At the time this article was
written Stéphane Dion was a Professor of Political Science at the University of
Montreal. This article is a revised version of an address delivered to the
symposium "Le Parlement, les parlementaires et les medias", part of
the 8th session of the Committee for Franco-Quebec interparlementary
co-operation held on September 28,1993, in the Quebec National Assembly.
The public image of politics has
deteriorated steadily throughout the period for which polls on this question
are available. The three most sensitive issues seem to be frankness, probity
and misuse of public funds. A growing proportion of the public thinks that
politicians lie to them, act dishonestly and waste the taxpayer's money. The
unpopularity of politics and politicians would be a healthy sign if it meant
that the citizenry were keeping an alert and critical eye on those who govern.
But it seems clear that instead it has caused a segment of the population to
become cynically indifferent, to give up on everything that has anything to do
with politics. This article examines a number of reasons that have been
advanced to explain this growing cynicism about our elected representatives.
including the effect of the media.
Politicians and political
institutions are held in less esteem today than they were ten or twenty years
ago. A number of polls have confirmed this decline in Canada, and it seems
plausible that the same is true in a number of other democracies. In 1965, for example,
49% of Canadians thought that "the government does not care what the
people think". By 1979 this proportion had grown to 53%, by 1984 to 63%
and by 1990 to 70%.(1) The levels of honesty and integrity among MPs were
judged to be "low" or "very low" by 39% of Canadians in
1982, and by 49% of them ten years later. (2) While in 1979 15% of Canadians
said they felt "very little" respect for the House of Commons, by
1985 the proportion had climbed to 20%, and in January 1993 to 33%. Lack of trust
in political parties is following the same upward trend: 22% of Canadians
mistrusted them in 1979, 30% in 1985 and 49% in 1993. (3)
This disenchantment with politics
and politicians does have its limits: "Most Canadians do trust politicians
very much but the majority of people still feel that politicians are about as
honest as the average person and that there is as much corruption in business
as in government (4)
One reason for the rise of cynicism
is the deteriorating economic situation. People like their elected representatives
less because the latter are less able to help them. They blame politicians for
unemployment, debt, weak growth. In the early 1980s, the Canadian taxpayer got
back $1.20 in services for every dollar he sent to Ottawa, while today he gets
only $0.80 for that dollar the rest goes to service the national debt. This is
a simple explanation for the rising tide of cynicism, but not a complete one:
after all, Canada experienced strong growth in the mid 1980s, and yet this did
nothing to increase confidence in politicians and political institutions.
Another reason that has been
advanced is the disappearance of the old ideological certainties. The
disappointments of Reaganite neoconservatism and socialism à la Mitterrand
swelled the ranks of the sceptics. People are as disenchanted with the
traditional opposition as with the government, and this encourages the
emergence of new populist parties whose vocation is primarily protest.
A third explanation frequently offered
is that our institutions do not work well. There are in Canada a number of
champions of the American system, who claim that our British parliamentary
institutions are outmoded, that party discipline in particular is at fault
because (to their way of thinking) it prevents individual M[Ps from honestly
defending their opinions and the interests of their constituencies. But it must
be pointed out that disenchantment with elected representatives is just as
strong in the United States, where scarcely one-fifth of the population say
they have "a W' of confidence in Congress.(5) On the international scene,
the search for an institutional solution to politicians' image problems has had
contradictory results: Italy, tired of its politicians, is abandoning proportional
representation just as New Zealand and Japan are, for the same reason, adopting
A more ambitious is offered by
those who asserts that democracy is suffering from its own success. (6) The
point is that an anti-power ethic is inherent in democracy. The more the values
of equality and liberty become established in people's minds, the more they
distrust those who set themselves up as above the people and entitled to govern
them. Cynicism about politics and politicians thus gains ground as the pre-democratic
values of deference and respect for authority lose their hold. Democracy leads
ultimately to nihilism. This is certainly part of the explanation, as the rise
of populist values and parties shows. But a more optimistic perspective would
be to see the pervasive cynicism as one more stage of democracy rather than its
climax. We can hope that education and the habit of public debate will produce
a more astute electorate, better equipped to assess the facts and distinguish a
critical attitude from blanket rejection. The more education people have, the
more likely they are to support the basis of the arty system, both in the
United States and in Canada. (7) The progress of democracy could well lead to
better judgement rather than to nihilism.
The role of the Media
A final explanation is the effect
of the media. A number of factors give the impression that the media encourage
cynicism toward politicians. Their well-known natural tendency is to turn the
spotlight on bad news -unemployment, conflicts, internal disputes. Their
coverage of parliamentary activities, for example, focuses mainly on clashes
during Question Period and not on committee work. A study of parliamentary
coverage in Quebec City confirms that the media focus on the sound and fury of
political life. (8) Journalists are generalists whose only real skill sometimes
is knowledge of the political game: the way politicians manoeuvre for votes,
their rivalries, and so on. Many journalists reach a point where they see
nothing but this jockeying for power, and shove the substance of political
decisions to the background.
There is no evidence that the print
media are more critical than they used to be; indeed, they my even be less so,
according to studies done in Quebec. (9) But over the years the public has
increasingly been exposed to information on television, and television has
become more critical and independent, starting in the 1970s.
Although journalists are not
particularly well-respected, their approval rating too having declined with the
rise in cynicism, they are still thought of more highly than are politicians.
In June 1986, an Environics poll suggested that Canadians tended to find
journalists more reliable than politicians. It would seem, then, that greater
exposure to a press, and especially a televised press, that is less deferential
than it used to be and that the public regards as relatively credible, may well
have contributed to increasing scepticism about politics.
But the effect of the press must
not be exaggerated. It may have encouraged cynicism, but it could not have
created it. The vigorous competition in the news world is an economic market
like any other, with players following the public's taste much more than
shaping it. Supply influences demand but it does not invent it.
Nor should we exaggerate the
negativity of the political coverage in the print and spoken media. It is not
as negative as politicians often think. Plenty of experienced journalists
bemoan a lack of independence, curiosity and critical thinking in their profession.
A study of the way the chief daily papers and television news broadcasts
available in Montreal covered the 1989 election campaign in Quebec found that
overall, although the parties were more often judged negatively than
positively, the content was much more (75-80%) likely to be neutral than biased
in either direction.(10) A similar study of private radio stations would no
doubt have found a much higher level of negativity in the content, but the
major information media are not characterised by extreme virulence toward
politics and politicians.
One of the paradoxes of our time is
that new democracies are coming into being throughout the world while
established democracies are facing disenchanted voters on the verge of complete
cynicism. 1 have touched on various reasons for this disenchantment, trying to
make the point that although the major media may have encouraged it, they could
not have created it. If 1 had to select just one cause for the rise in
cynicism, 1 would choose not the media but rather the collapse of the
traditional ideologies. Many voters cannot forgive yesterday's politicians for
having wanted to make them believe in miracle solutions. And yet those same
voters are not yet ready to accept that there are no miracle solutions. They want
today's politicians to tell them the truth, but at the same time they are not
always ready to hear the truth. They want to go on believing, for example, that
deficits can be eliminated without new tax hikes or reduced services.(11)
In a healthy democracy, every
citizen has learned to exercise his or her own judgement. Clearly the right
route for democracy is neither complacency or cynicism - it is sound critical
The press can do a great deal to
dam the rising tide of cynicism, and 1 would like to conclude with a
suggestion. Editorial writers, and the opinion press generally, should resolve
to round off their critiques with concrete suggestions. The things governments
and political parties do or propose must be criticised, but possible and desirable
alternatives must be put forward at the same time. If the critic has no
concrete solution, this should be admitted frankly. We have lost count of the
thinkers who reproach politicians for their lack of vision but are themselves
incapable of formulating even the first paragraph of an agenda for our society.
Studies show that people are less
likely to judge politicians harshly when they are asked questions that invite
them to think about concrete problems. This is what the media should be doing:
preparing their readers for constructive and pragmatic criticism, so that
gradually every citizen will start thinking about constraints and solutions
instead of being content to ladle out blame.
1. André Blais and Elisabeth
Gidengil, Making Representative Democracy Work: The Views of Canadians,
Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Collected
Research Studies, vol. 17, Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1991, p. 35.
2. Lorne Bozinoff, Peter MacIntosh
and Niki Brodie, "MPs Viewed as Having Low Honesty and Ethical
Standards", Gallup Report, August 3,1992.
3. Lorne Bozinoff and André
Turcotte, "Canadians are Losing Respect in Their Institutions", Gallup
Report, February 1 1993. See also the study by Harold D. Clarke and Allan
Kornberg, "Evaluations and Evolution: Public Attitudes Toward Canada's
Federal Political Parties, 1965-1991", Canadian Journal of Political
Science, vol 26(2), 1993, pp. 287-311.
4 Making Representative
Democracy Work... p. 36
5. Louis Massicotte,
"Parliament: The Show Goes On, But the Public Seems Bored, forthcoming in
.J. Bickerton and AlainG. Gagnon, Canadian Politics (2nd Edition),
Peterborough: Broadview Press.
6. Samuel P. Huntington, American
Politics. The Promise of Disharmony, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Claude Jannoud of France has expressed a similar idea. See Au rendez-vous du
nihilisme, Paris, Arlda, 1989.
7. Herbert McClosky and John
Zeller, The American Ethos: Public Attitudes Toward Capitalism and Democracy,
Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1984; Blais and Gidengil, Making
Representative Democracy Work.... p. 40.
8. Jean Charron, La production de
l'actualité politique, une analyse stratégique des relations entre la presse
parlementaire et les autoritées de tutelle, Doctoral Thesis, Department of
Political Science, Laval University, 1990.
9. Denis Monière, "Les
journaux en campagne électorale: neutralité ou engagement?", Department of
Science, University of Montreal,
10. Monière, "Les journaux en
campagne électorale Denis Monière, "Les informations télévisées sont-elles
biaisées?" Department of political science, University of Montreal, 1993.
11. André Blais and Stéphane Dion,
"Trop d'Etat? Un baromètre de l'opinion", Politique vol. 11,
1987, pp. 45-72.