After Watergate brought down Richard Nixon, the U.S. passed the Federal Election Campaign Act in an attempt to make election campaigns more open and transparent. One of the key features of the act, was that it placed legal limits on campaign contributions.
This prompted high profile Republican strategist, Arthur Finkelstein, who had worked on Nixon's campaign, to come up with something called Independent Expenditure Campaigns (in Canada this is known as Third Party Advertising). This allowed the wealthy to funnel their contributions through a political activist group, who could run attacks ads freely, usually zeroing in on a policy the Republicans opposed and their opponents favoured, or had already adopted.
Finkelstein would also work for Ronald Reagan, before joining Canada's National Citizens Coalition. According to Gerry Nicholls, who was Stephen Harper's VP when he was running the NCC:
Arthur [Finkelstein] was an American political consultant who worked for the NCC, he gave us political, media and fundraising advice. He was, in fact, truth-be-told, one of the chief reasons behind the NCC’s success. He was also the top Republican political consultant, if not the top American political consultant period. He was also the guy who basically invented the negative ad. His nickname was the “Merchant of Venom.” (1)And this "Merchant of Venom" taught Stephen Harper well.
Finkelstein's strength was in finding a weak spot, as flimsy as it might be, and then creating an entire campaign around it. Harper found Dion's in his difficulty with the English language, to create the image of a bumbling fool with the simple "Not a Leader" attack.
With Michael Ignatieff it was more difficult, but he found a "weak spot" in his five years spent teaching at Harvard. He couldn't use his teaching positions at Oxford, Cambridge or the London School of Economics, because they were British. So those five years spent in Boston became the focal point of the "Just Visiting" ads. And the fact that while teaching in Boston, Ignatieff chose "we" to connect with his students, that "we" became the most powerful two letter word in the English language.
Another strategy of Finkelstein's was to give negative connotations to certain things through repetition and association. "Tax and spend liberals", "reckless coalition", that kind of thing.
This strategy became known as "Finkel Think". But too much Finkelthinking can be a bad thing. In the U.S. several of his campaigns backfired because he used terms so much, that the negative response was aimed at the ads, and the Democrat won.
Harper's overuse of "reckless coalition" appears to have also backfired, especially after it was made public that he himself had tried to become prime minister in 2004, in a coalition that included the full support of the Bloc.
In fact, a recent poll suggests that the majority of Canadians would prefer a coalition to a Harper majority. This doesn't mean that Harper will change his strategy. He can't. His Finkelthinkitis is terminal.
Symptoms of the Disease
1. The first sign that a nation has been finklethinked is the odd behaviour of the media. They will begin to froth at the mouth while watching the latest attack ad. Then they wait for the polls to see if the ad is working. Now collectively, with arms extended like Zombies, they will head to their keyboards to create headline news. "Latest Harper Attack ad may cause Michael Ignatieff to plummet to his political death."
There is an easy cure at this stage, but it would involve their having to think and perhaps ponder what this is doing to our democracy. But thinking is elitist, meaning they could become the next victim of Fatal Finkeling.
2. The electorate begins to develop a rash. They can't sit still while watching the attack ads, so will fidget and hold their tummies, waiting for the nausea to consume them. In the most severe cases you may also see a gauging out of the eyes and the placing of sticks in ears, while the victim runs in circles singing "la, la, la, la, la, la ..."
An Old Wives Tale suggests that they lock themselves inside on election day, but research has shown this to be false. The best cure for Finkelthinkitis, is to show up at the polling station on election day to receive the antidote.
It's called a ballot. The only known cure.
So don't become a frothing, fuming, fumbling, fulminating, fickle faced foolish Finkelthinker. On May 2 vote and vote wisely.
1. Libertarianism and me, by Gerry Nicholls, November 13, 2009