Now that Canada is in full election mode, I’ve been busy researching and commenting in the media about political image. I want to say first that I am not associated with any political party or political ideology represented by any party leader – I may happen to agree with bits from all party platforms, so in the end I have difficulty deciding who to vote for, but I do vote because I think voting is important.
For my blogs, I like to go back to basics, so I reached for The Oxford English Language Dictionary (Oxford) and looked up “politics” for today’s post: the art and science of government. I considered this definition of politics and thought about it in a way that made sense to me: politics as art (image) and science (testosterone), and applied it to Canadian political leaders. I started to see how complex and relevant both concepts are to a politician’s being, and remembered something that we so often forget: politicians are human.
Politics as art
Getting back to our definition, we should first ask, what is art? Oxford calls it a “human skill or workmanship as opposed to the work of nature.” To me this means things that are built, fabricated, or artificially enhanced. Politics is composed of many different types of art, including art in image terms: dress and public behaviour for example.
Dressing as art. Some people think that politicians’ dress and visual image is irrelevant and policy is where we should be focusing. Intellectually, I completely agree: dress is irrelevant in the face of policy. But, since 55% of our message is conveyed visually, what we see is important and it should be congruent with all the other parts that make up that particular political whole, including policy, if we expect to make people comfortable and trust us.
So in the case of our party leaders, their dress and general appearance is of its own importance because it gives insight into the candidate as the person who talks about and embodies party policy, and we must decide if there is a trustworthy balance between what this person stands for, how he looks, and also how he behaves.
We make decisions about people we see within seconds, so it only makes sense that a leader should dress and groom in a manner that suggests comfort and professionalism. For those of you who think it petty to concentrate on what a politician is wearing, I’d like to offer you a different way of seeing things: our MPs and Prime Minister are representing us as a people on the world stage, and I would like to think that our leaders think well enough of themselves and of Canada to put their best foot forward and dress appropriately, neatly, and respectfully to the job and to their audience.
Candidates should visually reflect the groups they’re engaging but remain professional. I liked to see Mr. Harper rolling his sleeves up in the Winnipeg greenhouse, digging in, and enjoying what he was doing, but I was confused to see him checking machine oil in a sports jacket. The greenhouse scene was natural and engaging and seemed authentic; the Regina workshop seemed uncomfortable and a bit odd, which threw me off.
Clothing should compliment the individual and the individual should feel comfortable in their clothes, not come off as though made of cardboard – this breeds inconsistency and discomfort. I will also add that because humans are visual and appreciate attractive people, it is to a politician’s benefit to wear flattering clothing to make the most of themselves, as attractiveness has bearing on likability. A nod to Mr. Layton here, polished in a great suit and an excellent yellow tie during the English language debate, and Bloc leader, Mr. Duceppe, is of course our best-dressed player, hailing from Montreal. Now, I’m afraid that Je ne parle pas de Français, but since only 7% of our messages are communicated verbally, my understanding the words doesn’t count for much – I look at Gilles Duceppe’s face, into his eyes, reading the messages that lie there.
As a woman, I have an inborn ability to read faces and I appreciate that Mr. Duceppe takes time to prepare himself for public life by choosing stylish clothing in very flattering colours that draw my eye up to his face and his strikingly blue eyes that tell the story of what he stands for and how he feels about it. Remember that 55% of our message is conveyed visually and each gender will read the messages differently because our brains are not the same and operate and process information differently.
To be genuine during an election is art. Politicians are groomed, starched, choreographed, and memorized, and I expect that it’s difficult to drop the armor and truly be themselves during a political campaign, but revealing the genuine human side of a politician will always win points because many of us need to feel that the person who represents us should be one of us.
During the election race, the politicians mingle with us and put on a show for the media. When there are cameras around, people act differently so acting naturally must be challenging for the leaders. I think that we like to see these ordinarily stony and serious types letting loose and goofing off and enjoying themselves every once in a while because they can get quite intense there in the House.
Being comfortable with ourselves and being authentic is an enormous skill to a manufactured public political figure, as this kind of authenticity makes political figures approachable – a key public relations selling point. When Michael Ignatieff dove into his bag and ate a bagel right out of his hand, it showed me that we’re all weak for fresh Montreal bagels, and I like that Stephen Harper plays music and worked it into his election gigs, playing piano and singing with little Maria Aragon, revealing his rarely-seen creative side.
Self and body awareness is art. Being aware and in control of our mental, physical, and emotional states takes an enormous amount of self-understanding. Politicians must be aware of as much of themselves as possible because they’re under constant public scrutiny (she writes, dedicating this and the next blog post to the examination and dissection of the Canadian leaders).
If you check back to the 2008 national leaders debate and compare Mr. Harper’s body language to the body language of the 2011 debate, you’ll see a marked difference. Consider the situation: in 2008, Harper’s arch-enemy, Stephane Dion, and a woman of all things, Ms Elizabeth May, are now mixed into the gang of regulars. Mr. Harper was in attack mode, lashing out at Dion and sneering at May, defensive and constantly moving around. The 2011 debate featured a cast of characters with a completely different energy – Mr. Layton, bouncing back from a serious illness and hip surgery, and a Harper with a whole set of democratic blunders under his belt. This time, he wasn’t scrappy, this time, Mr. Harper was very controlled and stiff, his mouth twitching when topics he wanted to avoid came up.
Politicians are trained to be aware of themselves in ways that we may not think of: not only what comes out of their mouths but how they’re holding their mouths, not only how they’re standing but what their hands are doing, and how to control their emotions and be aware of their facial expressions when accusations fly. People love to blow politicians off, but imagine how much concentration it would take to be aware of yourself to that degree while you’re at work with cameras and microphones in your face.
So as the art of government, political image plays a fairly strong role. The political, public, and personal pressure that these men are under astounds me, and I applaud each one of them for not only getting involved in a job that very few of us would consider doing, but holding up to the intense analysis that they’re faced with on a daily basis, and forming the best image they can to represent their beliefs and ideological groups.
Quoting with me in a recent CTV interview about political image, Bernard Gauthier, the CEO of the Ottawa-based public relations firm, Delta Media, says that though political issues are important, “…when a campaign becomes more about the party leaders, then image will be the driving force.”
Next week: Politics as science – For the love of politicians, part 2