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The federal party leaders standing at podiums during the French-language debate on Sept. 8, with moderator in foreground
The emotions we attribute to party leaders on the basis of partisan affiliation may no longer hold sway in this federal election. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Seeing red and feeling blue? How emotions are colouring the federal election in unexpected ways

Emotions occupy a paradoxical place in discussions of politics. They are viewed as the enemy of reason and evidence-based decision-making. At the same time, there is increasing recognition that we think with emotion, and that feelings influence the persuasive force of political discourse.

This has been especially evident during the snap federal election campaign, the one that no one wanted, the one that is generating “all the feels.” There are the expected emotions such as grief, anxiety and sadness that surround the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention fear and apprehension about the fourth wave, about unvaccinated children returning to school and the grudging realization that there is no quick return to the “before” times.

But this federal election also feels a bit different. It is not surprising to find opposition parties (as well as a growing number of Canadians) angrily denouncing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for calling an election in the middle of a health crisis.

Anger about the timing of the election is only the tip of the iceberg, however. This pandemic election is shifting the ground in unexpected ways, too. The emotions we attribute to party leaders on the basis of partisan affiliation may no longer hold sway.

Trudeau getting on a bus in a crowd of people
RCMP security detail put their hands up to protect Liberal leader Justin Trudeau from rocks as protesters shout and throw gravel as he was leaving a recent campaign stop. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Take master emoter “Sunny Ways” Trudeau. He’s getting testy as he struggles to stay on message in the face of loud hecklers (and violence) disrupting his scheduled campaign stops. A leader once praised for his emotional intelligence — a trait that, until recently, served him well — Trudeau seems to be coming undone. In the English leaders’ debate just last week, despite exhorting Canadians to meet anger with compassion and projecting an image of protective masculinity, Trudeau lost both his cool and his compassion when challenged by Green Party Leader Annamie Paul on his feminist credentials.

For some politicians, this might elicit a shrug, or a vow to do better; for leaders like Trudeau, this is a body blow, a shock to a shirt-sleeves-rolled-up kind of leader who trades on his uncanny ability to radiate positivity and good cheer wherever he goes.

This is the same “Teflon Trudeau” who sashayed across the stage with the (now ghosted) do-gooder Kielburger brothers, the “white saviours” who spread their feel-good gospel of charity work in developing countries.

Opposition opportunity

That Trudeau is losing his emotional grip on the Canadian public might lead one to assume that this is an ideal opportunity for opposition parties to pounce. Third parties in Canada tend to produce their best electoral results in moments replete with voter resentment and alienation, providing an emotional release for disaffected voters wishing to signal their dissatisfaction.

But for now, the third-party surge has been, well, slow to swell. After reviving the Bloc Québecois in 2019, leader Yves-François Blanchet has waited until the final days to inject life into a campaign that should have been brimming with nationalistic fervour from the get-go. Blanchet and highly popular Québec Premier François Legault do not seem to be on the same page, which is only adding confusion to the mix.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh waving in the doorway of his campaign bus.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh waves as he gets on his campaign bus in Burnaby, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Even more surprising has been the lacklustre New Democratic Party. At a time in which optimism, passion and bold policy innovation are sorely needed, the party has failed to mobilize its “hope over fear” rallying cries popularized by late leader Jack Layton. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has focused instead on attacking Liberal hypocrisy and proposing familiar and restrained promises such as student debt relief and a national pharmacare program.

Paul, for her part, has had to contend with bitter internal strife in her own party, much of it directed at her.

Conservatives’ updated image

Enter the Conservative Party. Fresh from Andrew Scheer’s unsuccessful run as leader, the party recognizes that it, too, could sway wary voters.

Indeed, the past few weeks have witnessed an emotional reset of the Conservative Party. Leader Erin O’Toole’s campaign has been marked by a softening — an acceptance that climate change is real (even if his party continues to deny it), a pro-choice stance, the denouncing of angry anti-Trudeau protests, and, of course, a recent vow to shut down puppy mills.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole behind a podium in front of green lawns fenced fields
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole visits an animal shelter in King City, Ont. The Conservative campaign promises to ban puppy mills. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Perhaps most surprising was O’Toole’s recent flip-flop on gun control. Drawing on tough-on-crime rhetoric, O’Toole and his party vigorously opposed Bill C-71 in 2018. The Liberal government-tabled bill aimed to tighten existing firearm laws by, in part, enhancing background checks of would-be gunowners. At the time, O’Toole lashed out at Bill C-71 for targeting “law-abiding people as opposed to law breakers.”

This type of rhetoric — drawing heavily on harmful stereotypes about gangbangers and organized crime – has come to define the Conservative Party’s opposition to gun control legislation for the past decade. In 2018, the Conservative Party attacked Trudeau for focusing “their fire on law-abiding farmers, hunters, and northern Canadians” rather than on “felons, on gangs, and on the flow of illegal guns across the borders.”

The party’s arguments about gun control took distinctly punitive forms and, at times, strongly mirrored the rhetoric and imagery mobilized by U.S. President Donald Trump during the same time period.

Although his policy position on banning assault rifles remains murky, O’Toole’s rhetoric has shifted, particularly in its emotional contours. O’Toole has stated calmly that as leader, he will ensure the party has “an approach focused on public safety, focused on maintaining restrictions in place and having a review of our classification system that removes the politics from this.”

Bloc Québecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, Green Party leader Annamie Paul, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative leader Erin O'Toole before the federal election English-language leaders' debate.
The election atmosphere is thick with feeling, and it may colour how voters respond at the polls. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

This recent emotional repositioning has some wondering if we are now entering the era of “Sunny Ways O’Toole.” While his new-found optimistic messaging might seem novel, his playbook tears a page from factions of the conservative movement who called on the party to adjust its tone and approach.

With the backlash politics of anger and outrage consuming some of the party’s base, some vocal strategists within the party have urged Conservatives to embrace compassionate policy solutions that speak to voters. Rejecting emotions that are stubbornly attached to right-wing leaders and parties seems to have its strategic advantages.

The election atmosphere is thick with feeling, and it shows no sign of dissipating. Not only are the electoral outcomes uncertain, the political emotions we attach to partisan affiliation are shifting, too.

This election may turn out to be a repeat of 2019, with the Liberals emerging victorious. But the emotional terrain on which Canada’s federal parties struggle is shifting and this may colour the political landscape for elections to come. The “sunny” Liberals under Trudeau may need to contend with Conservative clouds on the horizon.

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