Backlash Politics, Canadian Style

Here’s a quote from Thomas Frank’s wonderful analysis of conservative political manipulation in the United States, “What’s the Matter with Kansas” [1] “The backlash…is a crusade in which one’s material interests are suspended in favor of vague cultural grievances that are all-important and yet incapable of ever being assuaged.”

Mr. Frank’s focus was that electors can be convinced to vote against their own interests ( like keeping their jobs) by appealing to attitudes based on hard-wired cultural or religious attitudes. I think that the principles apply very well to our Canadian approach to corrections.

It is obvious, in my view, that the Conservative government’s “tough on crime” agenda is ill-founded. Imposing heavier, inflexible sentences on a large number of non-violent offenders simply leads to more crime, less public safety and huge taxpayer expense. Prisoners, and their potential victims, will pay the heaviest price. While other jurisdictions have been moving toward treatment–oriented diversion programs for substance abuse and mental illness issues our government wants to maintain a failed punitive approach

The really fascinating aspect is the “why?” behind all this. Since government decision-makers are not stupid and must realize the folly of their programs, why are they doing this?

The popular wisdom is that they are simply meeting obligations that appeal to their  core voters –  that they identified popular (populist?) attitudes, gleaned from authoritarian family and religious structures, or maybe just from a regular diet of Hawaii 5-0,  and responded.

I don’t think this is the whole story. Mr. Frank’s premise is not simply that voter preferences are addressed. Rather it is that the feelings, versus the ideas, of citizens are massaged – in this case a vague sense of dread about crime and the lack of effective response to it. Moreover, the deeply-felt attitudes that are addressed reflect problems and solutions that will be perpetual, “incapable of ever being assuaged”.

The importance of these distinctions is that:

a)    the sense of dread can’t easily be addressed with facts or reasoned argument

b)   the feelings go to fundamental needs – in this case, personal security – and are major preoccupations, versus other, less deeply felt issues

c)    since no complete solutions will ever be attained, especially by the approach taken by the government, the preoccupation with the perceived problem will continue indefinitely, easily tweaked by the proponents of the backlash.

So building more prisons is not simply the payment of populist campaign debts. It  is stage one in an on-going  campaign to preoccupy people with fears which will never be diminished, thereby distracting them from their real interests, particularly economic ones.

Todd Sloan, LLB. B.C.L.


[1] 2004, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company


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