I’m not half the man I used to be,
There’s a shadow hanging over me,
Oh, yesterday came suddenly.
Kind of works, doesn’t it? Especially the part about believing in yesterday.
Late in their doomed election campaign, the Liberal brain trust decided to throw a couple of Hail Mary passes to try to protect the all-important Toronto base. Theyarranged for some visits from “stars” – former Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Montreal MP Justin Trudeau. Obviously they believed that these magic names from the past would not only energize the Liberal base, but also attract enough voters to stem the tide.
In a one-day whirlwind blitz on April 18th, Justin Trudeau visited seven ridings. Here’s how many of those ridings were won by the Liberals on May 2:
That’s right. Zip. In four of the ridings – Brampton Springdale, Bramalea Gore Malton, York Centre and Ajax-Pickering – the Liberals lost a seat that they had previously held. Of the seven ridings Trudeau hit, the Conservatives won five and the NDP won two.
Chretien also visited York Centre – held by hockey legend Ken Dryden. Didn’t matter.
I think there are some important lessons here that relate to the topics I’m dealing with on this blog.
But first a caveat: I don’t want to deal with the political ins and outs of which party is better and whether the election outcome was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. I want to focus on branding and communications, and how and when an appeal to past glory can fail to deliver. My thesis is that the Liberals mistakenly believe a lot of people care about their past accomplishments. You could argue that people ought to care, that it’s a shame they don’t care, that the voters have made a terrible mistake, etc., etc. Fine. But I believe that the Liberal error has broader implications, and that it points to a major shift in how Boomers and Seniors will conduct themselves in the political marketplace. That’s why it’s a significant topic, I submit, for this blog.
Okay. Asterisks and disclaimers finished. On with the argument.
Let’s start with two facts on which I don’t expect to get much opposition:
1. If you’re going to play the Big Names From The Past card, you’re playing largely to an audience who actually remembers them. This seems pretty obvious. Names from the past fade quickly and can be virtually unknown to the next generation. (Want some concrete, and very shocking, proof? A new finding from Yahoo Search indicates that 25% of American teens had never heard of Osama Bin Laden until he was killed!)
So if you’re coming with the Trudeau card and the Chretien card and the legacy of past Liberal governments, you’re probably playing to an audience of Boomers and Seniors. The “youth vote” that flocked to Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1968 (including me) are all over the age of 60 today.
2. But it’s smart to play to Boomers and Seniors because – as I’ve pointed out here before – they represent the majority of votes cast. Boomers and Seniors collectively account for just over half the voters who are eligible to vote, but because their turnout is higher, they represent about 60% of all votes cast.
So on paper, it made a lot of sense for the Liberals to invite these voters to take a walk down memory lane. In fact, isn’t that what I’ve been advocating all along, with all my harping about how important the Boomer and Senior vote is and how politicians don’t “get it”?
So what’s the problem here? What am I complaining about? If I’m criticizing the Liberal strategy – which I am – aren’t I contradicting myself?
No. To understand the trap the Liberals fell into, we have to remind ourselves of the bigger trend:
Boomers and Seniors are reinventing aging.
They are not behaving the way people of the same age behaved in previous generations.
In previous generations, when the average 65-year-old reminisced about the past, he or she did so from the point of view of someone who had maybe 10 years to go. There was a disengagement from the society and current issues. There may have been a concern for the future of one’s children and grandchildren, but there was little incentive to do the hard work to figure out policy details — particularly since the country was prosperous and peaceful, by and large.
Political behavior was influenced more by memory and tradition – and often, by suspicion of anything too new – than by longer term considerations.
Today, the youngest Baby Boomer (46) can contemplate another 40 years or so of life span.
The youngest recipient of Canadian pension (65) can contemplate 20 years or more.
At the same time, there are complex “sandwich generation” issues that make longer-term policy issues much more vivid and relevant: health care, pensions, and even employment issues (most Boomers can’t afford to stop working) make Boomers and Seniors much more engaged in what’s coming next and much less sentimental about what happened before.
And that’s without even factoring in the ego drives of the Boomer generation: “I’ve always been in charge of my own destiny, and I’m not about to stop now.”
Boomers and even the younger Seniors (say 65-75), in short, are more likely to behave like younger voters than like “seniors” who are fading away, grumbling but impotent. They are engaged, they are demanding, and they perceive that they have both the time and the resources to leverage the political system to get what they want.
Given this reality, it is ludicrous to imagine that they can be motivated by invoking the names and traditions of the past.
The records of Trudeau, Chretien and Martin – or even Laurier and King – are what they are, and it’s not the point of this blog to argue that those records are Good or Bad or In Between. The fact that these leaders were all Liberals is interesting, historically, but meaningless going forward. The idea that Boomers and Seniors are going to give their votes to a party simply because it did some good things once upon a time is laughable.
Yet there is evidence that the Liberals continue to be captivated by this possibility. In the wake of their defeat, some are floating the name of Justin Trudeau as a possible leader. He may indeed turn out to be a historically brilliant politician, but let’s face it, if you’re talking about him as a leader at this stage of the game, you’re putting all your chips on his surname.
The Conservatives and NDP can only fantasize that the Liberals would be so clueless. If Justin Trudeau emerges from a process that includes a good hard look at what the Liberals have to offer going forward, that’s one thing. But as a quick fix, hoping to get the Boomers and Seniors to feel all warm and wet about that glorious past…puhleeze.