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Could Justin Trudeau's Victory Foreshadow the Demise of Attack Advertising?

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 3/11/2015 Don Tapscott

On November 4, Justin Trudeau, who won a landslide victory in the recent Canadian election will select his cabinet. His new cabinet is said to be the most diverse in Canadian history and he already shown sighs of institution a new culture of transparency and multi-partisan cooperation in Ottawa. His style may portend that a new generation of politicians can lead us away from the hyper-partisan, rancorous and unproductive climate of today's democracy to a new era of thoughtful discussion, open government and productive action.
The most remarkable aspect of Mr. Trudeau's victory is that the Liberals - at Mr. Trudeau's insistence - refused to use negative advertising. He refused to use the tactic that is the cornerstone of virtually all contemporary political campaigns.
Just as they had done with previous Liberal leaders Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, the Conservative Party launched a comprehensive attack ad program many months before the election was called. They said Trudeau was "just not ready" to lead. They mischaracterized his platform, such as falsely asserting he proposed permanent deficits. One TV ad even ridiculed his appearance, showing common folk sitting around a table commenting on his long hair.

Politicians everywhere know that negative advertising is toxic to democracy, by poisoning reasoned political debate and dumbing down the discussion. Its main goal is often not to win over voters but to simply suppress voting that could hurt them. Parties do this because pollsters tell them that such advertising works.
Mr. Trudeau stated from the beginning of his campaign that he was going to focus on the issues and not resort to attack ads. He built a campaign that engaged voters online and elsewhere and solicited their views. It appears that the electorate, particularly young people, saw through the negative messaging and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's campaign not only flopped, it backfired.
People were pumped by the Liberal's positive outlook. Voter turnout jumped from 61 percent to 69 percent. An unprecedented number of voters turned out at advance polls and voting on university and college campuses also set records.
This is in stark contrast to electoral trends in the United States and other Western countries, where a growing number of citizens just aren't voting. Not since the dawn of universal suffrage in the established democracies have voters been angrier with their governors.  Nor have so many citizens in so many countries acted on the bumper sticker exhortation: "Don't Vote! It Only Encourages Them!" In particular, young people are looking for ways other than voting to bring about social change.
Negative ad campaigns are integral to political behavior today - that puts power before a healthy democracy. The most current exhibit A is the Select Committee on Benghazi, which is the eighth Congressional investigation of the 2012 terrorist attack that killed four Americans. Most Americans understand that it is waste of taxpayer funds with the sole objective of hurting Hillary Clinton's campaign for President. Oblivious, Ms Clinton's detractors charge ahead.
Politicians can't seem to do the right thing because money trumps all. Fully 92 per cent of Americans want background checks of people buying guns, but the "will of the people" cannot be realized because NRA's clout prevents that happening. Americans thought their political financing laws limited the swagger of big money and focus the campaign on ideas, but the Supreme Court decided otherwise. In the notorious Citizens United case, the court effectively lifted the limits on political donations, and now billionaires make breathtaking pledges to support their particular ideology.
The American political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote that legitimacy is "the capacity of a political system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate and proper ones for the society." The ongoing abuse of trust by office holders is not simply a series of isolated incidents, but manifestations of a deep rot.
Which is why Mr. Trudeau's campaign was so significant. It showed that the cynical behavior of politicians to achieve and hold onto power might actually be counter-productive.
It's time for political leaders everywhere to follow in Trudeau's footsteps and give a damn about democracy. To rebuild the public's trust in political institutions, elected officials need to embrace integrity - which is about honesty and consideration of the long-term interests of citizens and others. They must be truthful, accurate, and complete in communications. They have regard for the interests, desires, or feelings of others, especially the electorate.
To restore legitimacy we need a new era of democracy based on integrity, active citizen citizenship and a culture of public discourse and participation. The Trudeau victory suggests that with a new generation of savvy voters this may also be the way to win.
Don Tapscott is the author of 15 books, most recently "The Digital Economy." His upcoming book, with co-author Alex Tapscott is called The Trust Protocol: How Blockchain Technology is Changing Money, Business and the World.

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