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2011 Election, Canadiana, Federal Politics

Out on a Limb: In Defence of the (Political) Moral High Ground

Illustration by Dushan Milic - Appeared with 'The Biggest Loser' in July/Aug Magazine Edition of The Walrus

This may be terribly naive of me (and I’m not ruling out that possibility, to be fair), but I am going to go out on a limb and make the following two statements:

1) the (political) moral high-ground is (often) worth defending; and

2) two wrongs do not make a right.

I know, I know. I write a political blog and am spouting off about two wrongs not making a right, but hear me out. I promise this won’t devolve into an Aristotelian debate on the nature of morality, nor will it come down to Clintonian semantics over what the definition of ‘is’ is. It will be more lively than that, I swear.

So: the (political) moral high-ground is (often) worth defending. I wrote that sentence out originally and didn’t include the two caveats in parenthesis, but I opted to give myself some flexibility and include those escape clauses. Be that as it may, here is what prompted this post.

In ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,’ The Hill Times recently published an interview they conducted with interim Liberal leader Bob Rae on how, exactly, he plans on steering the re-building of the Liberal Party of Canada. The issue of attack ads and the concept of a ‘permanent campaign’ both came up in response to two Conservative tactics that Harper exercised effectively against Iggy and the Liberals. Here is what Rae had to say:

On attack ads:

“I don’t like negative ads… [They] can have a suppressive effect, so it’s not so much that one necessarily has to respond to negative ads with equally negative ads, it’s more a way of understanding the nature of the game we’re in. I think that…a lot of people…felt that…there’s something somehow ungentlemanly about playing the game this way and, in fact, this is how the game is being played. If this is how the game is being played, we better figure that out.”

On a ‘permenant campaign’:

“I think it’s a mistake to think that you can make up for a lot of lost ground in the 35 days of an election campaign. The fact is that we’re in a mode that has to be seen as a ‘permanent campaign’ and that’s the way in which we have to structure our responses.”

In other words, as The Hill Times rightly reports, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Which, to my mind, is tantamount to Rae believing that because of the Liberals unbelievably poor showing in May, that the moral high-ground is not worth defending. Why? Because the moral high-ground does not win elections.

Just ask Warren Kinsella. Hours after reading Rae’s interview with The Hill Times, I picked up the latest edition of The Walrus and came across an article by Kinsella entitled “The Biggest Losers.” He outlines a variety of reasons why the Liberals did so poorly on May 2, but a running theme is how effective the Conservative attack ads were in defeating the Liberals. “If someone tells you political attack ads don’t work,” he writes, “you are either talking to a liar or a fool.”

Kinsella claims to not be above a little political muckraking in order to define his candidate before the opposition has a chance to define them for them: indeed, he claims this is one of many reasons why Tory attack ads were effective against Dion and Ignatieff, because they did nothing to counter the effectiveness of the ads before – or during – their airing.

The bottom line for Kinsella is that the need to win should trump the manner in which you accomplish it. “Personally,” he writes, “I’m motivated to do what Stephen Harper himself did and bring together like-minded partisans to do some good for the country. And, you know, win a fucking election.”

And he has a point. But to come back to my original two assertions, the political moral high-ground should not be abandoned by the Liberals simply because the Tories have long since left, and defending it alone has become costly. And further to that point, I am not convinced that two wrongs make a right when it comes to negative political attack ads.

Simply because the Tories do it (and do it well) is not a good enough reason for the Liberals to embrace negative attack ads. Contrary to Rae’s belief, two wrongs do not make a right.

The obvious flip side to this is that these tactics are highly effective, and win elections. So is it better to lose on your principles than win by abandoning what you know to be right? Again – I am inclined to say yes, winning cannot be the supreme objective to be achieved at any cost.

But if the nature of the game is changing, lamenting the way in which things are different will not change the fact that you cannot win using out-dated methods. It only shows how out-of-touch you are, which is political suicide.

So maybe I have answered my own questions. But I remain torn. I feel like I started this post with stronger moral convictions than when I began. Preventing Stephen Harper from obtaining another majority government is worth a little mud-slinging, surely, but is this too slippery a slope? This struggle I have over the political moral high-ground is likely why I never won a seat on student council in High School. Le sigh.

But what do you think?

About awreeves

Editor-in-chief at Alternatives Journal. Author of 'Overrun: Dispatches from the Asian carp Crisis'.


3 thoughts on “Out on a Limb: In Defence of the (Political) Moral High Ground

  1. The liberals had lots of opportunities to defend the moral high ground. BUT, they were too afraid of an election, and so instead of voting against the neo-cons, they were “away” from the vote, or spun it so they didn’t look quite so bad.

    They lost me. If they weren’t going to stand for liberalism, then what the frack were they doing there? If you’re going to have an attack ad, have one. Make it about standing up for a principle, and point out where others arent. Tell the public that it is NOT illegal to seek refugee status in Canada. There is nothing illegal about arriving in a boat and asking for refuge. Not a peep. Every other day. If you have to fight dirty to protect someone’s rights, then fight dirty. But they forgot about protecting people’s rights. It was all re-elections chances and can we win, and the interests of Canadians went out the window.

    Posted by SM | July 10, 2011, 10:55 pm
  2. That’s an interesting thought, SM – an attack ad that attacks your opponents lack of moral principle. Allowing you to retain the moral high-ground, while still going on the offensive. It’s kinda of a hybrid between the two!

    It reminds me of the reason why Ignatieff pushed for the election once Harper had been found in contempt of Parliament – an election for the people was necessary on account of the lack of principle of his opponent.

    But also, look where that got him…

    Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by awreeves | July 11, 2011, 9:35 am
  3. I agree with your stance ( I think most civilized folks would), but I also agree that if your moral high ground is leaving you in the dust, then (when the dust settles ), then pick yourself up, look around for some mud and start flinging. It may be hard to live with yourself for awhile, but you’ll get used to it.

    Posted by JReeves | July 20, 2011, 12:24 pm

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