Being a Conscientious Values Voter

A new election trend this year may have taken you by surprise – leaders appearing at campaign stops and in advertisements wearing sweaters. This isn’t a change in political dress codes, but rather reflective of the increasing connections between image and values in politics. The sweaters are intended to evoke positive images of gentle, average-person candidates.

Elections have always been about values. Values direct how we vote, whether consciously or unconsciously. Values shape how we view and interact with the world around us, including what we consider good or bad, important or unimportant, right or wrong. CPJ has long advocated that voters consider their options according to the public justice values of the common good, compassion, and care for the marginalized and for the earth.

Developments in US political discourse have now brought a new practice to Canadian politics: framing. Both framing and values are not new, but never before have they been so deliberately manipulated by politicians and partisans.

In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff describes the essence of framing. Words convey frames – concepts that structure and reinforce how we view the world. Thus, words or phrases connect to our understanding of the world in the most basic way. When we hear statements and arguments that reinforce our frame, we are likely to accept them as true, while we reject arguments and even facts that contradict our frames.

Framing is a linguistic concept, not limited to politics. But when introduced to politics, framing becomes a way of conveying values and associating them with certain policies and politicians. The same citizen might support a tax cut if it is portrayed as tax relief and reject it if it is portrayed as a cut to public programs and services. (For more on how framing works in political discourse, see Lakoff’s summary “Simple Framing”.

Political parties have thus become much more deliberate in their choice of language and metaphors to explain their policies and criticize their opponents. This is not a bad thing. However, changing discourse into spin is an easy practice to abuse. Rather than focusing on issues, policy or vision, parties can focus exclusively on image, trying to associate their own image with certain positive values and their opponent’s image with negative values.

For example, the Conservative Party ran ads at the beginning of the election which emphasized Stephen Harper as a family man. One of the ads contained no overtly political message, but featured the Prime Minister listing the things he likes to do with his kids. The intended message was that Mr. Harper is the candidate of family values – a message based solely on image. No reference was made to Conservative policies, and yet the ad still suggested that as a loving father in a nuclear family, Harper is the candidate families can trust.

Family values are important within a public justice framework, which emphasizes God-given rights and responsibilities, respect for the contributions of all sectors and institutions of society, and seeks the common good. But a public justice lens would not reduce family values to carefully scripted images of nuclear families or focus on a narrow set of policies such as parental leave and child care.

Policies that would reduce poverty, narrow the growing income gap, promote a living wage, provide appropriate and affordable housing for all Canadians, welcome and support newcomers, and protect the environment are also important policies for families. In fact, any policy that promotes the common good, seeks the best interests of all Canadians rather than particular interests, or enables care for creation is a policy that is good for families.

No one single party has a monopoly on policies that are good for families. And all the party leaders are loving parents. And yet, Canadians may be persuaded by the meticulous combination of frames and images that the message of the ad is true.

Another example is the website of the Liberal Party aimed at framing their leader, Stéphane Dion, as an average Canadian who loves hockey and outdoor sports. Most tellingly, some of the images of Dion are presented in wooden picture frames – a clear reference to the attempt at framing. Similarly, the New Democratic Party’s ads questioning the definition of strong leadership are an attempt to reframe the definition with pictures that give a negative image of what the voiceover is saying. Other examples abound, as all the parties attempt to communicate their desired image to voters.

Canadians who are truly concerned about voting according to their values must therefore not take election campaigns at “face value”. Many important issues need to be addressed, but if we allow ourselves to be manipulated by the framing and images presented by political parties, we may end up voting against our own values. Advertisements, policy platforms and announcements, and even word choices all require discernment. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we must pay attention to the man behind the curtain, and not fixate on the image in front of us.

Discernment involves engagement, seeking to inform ourselves, reflecting on our core values, and constantly questioning which values a leader or a party actually holds. Last week we looked at the parties’ environmental policy announcements and suggested some questions to decipher reality from rhetoric.

Economic management is another area that deserves scrutiny. Does the rhetoric fit the facts? The Conservatives claim they are the strong economic managers, but they also state they prefer not to interfere with market forces. Are those claims contradictory? The Liberals are running on their historical record in the past two decades, but is that record as positive as they suggest? The NDP argue they would change the government’s focus from the boardroom table to the kitchen table, but what does that mean in concrete policy terms?

Refugee and newcomer policies, international development assistance, military funding and our role in Afghanistan, Aboriginal issues, poverty reduction, affordable housing, early learning and child care programs should also be examined carefully. What are our values, and what are the values behind the decisions and policies of the parties on these issues?

Let’s not allow ourselves to be manipulated. Be a conscientious values voter.

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