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Primal politics

Political arena's alpha males engaged in plenty of monkey business

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/3/2014 (1257 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Cut away the high-tech data mining, the complexity of targeted advertising buys and social-media engagement in today's federal election campaigns and, says Tom Flanagan, you're left with the primitive drive to assure the tribal dominance of a chosen alpha male.

In Winning Power: Canadian Campaigning in the Twenty-First Century, Flanagan's "red in tooth and claw" description of modern political campaigns draws a parallel between the ongoing battles for dominance in chimpanzee society and the "domesticated civil war" that constitutes today's political quest for power.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper (above) and Tom Flanagan transformed modern political campaigns in Canada.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper (above) and Tom Flanagan transformed modern political campaigns in Canada.

Author Tom Flanagan.


Author Tom Flanagan.

Flanagan speaks from experience, as the former campaign manager for Stephen Harper's Conservative party and, more recently, as campaign manager for Alberta's Wildrose party in 2012.

"Campaigning," writes Flanagan, "speaks to the very depth of our primate being, because it involves following a leader, picking sides and fighting against enemies..."

By this reasoning, attack ads are an upscale version of chimps going negative "by hitting and biting their opponents, or perhaps showering them with feces."

It would be nice to think that humans, having learned to walk upright, harness the power of fire and develop the written word, would have elevated political discourse in election campaigns from feces-throwing to policy.

Not so, says Flanagan. Policies are nothing more than election props to be altered and adjusted as needed to improve the electability of the alpha figure.

"High-minded intellectuals and pundits like to pretend that campaigns should be about policy," says Flanagan, "but a moment's reflection shows the fallacy. Campaigns result in the choice of people to fill positions, not ideas to be implemented."

If we follow Flanagan's thesis, Justin Trudeau's strength on the campaign trail will not be derived from Liberal policies, but rather from being the most attractive alpha figure. It sets Trudeau, a charismatic and virile young male, up against the prevailing alpha male, Stephen Harper, an aging and cranky lion whose battle scars have begun slowing him down.

As every alpha figure knows, they get to be top dog or queen bee for exactly as long as they can dominate within their own inner circle of supporters. It's Darwinian; there are always ambitious competitors circling the leader with an eye on becoming the next alpha figure.

But is this truly what federal election campaigns have been reduced to in the 21st century? According to Flanagan, it is: create a coalition of supporters around an alpha figure and undertake a militaristic, all-consuming campaign to win power by whatever means available.

Flanagan, a professor of political studies at the University of Calgary, provided deeper insight into the alpha cult style of Darwinian campaigning in Harper's Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, the 2007 tell-almost-all book on the Conservative campaigns. Harper wasn't happy with Flanagan's revelations and cast him out of the coalition. Winning Power is, therefore, more of a general overview than Flanagan's earlier book.

Nonetheless, Flanagan knows the Conservative party; he was pivotal in turning it into an entity at war 363 days of the year (excepting Christmas and Easter):

"Just as chronic warfare produces a garrison state, permanent campaigning has caused the Conservative party to merge with the campaign team, producing a garrison party. The party is, today, for all intents and purposes, a campaign organization focused on being ready for and winning the next election, whatever may come."

All available campaign resources are dedicated to advancing the cause: identifying the fraction of Canadian voters to give a party the "minimum winning coalition" for taking power, and then focusing the campaign machinery on manipulating, "buying" or otherwise persuading those few swing voters.

At 160 pages, Winning Power would be a quick read on the current state of permanent political campaigns. Flanagan, however, adds another 50 pages on the Wildrose party campaign in 2012, which feel more like filler to create a book-length manuscript.

Winning Power is an interesting if disheartening read, but lacks the meaty, insider's view of Harper's Team.


Sheilla Jones is a former political commentator and an unrepentant political junkie.


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Updated on Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 8:03 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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