In 2006, the Conservatives received $14.7 million via the subsidy and the Liberals got $8.5 million. “We believe that funding for political activities should come from everyday Canadians who choose to contribute,” said Harper’s minister for democratic institutions, Pierre Poilievre, at the time.
But that really depends on how you define “everyday Canadians”. Increasingly to parties over the last decade, it has meant “people who strongly agree with us.”
The timing for dumping the per-vote subsidy couldn’t have been worse, by the way. Yes, social media were already becoming the default realm for public discourse and discussion, but the Arab Spring movement in early 2011 elevated Twitter (and other social networks with it) to another level. These platforms were no longer just nice, they now seemed necessary to political discourse. But we know how things went from there. While these spaces still can occasionally offer insightful political commentary, more often what you’ll find is closer to political cosplay from users trumpeting party-aligned messaging. The pandemic made a bad situation worse.
Not everyone is on Twitter, obviously, nor on Facebook. But the political tone and language that’s been fostered on these platforms over time has spilled out beyond their borders, into places like the House of Commons.
Here’s the formula at its simplest: highly-charged political rhetoric, in the form of a clip or an ad, earns engagement. Engagement triggers algorithms to distribute the content further. More people see it, like it, share it, and comment on it. Maybe they even subscribe for more. Maybe they donate right away or maybe they don’t, but somewhere along the line they become a target for partisan advertising and messaging. Eventually, like say around an election, they hand over some money.
“MPs are leaning into what works,” Justin Ling, the author of a new Public Policy Forum report on polarisation, writes. “One Conservative politician admitted MPs now think about Question Period exclusively in terms of what can be clipped and shared on social media.” Of late, the Conservatives have dialled up the hyperbole. One recent Facebook ad invoked “Justin Trudeau and his radical woke coalition’s experiment in central planning.” But everyone pushes the wedge as deep as they can. The Liberals are never shy to point out the Conservative anti-abortion tendencies, or to accuse them of trying to legalise assault rifles.
It works — but only to a point, which even politicians recognise we’ve long since passed. Conservative MPs admitted to the PPF that there is what Ling calls a “toxic feedback loop.” As MPs whip up their supporters to prompt donations with wild accusations, they recognise that they are simultaneously creating supporters that “are becoming increasingly fervent in their beliefs, distrustful of rival parties and demanding of ideological purity.” Applied at scale — which is the point of social media — this not only makes partisanship increasingly dogmatic, it deepens social divisions and poisons the overall discourse. Even if you’re not a platform user, you’ll be exposed to the toxin.
Gone are the days of the vaunted, stoic, level headed Canadian. Now, everyone freaks out. It can’t last, and the MPs surely know it. The children of this revolution will devour their parents soon enough. That is, the very outrage that politicians are fostering to juice engagement will inevitably be turned upon the system them represent and, ultimately, upon themselves.
And what this all comes back to is money, and the need to raise it at a constant, even frenetic, pace. The per-vote subsidy isn’t a panacea, but its reintroduction could create some financial stability for the parties, reducing their need to pump out the kind of mendacious and alarmist messaging they are currently inclined to produce. MPs told the PPF as much, admitting that the per-vote subsidy would help decrease their reliance on social media-driven fundraising. All the parties know this. It’s time they did something about it.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: email@example.com.