Friday, October 16, 2009

Politics of Popularity

It's another sign of the times that the Opposition feels that its most effective tool (perhaps its only effective tool) against the Williams regime is poll numbers. In the current political culture, any form of low polling is seen as kryptonite.

This past week we witnessed a political scientist trotting out the tautology that Williams faces no threat because he is popular, and he is popular because he faces no threat. In other words, Williams is popular because he is powerful and powerful because he is popular. As I've before, it's funny 'cause it's true. It is therefore unsurprising that when the Liberals finally manage to get some positive media coverage, they place all their political eggs in the popularity basket. To invoke a different metaphor, polls have become the water in which our political fish swim.

Of course, there are numerous problems with this culture of poll et impera. There are not only the issues of poll goosing and media manipulation, but also the question of popularity versus actual support. Williams' popularity may be a mile wide, but how deep is it outside the Tubble, i.e., the Townie Bubble? (And, to take the Teletubbies analogy a bit further, both rely on an inane optimism replete with creepy sun-king).

I'm sure that the Tories' internal polling shows that their support is alarmingly shallow in some areas off the Avalon, and I suspect that they are worried about the byelection. The problem for Williams is not only that he must win but that he must win big-time. For Williams, mere victory is never enough; it must be ├╝ber-victory, a crushing demonstration of total supremacy.

Even a relatively close victory could deflate the popularity bubble, if only a bit, and Williams knows that his power rests on the image of pop-omnipotence. He must be seen as not just popular, but heroically popular. Thus it was important for Dunn to insist that Williams occupies a popularity summit unknown to mere mortal premiers like Clyde Wells.

Sustaining this popularity feedback-loop requires as much time and energy as actual governing, which is why we've seen such an explosion of PR advisers, media handlers, communication hacks, and call-in teletubbies. And whatever you want to say about the Williams government, it has been remarkably candid about its belief that it can govern by polling fiat.

For Williams, the beauty of popularity politics is that it's self-reinforcing. People tell pollsters that they support Williams in part (perhaps in large part, in some areas outside the Tubble) because there is no viable alternative. So he is popular because the Liberals are not. And vice versa. Getting out of this Teletubbie loop is easier said than done, but trotting out poll numbers won't do the trick. As they demonstrated during the showdown with the nurses' union, the Williams government knows when to make a tactical retreat, which has just been announced. Jerome Kennedy has become for the Tories what Roger Grimes was for the Liberals, and he will do what needs to be done (Kennedy better watch out that he might get what he wishes for). And to take the analogy further, we should point out that it took a party civil war and a bitter leadership convention before the Liberals began their final decline -- and even then Grimes had two years in power.

In a post on Nottawa, I speculated about who, if anyone, would play the role of Leo Barry in the Williams regime. I was referring to the question of whether anyone would dare cross the floor. Because the way things are going, it will take a floor-crossing or two before things begin to change. While we have entered the period of Late Williamsism, we need to keep in mind that this period could last as long as the Liberals remain in disarray. As I said before, in NL governing parties tend to rot from within before they fall, but they still have to be pushed.

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