Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

They Think You Are Stupid

They think you are stupid. They are talking down to you. There. That is the short and simple idea I want to get across. Now I will repeat it, and repeat it, always using precisely the same language, as if I were training an unusually thick beagle. Who are "they"? You may think it's "the elites" we hear so much about these days. But it's not. It's the politicians who rail against "elites." They think you are stupid. They are talking down to you. Consider John Baird, powerful government official, former resident of Toronto, and scourge of the "Toronto elites." On Tuesday, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff suggested it's "un-Canadian" for the Conservatives to investigate people and bar them from political rallies because they may have links with other parties. In response, the Conservatives called a press conference and raised the curtain on the Bill Shatner of Canadian political theatre. "He should be the last person to call anyone un-Canadian," Baird emoted with the subtlety of Shatner shouting "Khaaan!" Michael Ignatieff is a man who "called the United States his country, a man who has called the Canadian maple leaf a pale imitation of a beer label." And so on. It was less a press conference than a stage adaptation of a Conservative attack ad. Political observers chuckled. Vintage Baird. In person, John Baird is a lovely man. People from all parties like him. But when the curtain goes up, Baird snarls and rages and bellows his lines with the discipline of a classically trained actor who will not deviate from the script no matter how ridiculous it is. Then the show ends and everybody goes for a beer. They think you are stupid. They are talking down to you. Yes, I know. Constant repetition is annoying. In the last two weeks, I've heard Conservatives repeat the phrase "risky coalition" more often than I've heard my son say "I want to play video games." The difference is my son is sincere. Adults do not repeat precisely the same phrase again and again unless they have suffered severe brain damage or they are following the advice of an expensive consultant who tested the phrase on focus groups and found it presses the right buttons. People "vote based on short bursts of political communication that are typically seven to 10 seconds in length and squeezed in between a car chase and the latest panda birth on the local news," writes Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Find the right phrase. Repeat it until you vomit. That's how you win elections. Politicians call it "discipline." Stop the gravy train, says Rob Ford. "How will you balance the budget?" Stop the gravy train. "What about mass transit?" Stop the gravy train. "What's wrong with the Leafs?" Stop the gravy train. "I'm going to blow my brains out if you say that again." Stop the gravy train. "It's no accident that contemporary politicians have learned to array American flags in the background of their press conferences or speak in front of themed backdrops, pronouncing the subject and message just in case the speech doesn't make it abundantly clear," writes Luntz. "It's politics for the simple-minded." Of course "politics for the simple-minded" is not a Conservative or Republican or right-wing thing. It's a political thing. All parties used themed backdrops, vapid talking points, and droning repetition. It was Roméo LeBlanc, the Liberal "Codfather," who observed that "if you can't read it on a barn door driving 60 miles an hour, then it didn't happen," and the Liberals have certainly delivered their share of patronizing rhetoric in the current campaign -notably their policy "family pack" (comes with coleslaw and fries) and the slogan "we choose families, not jets" (although the official policy is to buy jets). They think you are stupid. They are talking down to you. But the most egregious guff comes from fake populism -think Montgomery Burns running for governor on The Simpsons -and fake populism is, today, a conservative speciality. In his 2006 book, Right Side Up, journalist Paul Wells recounted a conversation with Conservative Jason Kenney. The Tories would be happy for the Conservatives to run against a Liberal party led by any of the leading Liberals, Kenney said. "I can't see Gerard Kennedy or Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae or Stéphane Dion -all smart, decent people -selling with a 40-year-old plumber in Peterborough who makes 40 grand. The spectrum of first-tier leadership candidates there reads like the perfect list of attendees at a cocktail party in the Annex or Cabbagetown. It's not Main Street." Now imagine this next bit in the voice of Mr. Burns: "What's Ignatieff's wife's name again?" Zsuzsanna. "Exactly. So in the next election it's Steve and Laureen versus Count Michael and What's-Her-Name. It's almost a dream for us." A politician hasn't sneered like that since Mr. Burns made dinner with a common man part of his campaign strategy: "Every Joe Meatball and Sally Housecoat in this godforsaken state will see me hunkering down for chow with Eddie Punchclock." I'd like to think plumbers in Peterborough are smart enough to see through this stuff. So I won't repeat myself.