Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Benatar Effect

Welcome to Punditry in Motion; I'm your host, Mike Arrears-Dunn.  My guest today is random blogger and unnoted political commentator Stephen Fitzpatrick.  

Thanks Mike, good to be here.

Alison Redford's dramatic come-from-behind victory at last night's Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership race has stunned an awful lot of people; would this include yourself?

Oh, definitely, but perhaps not as much as some other people.

And why is that?

Well, it probably stems from the role that media, public apathy and group psychology play in our democratic institutions.  Take political polls for example, which I have a certain amount of antipathy for.It seems that a great deal of what is referred to as 'momentum' and the like is generated by these polls, and people begin treating them as de facto results.  In a province like Alberta, where only 36% of those eligible to vote actually bothered to leave their homes last time around to mark some X's on a piece of paper, the very last thing we need is less incentive to come out and participate because we feel the result is a foregone conclusion.  Almost no one gave either Alison Redford or third place finisher Doug Horner a credible chance of defeating Gary Mar in this run-off vote. His lead was repeatedly described as 'practically insurmountable'.  I firmly believe that these kinds of upsets actually restores people's faith in the democratic process, and I am not just saying that as a guy who minored in psychology at a small college more than two decades ago and hasn't touched a textbook or an abstract since.

That may be so, but others are saying that this tradition of bumping off the front-runner almost every single time points to a selection process that may be fundamentally broken.

Our entire process for electing provincial officials should be so broken!  I appreciate not having to wait another two weeks to find out who the party faithful have selected to lead Alberta's government, and there is no better way to do that than the preferential ballot.  In fact, Graham Thomson of the Journal wrote a great piece describing how the Tory leader selection process is actually more democratic than our regular elections.

Be that as it may, how do you explain this stunning comeback by Premier-Designate Redford?

Well, I think that a number of factors came together to produce a textbook example of the Benatar Effect.

I beg your pardon?

E-mail, the web and now social media have given us whole new ways to argue about a variety of subjective topics, like music, for example.  But back in the pre-internet days, our primary means of proving which song was 'the best' was through radio call in shows.  The producers would take a number of classic songs, say, 64, and randomly assign them as opponents to each other on a bracket system very similar to what they use in college basketball's Final Four championship.  Each song is played in turn and listeners are asked to call in and vote for whichever one they consider to be the best.  The loser is eliminated, and the winner goes on the next round to face an opponent that also won its bracket.  This continues until the two most popular songs face each other, and an overall winner emerges from that terrible conflagration.

I see...and what role does Pat Benatar play in all this?

At the time when these sorts of competitions were popular, Benatar was a very successful artist, and rightfully so, but was not typically seen as having the same sort of gravitas as more established or influential artists like The Rolling Stones or The Beatles.  But what would sometimes transpire is that after knocking off another contemporary colleague, she might find herself facing off against a more legendary opponent like Led Zeppelin, fresh from from the rock battlefields where they managed to edge out "You Really got Me Goin'" by the Kinks.

On the face of it, "Stairway to Heaven" shouldn't have much to fear from "We Belong", but you may have a situation where a number of people call in less to support Pat Benatar and more to vote against Led Zeppelin because perhaps they dislike time signature changes in their Album Oriented Rock hits, or don't believe a rock classic should have so much flute in it.  Maybe they are young males who mistakenly expressed attraction to Robert Plant before seeing the concert footage from "The Song Remains the Same" and realized he is indisputably male; perhaps they are just vengeful Kinks fans.  Whatever the reason, there is a swell of support for Pat Benatar.

Meanwhile, many of the people who voted for Led Zeppelin in the previous round think it is a foregone conclusion that Pat Benatar is in over her head on this one and that Zeppelin will take it in a walk, and don't bother to phone in.  The end result is that suddenly Pat Benatar is moving on to the next round,while Led Zeppelin finds themselves clambering out of a pile of flaming bus wreckage in the ditch, eliminated in the second round by the woman who sang "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."  In a nutshell, that's the Benatar Effect.

And you think this is what happened to Gary Mar?

I think the combination of low turnout combined with the complete and utter shock of the Mar team as the results came in sort of bears the theory out, don't you?

True, there were much fewer votes placed in this contest compared to the one that brought Ed Stelmach to power...

Sure, another case where an established front-runner lost out to a dark horse...

But as you yourself have observed, Gary Mar was an established, well connected centrist candidate with a very well-funded and well organized campaign.  Isn't it natural for the tiny sliver of Alberta's population that actually voted in this leadership race to be attracted to him?

Absolutely, but that same attraction galvanized a number of people opposed to 'business-as-usual' politics, including numerous teachers and nurses tired of the endless cycle of job cuts followed by the exodus to other provinces, to being short staffed and beginning to (finally) hire them back.  The $5 cost of a Tory membership is a small price to pay for, say, a teacher, compared to the $100 million Redford said she would return to the Education budget.  With the current government cutting school budgets left and right while  simultaneously building new schools, it's easy to make people crave change.

Marr on the other hand, took a right kicking in the last debate at the boots of Redford and Horner, who repeatedly grilled him on the hefty MLA severance package he took when he headed down to Washington.  Sure it was all legal and above board, except where he clearly created an expectation he wouldn't take the money, and then did, but later, which apparently makes it okay.

Who were you hoping for last night as the votes were being tabulated, certified, re-tallied and audited into the wee hours?

Honestly, it was a win-win for me; I was either going to get a savvy, compassionate and smart woman premier with no big debts to the establishment and a clear desire to shake things up, or I was going to get another smooth talking fat cat who is a charter of the very old boys club that was desperate to keep Alison Redford on the sidelines.  With an election coming next year, competition on the right from the Wild Rose Party and a charismatic new leader for the provincial Liberals, that promised for an exciting election in its own right!

Oh, and the additional bonus of watching hubris being publicly punished is pretty tasty as well.

Were you pulling for Redford from the start?

No, I was actually hoping for Ted Morton initially.

That seems like an unusual choice for you.

It totally is, but my thinking was that getting a slash-happy fiscal hawk who is also such a religious social conservative that he counts as an honorary Republican south of the 49th parallel would have been just the kick in the tuchus that the two-thirds of this province who didn't vote needed to get them off their couch and into the polling stations.  I wouldn't be surprised to find similarly inclined Democrats secretly funding Sarah Palin's 'will she or won't she?' campaign in the U.S.  It's like The West Wing crossed with Twin Peaks!

But you are happy seeing Alison Redford step into the Premier's seat?

Sure, she seems like a very good choice as far as our single party system can take us, but I'm no less confused as to what happens next.

And why is that?

With a small-l liberal now in charge of the Progressive Conservatives and a former big-C conservative now running the Alberta Liberals, it really is getting hard to tell the players without a program.

Well, that's all the time we have today.  I would like to thank Stephen Fitzpatrick of Confessions of a Middle-Aged Adolescent for being with us today; please join us next week on Punditry in Motion when we ask Doug Horner, "Dude, what happened?"  I'm Mike Arrears-Dunn, wishing you a pleasant evening.

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