Preston Manning on Populism and Communication Style

Michael Enright interviewed Preston Manning this morning on The Sunday Edition about populism.

I’ve always had a lot of time for Manning, even though, on paper, our politics don’t overlap very much; he made an excellent point in this interview, one that resonates with something I’ve been thinking a lot about in the age of Trump:

Enright: How do we gauge or measure the fact that people, elites so-called, are not listening to what the grassroots are saying?

Manning: Well one way, Michael, is to look at their communication style. I’m not knocking elites, I’m just trying to reflect on the points you’re trying to get to. Why is it that so many people no longer listen or are impressed by them. And the communication style of elites, whether it’s academics, or high business executives, or government executives, is that they’re source-oriented communicators. They say what they want to say, in the language they want to say it, with the media that they are most comfortable with, and that’s a perfectly fine method of communication when you’re dealing with your peers. But the opposite of that is a receiver-oriented communicator, who doesn’t start with what I want to say, and my view, who starts with “who are these people in this audience, what are they thinking, what are their attitudes, what is their vocabulary, what is their preferred media.” Taking that into account, then getting around to saying what you want to say. The later one is the style of a small-d democrat politician; the other is a different style that doesn’t resonate with rank and file people.

So much of what rankles me about how our democracy operates comes down to this notion of communication style. Here, for example, is a sentence pulled from the 2016 Prince Edward Island Budget Address by Hon. Allen F. Roach, Minister of Finance:

At the same time, we must remain mindful of the continued volatility in the global economy. Vast fluctuations in the pricing of resources and other market conditions have placed pressure on government and private industry alike. These pressures, in turn, have impacted both personal and public finances. We, as Islanders and as a Government, are not isolated from these economic realities.

The budget address is the most concrete statement that government has to make each year about how it will govern.

And yet what does that sentence mean?

Nothing. It is entirely without meaning for the regular everyday person–Manning’s “rank and file people”–among which I count myself. While “vast fluctuations in the pricing of resources and other market conditions” might mean something to an economist, to most people this sounds like “blah blah blah, blah, blah blah.”

Compare this to a section from President Donald Trump’s inaugural address:

From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.

We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.  Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.

I will fight for you with every breath in my body – and I will never, ever let you down.

In both cases the speakers are making a macroeconomic point; setting aside whatever you might feel about Trump’s “America First” approach, he is speaking in clear language that anyone can understand. Is it any wonder that he’s capable of making a connection with many electors, even those who don’t share his politics.

You might argue that Manning’s “receiver-oriented communication style” is nothing more than “telling them what they want to hear,” and certainly in Trump’s case there appears to be much of that; but note that Manning finishes his description with “Taking that into account, then getting around to saying what you want to say.”

He is, in other words, saying “listen, then talk” and, further, “when you talk, talk in a way that people can relate to.”

And that doesn’t seem to be asking too much of those who we charge to conduct the public business.

Our current administration here in Prince Edward Island has suggested in past that it will heed this notion; in one of Premier MacLauchlan’s first statements upon assuming office he summarized this as follows:

We must continuously look for new ways to obtain input from citizens and the community, to inform government decisions and priorities. By listening carefully to citizens, we will make better decisions about public policy and its administration. Further, a properly grounded approach to listening will sustain government on a strategic policy course.

Setting aside that this description of a more populist approach was, itself, written in decidedly non-populist language, the spirit appears true.

Too often, though, these “new ways to obtain input from citizens and the community” are conducted, as Manning outlined, in a “source-oriented” way: “they say what they want to say, in the language they want to say it, with the media that they are most comfortable with.”

What results is either “we must remain mindful of the continued volatility in the global economy”-style gobbledegook.

Or neo-populist videos that have all the appearances of being plainspoken but that are, in fact, written in tone-deaf marketingspeak:

We’re the one thing that, despite our size, gives us a leg up: call it scrappy, call it persistent, we call it mighty. It’s the kind of might that makes us an Island of dreamers and doers; it’s guided us from the beginning, with a will and a belief that we can do anything.

To be clear: I’m not speaking about policy here. I’m neither seeking to praise Trump’s administration nor to condemn MacLauchlan’s. I’m not talking about the ideas behind their speech and their approach; my praise and criticism is about style, medium, language, spirit and tone.

The danger in all of this for Prince Edward Island is that we will, eventually, see a leader with a combination of populism, credibility, and crazy ideas, who will lead us, despite our better judgement, into dangerous waters; perhaps all that’s prevented this from happening, to this point, is the absence of a skilled-enough actor, and long-term habituation to the gobbledegook.

Of course it need not tilt that way: it’s possible that we’ll see the emergence of a populist leader, with credibility and laudable ideas, who will guide us in an entirely more positive way.

Whichever way things go, we ignore Manning’s wise words at our peril.


Lisa's picture
Lisa on April 2, 2017 - 17:03 Permalink

I remember Margaret Wente once describing how the left had basically abandoned the working poor. It was some time ago (around 2003, I think). I'm not sure if she said it in as blunt a way as I just did, but she was describing what others have said before. It was kind of an open secret among the political class, and it's an issue that has become quite important recently. When the left stopped defending the interests of lower class people, Wente said, and I'm paraphrasing, the right won those people by talking to them about 'values.' The upshot though is that since the 1990s or so neither the left nor the right has been actually addressing itself to the interests of working people. I think for a while the left was sometimes able to coast by managing expectations or campaigning from the left, while the right sometimes won by whipping people into a fury using some scapegoat or by mirroring people's concerns and blaming it on the left. But neither side had any intention of actually representing a largish portion of the electorate. Once people saw through that, it was hard to go back. I think a big part of the way this revelation occurred had to do with the internet. As much as the internet is a purveyor of crazy talk of one kind and another, it is also a platform for legitimate dissent against a particular economic theory: neoliberalism. The Young Turks, The Real News Network, Democracy Now are actually a much needed refresher course for some of us in how to be democrats.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on April 2, 2017 - 18:10 Permalink

You’re right, Oliver: that Christmas message from the Premier is spot-on.

And that Island Tel commercial is one of my favourite commercials ever.

The Mighty Island has such potential, but its implementation beyond the Premier, who obviously feels it in his bones and communicates it well, has been, so far, ham-handed.

Charles Tassell's picture
Charles Tassell on April 3, 2017 - 02:06 Permalink

I think we saw that leader emerge in the last sitting of the legislature: Peter Bevan-Baker. I don't see the Greens forming Government anytime soon, but he has been a breath of fresh air in the opposition. It's nice to have someone actually discuss policy and options in real-world language rather than just saying "the other guys are nincompoops, vote for me!"