Identity politics in the age of the selfie

(Tunney\ The Aquinian)
(Tunney\ The Aquinian)

Like Moses from his mountain, Justin Trudeau descended from his tour bus and onto the St. Thomas University campus, hair flowing, smile cocked and, according to some female voices around me, butt bulging.
The Off Campus Lounge was packed with young Liberals in red sweaters and Stepford smiles, the politically curious, the celebrity aroused, and anyone willing to risk flop sweat to hear a speech about education and the need to banish Harper and salt the earth of the Conservative Party. But at the end, instead of opening the floor to questions from journalists, he opened the floor to selfies.
At the time of writing this article, the results of the federal election are not in.
Only you, the reader, know if Trudeau is sitting on the Iron Throne (we have a throne in Canada, right?) or being cast as some terrible reality television housewife’s third husband.
But during that rally at STU nearly two weeks ago now, as he parted his sea of Liberal red – I, the lonely journalist trying to get in a question, riding his back through the crowd for 20 minutes with nothing to look at but the lenses of cameras and the beauty of his feathered hair – I wondered: Why the selfie?
Had this become an election of identity politics, of values more than policies. Reflections on our screens. niqabs and the selfies. Has “Just watch me,” an expression once made famous by his philosopher king father, become one about celebrity and narcissism?
My search led me to Susan Delacourt, the senior political writer for the Toronto Star and author of the book Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them.
While identity politics were at play in this election, it was not a national conversation. She said this election felt like a series of small local conversations.

[ Photo by Adam Scotti]
[ Photo by Adam Scotti]

“I think the shift toward identity politics came from the top down — not from the grassroots up,” Delacourt wrote over email. “I’m not sure that Canadians see elections as the place to talk about their identity: they do that more with popular culture now (music, film, TV etc) and not politics.”
What surprised her about this election was the volatility among the three parties. In her opinion, this means people don’t see much difference between the three parties and they’re willing to change their minds, “like the weather.”
For Delacourt, identity politics and celebrity status around Trudeau is nothing new.
“(Trudeau) has two big groups that want to have their pictures taken with him: young people (under 25) and women about 10 years older … who remember being crazy Trudeaumaniacs for his dad in the 1970s,” said Delacourt. “They didn’t have Facebook back in the 1970s, but if they did, their posts would look much like the ones of today.”
Brad Cross is a professor in the History Department at STU and teaches U.S. history. He supported Mary Lou Babineau in the election. In his class he examines the rise of identity politics in America.
For Cross, identity politics is nothing new. He points to the 1960s phrase, “the personal is political.”
What he does see is that Canadian elections are starting to parallel American politics, and identity politics are a part of that.
“If I were to look at the Liberal campaign, I would immediately think of Obama’s first campaign,” said Cross. “It was not that Obama was widely known but he was introduced by a celebrity, Oprah Winfrey. … He became this accessible social media candidate. There was a sort of selfie phenomena.”
While Obama’s Yes We Can message had a far-reaching effect, Winfrey’s introduction might have opened the door for it.
“(Identity politics) is to create some resonance with the candidate hoping that this is someone who shares your set of values without interrogating that too deeply,” said Cross.
“I would be skeptical that a selfie translates into a vote,” he said. “But that’s why you have a party leader on campus, to harvest votes. … I think the selfie is the new version of what in the old days would be an autograph book.”
Jamie Gillies, a communications prof at STU, said there hasn’t been a move away from micro-targeting in politics in favor of identity politics. Politicians are using both.
While the Conservative attack ads worked for a while in this election, the Liberals started playing up Trudeau’s celebrity status as a young good-looking politician and people took to it, he said.
He said the selfie strategy is effective in spite of the lack of any real political message attached.
“I think more people, particular under 30 voters, have seen selfies with their friends or people they know or images of Trudeau than lawn signs,” said Gillies. “In terms of getting people out to vote, or convincing people to vote or generating interest with voters that could be mobilized, I think this is more effective than door-to-door techniques.”
For Gillies the Conservatives purposely made this an election of values with the niqab issue, but lost voters in the process; and more devastating, pushed NDP voters who might have voted Tory into Trudeau’s camp.
Gillies said it might be good enough for most voters that Trudeau isn’t using the niqab as a fear-mongering tactic and will vote for him because of that.
But as Trudeau was swarmed by fangirls,–between the snaps and the chats, the group hugs and handler’s tugs– I managed to ask him if he thought this election had become one of values and not of policies.
“I think it’s about policies and it’s about values, and we’re talking about both,” Trudeau said.
Maybe he’s right or maybe I’m over-thinking this whole thing. To be honest, I’m not even sure he understood what I was asking. Or even if I understood it. (Justin talked to me! He actually talked to me!)
Every election is about values to some degree. And it’s pretty hard to micro-target a generation who can’t afford meal plans let alone mortgages. Still, students got kind of interested, angry and self-righteous about this election on Facebook, didn’t they? Hell, maybe some of us even voted. And became the change, blah blah blah…
It’s easy to make fun of, but are we really that different than past generations? The words of Delacourt still ring in my head.
“So one generation of celebrity-obsessed people is replaced by another, in all their idealism and narcissism.”

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