Issue #10 "The people who don’t vote for our party are not our enemies"
A conversation with the Ryerson Leadership Lab's Karim Bardeesy.
Composite by Yarden Haddi.
Karim Bardeesy is a public policy expert and the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Ryerson Leadership Lab at Ryerson University. Karim has direct governmental experience through serving, for example, as the Deputy Principal Secretary for the former Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne. He’s also a long-time observer of the American political scene having lived down there for a number of years. Karim joined Perspectivves to weigh in on the developments of the U.S. federal election, and the role that the media played in influencing voter behaviour and turnout. We connected with him (remotely) in his hometown of Toronto.
Ziv: Many people thought that this was going to be a landslide victory for Joe Biden, but clearly that was not the case. What are your thoughts about what happened in the U.S. election?
Karim: We have increasing evidence now that the polls, and some of the other evidence that was giving us signals of what was happening with the U.S. electorate, was off as it was in 2016. The other thing that we have to remember with this election is that the large proportion of people vote based on their interests or where they perceive their interests to be. You’ll have people who are voting on higher-order values like democracy. You’ll have people who are voting on their fundamental identity as Liberals or Conservatives. But you’re also having them vote on what they think their interests are including things like the economy. The voters that continue to support Trump seem to identify his policies, and him personally, with the protection of their interests notwithstanding what has been happening during the pandemic. So those are a couple of factors to consider about what might have happened and why we might be getting a result that was a bit different from what was expected.
Yarden: Over 150-million Americans voted this time around. How do you see the role that the media played during this election?
Karim: There’s a longstanding media play in both the Conservative and Liberal media ecosystems. There’s definitely some evidence that Fox News creates Republican voters and not just that Republican voters turn to Fox through a longstanding set of media products that really pull people in and really get people thinking about their identity and who is with them and who is against them. It creates a very oppositional media culture and oppositional culture more generally. And so what you have in the U.S. is this really close mapping which never used to be the case between media consumption and political affiliation. You start to see some evidence of this, in a big way, with the talk radio revolution in the United States in the 1980s. But prior to then, you did not have as much of this close alignment. So you have media cultures that have, in some cases for decades, started to create this partisan identity. That’s a really important function. You have media products—radio, television and online products—that are really driving the importance of politics. It’s been really interesting to follow the ratings during the pandemic of political news versus sports. The sports that are happening aren’t that different from the way they were being played and performed before the pandemic. And yet professional sports audiences on TV have plummeted. We don’t think that just the lack of fans in the stadium, and what that might be doing to the TV viewing experience, is a factor. It seems like some of the market that would have gone to sports maybe has gone to politics instead. And so the horse race coverage becomes ever more exciting. The partisanship of the coverage or the sense that different media players are on one side or another and that you, as a consumer, are going to be more likely to consume one media product over another might have its own tendency in driving the attachment between media and showing up. The other thing to note is that there is also the role of paid media. The amount of TV and online advertising, once again, hit record highs in this election and not just for the presidential candidates but for the down-ballot candidates too. You have more messages coming through paid means encouraging people to be involved in this election, which might have also helped drive turnout. One other factor around turnout is the overall trend towards making it easier to vote. Now many states have day-of voting registration and many states made it easier to vote by mail in this election and so that trend we can’t discount either.
Yarden: It seems as though this whole election has been about ratings. Of course, we had those two highly-anticipated presidential debates. Town halls were also organized for each candidate on two separate networks (NBC and ABC) running at the same time where both Biden and Trump appeared to be competing for eye balls. Ratings are arguably Donald Trump’s strong suit. With all the momentum that he brought in the lead up to this election, why was he unable to achieve a winning result?
Karim: Donald Trump is a truly unique character in American presidential politics. He is someone who creates his own reality. He also creates doubt and sows misinformation and it is not even clear if he believes in it. There’s been some very good Washington Post coverage of the day-to-day in the White House and Oval Office since the presidential election. What’s become clearer now is that as heinous as his claims are, and as close as his post-election behaviour seems to walk towards what Ezra Klein calls a coup attempt, there’s also some evidence that he maybe doesn’t believe any of it. And that he’s doing his Donald Trump magic of sticking in people’s imaginations as much as possible to the extent where we are talking about Donald Trump and not the incoming president of the United States even now in this conversation. He has a genius ability to manipulate and, I would say, poison the information space and headspace of people. It is a terrible kind of genius. It’s also possible that he is someone who doubles down. If you look at his career, he is someone who has constantly walked to the brink and found ways of pulling off magic; pulling off solutions whether it’s finding new funders for his rickety debt-ridden enterprises or the kinds of political engagements he’s had. He also has, I think, a stronger understanding than maybe some of the Democratic candidates about how much of an online operation you need to build, and he has one of the true heinous or terrible geniuses of online politics. It wasn’t enough, in this case, but he’s clearly got a very captive audience that is much more loyal to him than the Democratic voters were on average to their candidate.
Ziv: It seemed to be that during Donald Trump’s presidency, Fox News was good for him and to him generally speaking. Now it seems as though he feels betrayed by them as his days in office near the end.
Karim: Trump thought he held the cards with Fox. But it turns out that it’s not entirely the case. There is someone more powerful there than Donald Trump and that’s the owner of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch. That person can help make decisions or subtly guide his coverage and audience towards other positions which is why it now appears that President Trump is more likely to retweet and share the information of the even more extreme One American News Network [or Breitbart News Network]. So the media ecosystem was highly integrated with Donald Trump. That audience was brought, in part by Fox News, to Trump and the network and president were parasites on each other. They feasted off each other [laughs]. But there’s an ability from a news proprietor to shift directions. This is common in politics, and this is common in the media. I worked on the editorial boards of newspapers where it was quite clear that in a different way, in a much more deliberative way, the support that our editorial board was going to give was in part going to follow public opinion and in part attempt to lead it. Here you had a news organization, Fox News, that saw where public opinion was going and saw how difficult it would be to support the increasingly outlandish claims that President Trump was making. I now make a point of it to watch a bit of that station every night. My wife does not appreciate this particularly, but I find it offers a very interesting insight into a certain part of the American psyche and into that ecosystem. Even the most extreme hosts—the more ideological ones—are starting to talk about the risks of a Biden presidency. You can see them rehearsing lines about Biden and putting on the president’s surrogates, selectively, who are starting to urge him either directly or indirectly to give up the effort to try to get an election result change. Our democracy needs constant vigilance, constant protection and needs constant engagement across the aisle so that the people who don’t vote for our party are not our enemies and so that there’s a fundamental recognition that after a fairly fought election that we can move on. I don’t know if Americans will be able to do that in the way that we seem to be able to do that in Canada. They have a lot of work to do to heal and repair some of their really deep fissures which are centuries old in their society.
Yarden: You are the director of the Ryerson Leadership Lab. Tell us about what this organization is all about.
Karim: The Ryerson Leadership Lab is an action-oriented think-tank at Ryerson University. I’ve been running it for the last three years. We look to create new leadership and connect that to public policy around some of our most pressing public challenges; especially issues that are concerned with youth like climate change, mental health, and responsible governance of technology. One of the exciting projects that we have, that is related to our conversation, is called CanStudyUS. It’s a study trip that we organize for young leaders, community leaders, and senior change-makers. We take them to the United States to either Chicago, Illinois or Washington, D.C for a week of learning, meeting with community groups, activists, journalists, policymakers, politicians, and private-sector types. They learn right up close about how politics, public policy and civic engagement is practiced in some of these really hard-nosed, hard-knuckled environments. As a result of the pandemic, we can’t do that in person but we’ve been lucky to have some support from the U.S. State Department and from others to launch the program virtually for 2021. We’ll be running the CanStudyUS virtual study tour from January to May 2021. This will be an exciting opportunity because you’ll have a new administration, and you’ll have a new transition into new positions in Washington, D.C. You’ll also have new administrations at the state level and you’ll have a new wave of political engagement that’s been encouraged by younger political leaders. It’s a great opportunity to see all of that play out and to learn how we can practice better public policy and civic engagement in Canada.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
About the creators:
Yarden Haddi: Student of the Image Arts Centre at Ryerson University.
Ziv Haddi: Graduate of the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program at Western University. A former intern at 680 News at Rogers Media and q on CBC Radio. Currently, he produces a current affairs program on Zoomer Radio.