Or how noticing the difference between Canadian and American coverage of the recent Canadian election taught me something about how conspiracy theories develop and why they thrive.
Or it’s (sometimes) more complicated than that.
For many years I was simply an observer of all things political. I read the papers (this was in the dim, dark days before the coming of the Internet), I listened to the radio and I watched television. One might even say I read, listened and watched more than the typical Canadian and that I was more aware than the average Canadian as to what was going on in the political world. Still I found much of what I saw and heard and read to be silly, pointless, annoying, trite, banal, repetitive, ill-advised and otherwise frustrating. How could these politically experienced men (and at that time politics was overwhelmingly a world of men) be so obtuse as to not say and not do what I was sure were the obvious things that would lead to the triumph of those who were right (supporting the policies I believed to be both ethical and beneficial to my country) and the downfall of those who were wrong? Was “the media” misleading their readers/listeners/watchers as to the true caliber of these politicians and did they have, in fact, few political skills? Were these men were actually skilled political actors working toward ends other than those they had shared with the public? Was it possible that both were true?
In other words, the more I read, listened to and watched politics and politicians the harder it was not to use “it’s a conspiracy” as an explanation for the political reality I was witnessing.
My understanding of the world of practical politics began to change the day that my spouse dropped into a local party headquarters during an election campaign in an attempt to get an answer to a question zie had about the party platform. When zie came back zie shared with me not only the answer to hir question but also the disorganized state of the room in which zie had sat. A few days later I dropped by the same headquarters and saw things for myself. Over the next few days and weeks I began to organize things: I drew up lists, charted assignments, answered phones, made appointments, copy edited the fliers, assisted in the silk screening, learned to re-ink the machine on which we printed the fliers, I canvassed door to door, drove people to the polls on election day and learned why so many political operatives get drunk on election night.
Politics would never look the same to me again.
Politics, like some so many other things from raising children to picking the right background colour for one's website, is seldom simple or logical. The speech that rouses the population of one town will fail to interest a crowd the next day and a few kilometres away. The slogan that thrills one person will irritate the next. The expenditure of time and money that wins the hearts, minds and votes of one group will alienate the members of a different community. The potential voter who tells you at the door that they like your candidate, your party platform, your fliers and even the colour of your lawn signs will go on to tell you that they have no intention of voting for your candidate because their family has always voted for a different party. And those people in the crowd who swayed to the rhythms of your candidate’s words, cheered hir and treated hir like a rock star may wake up on election day and go to the polls and vote for someone else.
Explaining "why" one did anything in an election makes you sound like you are covering things up.
I noticed that almost every time I answered good (logical/reasonable) questions it sounded, even to my own ears, as if I was quibbling and making excuses for either my own mistakes or trying to obscure the “real” reason for my actions.
•Why didn’t you have your canvassers go door to door in THAT poll instead of THIS one?
•Why didn’t you use THIS slogan in all your campaign literature. All my friends think its a winner?
•Why didn’t you use THIS picture instead of that one on all the campaign literature? The one you used makes the candidate look shifty.
•Why didn’t you have THAT guy do the warm-ups at all the campaign events. He has a great voice and can really work the crowd.
•Why didn't you give the candidate a chance to get up and address the crowd as promised?
•Why didn't you say THIS during the interview / write THAT in the speech / put THIS picture on the flier?
I would have an answer to all those questions.
•Because the last time we canvassed door to door in that poll we brought out more people to vote for the other candidates than we did for our own.
•Because your friends are already planning to vote for us but that slogan actually annoys many of the people who just MIGHT vote for us.
•Because the candidate got asked the other day by a voter why zie is using a picture that shows all those split-ends and phoned me at 3 in the morning to tell me never to use it again.
•Because the guy who does great warm-ups has a tendency to use extremely foul language when zie gets excited and we have had people walk out of events he emceed.”
•Because he was drunk/stoned and last time we let him speak while in that condition he made insulting comments about an importnat constiutency among our voters/supporters.
•Because I was sleep-deprived and punch-drunk and could barely function any longer. I am human. I make mistakes.
But I couldn’t answer the real question. Why didn’t the candidate I believe was clearly the best win? Sometimes because I didn’t know myself and sometimes because the answer was heartbreaking and unwelcome. That candidate didn’t win because we could not raise enough money, because we didn’t have enough volunteers or because some of our best canvassers decided that the needs of their children, spouses or parents must be put above the needs of the local party. That candidate didn’t win because most of the people in the riding didn’t like them or didn’t support their party or didn’t agree with that party's platform or thought that a vote for THAT party or THIS candidate would be wasted.
I came to know my own riding well. The number of people who voted at each poll was small enough that I soon was able to deduce who voted for whom on the basis of changes in vote totals following THAT family selling their house and THIS family moving into the neighbourhood. I knew all the little peculiarities of each neighbourhood and had a good sense of how their residents would respond to particular people, speeches and platforms.
When I was working in other ridings I found myself asking the same questions of the local organizers as outsiders had asked of me when they came in to help. I would apply the experience and expertise gained in one community to campaigning in another and find that it didn’t work as well as I expected. In fact I soon came to realize that outside “specialists” are often as much a bother as a boon. Yes I knew how to organize a door to door canvas in the middle of a snow storm but I didn’t know what all the painful sore spots of local life were. I didn’t know the secret, unwritten history of the community. I had no feel for the rhythm of their lives and listen as hard as I might I couldn’t quite hear their internal voices.
I could walk down the street late at night in one of the communities of my home riding and tell you how the people on that street would vote. Everywhere else I went I could listen only to the voice of the numbers that came back from the surveys and the canvassers. I love statistics, but they tell you a story about the group not the individuals that make up that group. And in the end elections are about what individuals do alone in the voting booth.
It has been a long time since I worked in Canadian elections and during much of that time I worked in the United States and spent more of my time following the intricate details of American than Canadian politics and so over the election campaign during the 6 weeks that preceded the May 2 polling date I watched the campaign both as an insider and an outsider. I noticed with interest the placement of local lawn signs and billboards and made educated estimates of the health of the various candidates' campaigns but I was no longer privy to the insider information that might have prepared me for what unfolded on election night.
On the evening of Monday May 2 I sat in front of my television (with the elections canada website loaded up on my computer) and watched the results roll in. They took my breath away. This is what the Canadian political landscape looked like after the 2008 federal election.
The Conservatives (right-wing party) formed a minority government with 143 seats and 37.6% of the popular vote. The Liberals (centre-left party), with 77 seats and 26.2% of the vote formed the official opposition. The Bloc Québécois (separatist and a force only in Quebec) had 49 seats and 10% of the vote and the NDP [New Democratic Party] (left-wing) came a distant 4th with 37 seats and 18.2% of the vote. The Green Party (environmentalist) won no seats with 6.8% of the popular vote.
By Tuesday morning May 3 map of Canadian politics looked quite different.
The Conservatives had won a majority as the party gained 24 seats while increasing their share of the popular vote by a mere 2 percentage points. The Liberal party plummeted to a 3rd place finish for the first time in the history of the party (which is as old as the country) with 34 seats and 18.9% of the popular vote. The Bloc Québécois fell to only 4 seats and lost official party status. The Green Party’s popular vote dropped to 3.9% but the party won a seat for the first time in its history. And the NDP, which had never before won more than 43 seats in a single election, garnered 30.6% of the popular vote, 102 seats and became the official opposition.
Yet that sense of history and excitement was not something you would have gathered from the coverage of the Canadian election results on Tuesday in The New York Times Conservatives in Canada Expand Party’s Hold or The Washington Post Harper says he won’t move Canada hard to the right after winning coveted majority in election. The name of the new leader of the loyal opposition (Jack Layton) was not even mentioned in The New York Times article and in The Washington Post piece occurs only two times (and more than half way through). I understand why. This was a look at Canadian Politics from the outside looking in. This was an article picked up from the Associated Press and designed to run in any newspaper in the English speaking world. It presumed no knowledge about the intricacies of Canadian politics or even of the distortions of seat distributions in a first past the post electoral system. To the Canadian reader of the American newspapers the coverage might be taken to indicate anything from a wilful misrepresentation of Canadian politics to a conspiracy to slight the leader of the “socialist-leaning” NDP to cultural arrogance. Or perhaps it is just another example of how different things look when you are on the outside looking in.
The reasons why something happened are often so long, complex and confusing that only an insider would know of them and only an insider would understand why they are important. Thus, when the confused (and suspicious) outside observer asks “Why?” the answers may seem a long and unconvincing set of excuses.
The reasons why something happened as sometimes simply unknowable. Why, after spending years working in Canadian politics did Jack Layton suddenly connect with so many of the voters in Canada in general and Quebec in particular? The insider knows that there is no good answer to a question like that.
Although it’s usually more complicated than that it is sometimes more simple than you would suspect.
To the commentators on the Canadian news broadcasts I watched on Tuesday morning there were a plenitude of “reasons” for the seismic shift in the Canadian political landscape. To the American news writers it was simply “a shift to the right” in response to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s handling of the recession.
To the Canadian reader of American newspapers their coverage of the Canadian election might seem consciously misleading. To the American news editors the same coverage might seem to contain the only information that their readers really needed or wanted to know.
The simple answer to the question "Why does coverage of another country's election mislead / miss the point / leave out information you believe to be important?" may be "It's usually more complicated that than." The reasons(s) might include: most of our readers wouldn't have been interested; other stories deserved more room on the front page; there was better use for our time and resources; and even, we disagree that it was misleading, that the information left out was important and that we missed the point.
I love statistics. I dream statistics. My moment of greatest epiphany was in a statistics class. I find comfort in knowing that "sometimes shit simply happens," that not all things can be explained and sometimes there is simply no one to blame because neither intent, knowledge nor foresight could have changed the outcome.
I find comfort in uncertainty. In my own experience learning about the "inside" of almost anything has simply meant that I more able to explain what the "odds were" that something would work but it never allowed me to state with complete certainty "this will happen if you do that." Thus I can always hope that despite the odds things might get better at the same I believe that the odds are that they won't.
But that is what works for me. It comforts me to believe that much of the evil (and good) that happens happens without intent.
For others living in a world of meaning and intent, even evil conspiratorial intent, may be more reasonable / rational / comforting than the idea of inhabiting a stochastic universe.
 Political organizers DO conspire all the time. They conspire to hide their own weaknesses and failures and the personal weaknesses and failures of their candidates. Their motivations in doing so are often little different than the motivation of a parent to hide their child's weaknesses from others or the motivation of a spouse to hide the failures of their loved one from eyes of the critical world. Political organizers hide their own mistakes and the mistakes of their candidates for the same reason that employees hide their shortcomings from their employers. An organizer who cannot keep a confidence is unlikely to be hired in the next election.
 For the American reader a riding is the parliamentary equivalent of a congressional district. The author’s local riding had approximately 73,500 registered voters. Ridings are divided up into hundreds of polling places. Ballots are paper and their size and shape as well as the order of candidate names is determined by national regulations.
 One of the commonest mistakes people make when making deductions on the basis of statistics is known as the ecological fallacy, “the assumption that something learned about an ecological unit says something about the individuals making up that unit” (Babbie, E. (2008). The basics of social research. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadswort, pg. 109.)
 In Canada election results cannot be broadcast in a riding until the polls are closed locally. This was not difficult to enforce previous to the satellite television and the Internet. It is more difficult today to enforce this media blackout and the country has moved to staggering the times at which the polls open and close to minimize the problem.
 The Canadian political spectrum does not match neatly with that of the countries of most of our readers. In simplified terms:
The Conservative party -- the right wing of Canadian politics. The closest American analog (in economic terms) would be the Republican party however most Canadians who vote Conservative would be considered social liberals in the United States.
The Liberals occupy the centre-left of the Canadian political spectrum. The closest American analog is usually considered to be the Democratic Party although at this point in time a substantial percentage of the Democratic caucus in the American House of Representatives and the Senate would be on the far right of the Canadian Liberal party. In American terms the Canadian Liberals are both economic and social liberals.
The Bloc Québécois  is the federal wing of the Parti Québécois. The Bloc is generally socially and fiscally on the left of Canadian politics however the central platform of the party is to separate (by democratic means) from Canada. Their percentage of the popular vote is thus distorted since they did not run any candidates outside Quebec in 2011.
The NDP (New Democratic Party) is on the left wing of the Canadian political spectrum although not, at the moment, as far left as it has been at times in its history. In American terms the NDP are "socialist," "nearly communist" and "far, far left."
The Green Party are not only supporters of environmentalism they are also campaigning vigorously to change Canada's electoral system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation.
 The day the professor explained the Finite Population Correction Factor to the class.
 The Bloc's website is, rather unsurprisingly, in French only. There is an English portal with an official translation of some, but not all, of the material available in French.
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