Svend Robinson: Image Politics at its Best
By Graeme Truelove
EKOS recently released a poll measuring which political leaders Canadians would most like to have a beer with. The emotional connections we form with political personas greatly inform how we vote, and politicians carefully craft their public image with this in mind. However, a more productive use of the power of image and emotional connection than simply moving poll numbers is when a politician uses image to initiate an actual policy conversation with the public.
We haven’t seen a lot of that lately. Leaders of each major political party throughout the last decade and a half have gone to great lengths to portray themselves as either hockey-loving everymen or as hip celebrities. Canadians feel a positive association with these images, and tend to reward the politicians with better poll numbers, and the transaction ends there. There is no direct connection between these traits and the policy areas Canadians claim they care most about, such as the economy, the environment and the interests of the middle class. Image used in this way is not meant to initiate a policy conversation, but to make the leader appear likeable, and, more importantly, electable.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Former NDP MP Svend Robinson was a master of image politics, but his image wasn’t built on personal likeability. The average citizen might well have wanted to have a beer with him, but it wouldn’t have been so they could talk hockey. The average citizen knew who Robinson was because they’d seen him blocking logging trucks in west coast rainforests, or seen him clad in a flak jacket in a shoving match with Israeli soldiers. Whether they agreed or disagreed with his positions, they’d want to talk about the environment, or international human rights. No one knew what his favourite sport was, and no one cared.
Robinson used dramatic imagery to trigger emotion, and then harnessed that power to sell a specific policy idea. His public affirmation, in 1988, that he was a homosexual is perhaps the best example. Were he unconcerned with image, he could have responded curtly to the questions media asked him about his sexuality, or sent out a quick press release and tried to shift the focus to relevant bills and motions, as some parliamentary purists might have sought to do. But managing his image was an important part of his strategy, and necessarily so. In Canadian history, there had never been an openly-gay elected official at either the federal or provincial level, and a misstep in handling the issue could have ended his career. So Robinson planned his announcement in a way that would maximize the positive emotional impact. He came out on national television, describing how he would like to walk hand in hand with his partner in Stanley Park. It was a relatable, evocative image that left most people feeling compassionate for his position. Robinson could then have taken the political capital he’d gained and left it at that, but instead he referred directly to a policy goal: making sexual orientation a prohibited ground of discrimination in the Human Rights Act. In developing an emotional connection and generating empathy, Robinson made people supporters of his legislative agenda on LGBT rights. Public support lent weight to his battles in Parliament, and as a result, his record on those issues is unequalled.
Image politics used in this way elevates the discourse and generates results. There is nothing wrong with using image to get people’s attention and goodwill. It’s what a politician does next that separates the statesmen from the stereotypes.
Graeme Truelove is an Ottawa-based writer and author of the critically-acclaimed biography Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics (available at bookstores and at www.newstarbooks.com).