Saturday, June 5, 2010

On avatars and party leaders

An avatar, or icon, is one of those essentials of online communications. It's a simple little graphic that packs a lot of info into a 60 x 60 pixel space. It's an instant visual clue to the personality of the person behind the screen name. Cute kitties, Darth Vader, Bart Simpson - each one says "this is who I identify with".

So what does that have to do with politics?

Simply this: the leader of a country is its avatar. When people vote in a federal election they rarely vote based on the merits of the individual candidates in their ridings, but vote based on the party and its leader. That leader is a sort of meta-avatar for the country itself - the face we present to the rest of the world.

That avatar must reflect something of ourselves - an idealized, more perfect version of ourselves. He or she must be like us, but better. Not too much better, though. We want our leaders smart, but not so smart that they make us feel stupid or uneducated every time they speak. That's why intellectual types, despite their good intentions, sound logic and grasp of psychology, history, economics, etc. do not tend to do well running for the highest post in the land. Adelai Stevenson. Stephane Dion. Michael Ignatieff - all were or are seen as overly intellectual. Therefore, says the logic, they are cold and disdainful of we mere mortals, yet also weak - no match for other, tougher world leaders.

Canada, with its small population has a particular need for toughness in a leader. You can't walk softly and carry a big stick when you don't have a big stick. This is why Chretien, despite his poor command of English and various other faults was so popular for so long. He was a tough guy from a tough pulp and paper industry town. It's also why Stephen Harper's tough talk about Canada's arctic strikes a responsive chord in so many Canadians. Remember, this is the country that ranked Don Cherry ahead of its founder John A. McDonald in the CBC's Greatest Canadian contest (although to be fair, we did rank Tommy Douglas right after Cherry). On the whole though, Canadians want a PM who is tough, who will make a space for Canada at the big table.

This is why despite all his broken promises, assault on democracy and re-shaping of Canada in ways that most people would deplore if they were paying attention, Stephen Harper has been as successful as he has. Although not strictly speaking an intellectual, he is certainly a braniac, something he has hidden reasonably well. He talks tough and Canadians eat it up. He likes hockey. He's a dad (albeit a creepy handshaking dad). But Stephen Harper has one major weakness: that's not his real personality we're seeing. The public Stephen Harper is a carefully crafted cardboard cut-out; a man who speaks with an eerie calm, shows no discernible human emotions; a tactician with a deeply hidden agenda, a cypher, an android.

Jack Layton is currently polling ahead of both Harper and Ignatieff as party leader. The NDP itself is still under 20% for the party, yet Layton's numbers are way up. He's articulate but not preachy or condescedning. He's willing and able to call out the other leaders. He doesn't seem to be hiding his true personality, and comes across as a pretty straightforward guy.

Ignatieff has very few of the qualities that move the voting public. As an avatar he's a bust. Too patrician, too intellectual, lacking visible toughness and the willingness to fight. He seems more suited to head the diplomatic corps. If he intends to hang on to the party's leadership, he is going to have to address those shortcomings ASAP. And if the Liberals ever hope to get past 30% support, they need a leader who can be a proud symbol of Canada for Canadians.

An avatar.
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