The Inescapable Politics of Image

Brendan Sheppard, Queens University.

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It’s 2019. In the first official week of the federal election, Justin Trudeau proposed new gun legislation, Andrew Scheer proposed over a billion dollars in spending for medical equipment, Jagmeet Singh announced a plan to extend dental care coverage to Canadian households making less than $70 000 per year, and Elizabeth May unveiled her party’s entire platform – but you can be forgiven if the stories you remember are about candidates being dropped or otherwise criticized for unsanctionable comments and behaviour. This election’s puppet master seems already clear: image.

The ‘politics of image’ is a wide-reaching term, best considered in contrast to policy-focused politics. When a politician acts, are they primarily trying to affect their perception, or to express information for the public to perceive as they wish? Consider terms like ‘political spin’, and consider recent image and rhetoric reliant campaigns, such as Doug Ford’s ‘list of promises’. That, coupled with a strong online machine and a strong anti-Kathleen Wynne sentiment (note: anti-person, not anti-policies-of-that-person), swept his party to a majority in Ontario. Though social media culture has amplified and altered the effect of image politics, its concept and power is ancient. It is also perhaps best described by Socrates, speaking of rhetoric, that which “makes the weaker argument the stronger”. Image has no preference for weak or strong arguments, but it certainly alters their effectiveness, with potential for great benefit and great harm.

But why is image politics so relevant today? Where has all the policy gone?

Most people don’t have time to read party platforms line-by-line or analyze debates word-for-word. We vote based on the impressions we garner from casually consumed media. The producers of media play their role in ‘streamlining’ the public discourse, getting paid to analyze debates, promises, and platforms. But more practically, they are often paid to generate ad revenue from the consumption of the material they produce. So, in their effort to deliver the ‘stories that matter to you’, the definition of ‘matter’ is not so much in line with ‘what will affect your lives’ as it is ‘what headline will you click while you eat breakfast’. People live busy lives, and they are served accordingly: fast-food for breakfast and fast-food for thought.

Our impressions are formed by soundbites, old social media posts, and headline-promises carefully stitched together by the media into a story that gets us clicking back for our next fix. But politicians know about this story that the media is crafting, and they want it written on their terms; they want to create the memorable moments that generate the clicks. Each policy announcement is not so much a chance to tell people what they’ll do in government as a cry for publicity (preferably positive). Unfortunately, it’s difficult to create an interesting story on-demand and on your own best terms.

The party-based political system is its own adaptation to the reality of our population’s impression-forming process. With so little time and effort available to the average voter in deciding who to vote for, their impressions must be formed quickly and efficiently. Having parties with simple, clear messages is beneficial, because it eliminates the time-consuming requirement of learning who your local candidate is and whether you can trust them. Their purpose is like yours: a vote that gets your preferred colour its majority. So rather than vote based on a local candidate, we vote, primarily, for the impressions we have formed of the federal parties and, to an arguably increasing degree, the impressions we have formed of their leaders. Because which is easier to identify with: the leader that you trust, or the faceless party with a list of values and commitments? Leaders are here to be trusted and identified with, and parties are here to clarify the complex political philosophies for which we can vote.

A quick test, if you will:

  • How many of the six major political parties can you name?
  • How many of their leaders can you name?
  • How many of their election slogans can you name?
  • How many of their campaign promises can you name?

Which parties you could answer for in each question might reveal something about the effectiveness of each party in delivering their message to the electorate. Which questions you could provide the most information to might reveal something about which aspects of political image are most important today.