A stubborn 40 per cent of Americans seem to stick by Donald Trump through ick and thin, and a similar-sized slice of Nova Scotians has attached itself semi-permanently to Premier Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government.
When four-out-of-10 people are with you, the majority is not. That’s bad news for the American President but just fine by the provincial premier. If the 40 per cent translates to votes in a national election, come January 2021 Trump goes from dangerously-erratic president to cautionary history lesson. McNeil, on the other hand, sometime later that same year with similar support wins a third majority of Nova Scotia’s 51 first-past-the-post, three-way elections.
Political support is a fluid thing, ebbing and flowing in some relationship with the people’s perception of the politicians and the government. Pondering the chemical equation that produces that perception is the habit of political scientists and consultants, pollsters and a few foolhardy newspaper columnists.
Public perceptions are complex compounds, but at their core, perceptions of leaders and governments are based on two essential elements – one tangible, the other conceptual. The first is about effective governance, concrete action and answers the question, ‘what have you done for me?’ The second is about character and poses the question ‘do you reflect my values?’
Trump gave people the answer to the second question first. His values are rooted in his “Make America Great Again” slogan – a nationalist-populism intended to calm the fears of the diminishing majority that is white America, combined with a strongman image that appeals to Americans’ sense of muscular moral superiority in the world. He mixes in enough proto-conservativism to reel in the evangelical right.
Trump’s tangible program of governance springs from those values as manifest by the symbolic wall he hasn’t built on America’s southern border, his efforts to keep out Muslims, and his attempts to dismantle everything his African-American predecessor created.
McNeil’s government is the reverse. It stands almost exclusively on its tangible record of fiscal restraint, while it tries to keep the lid on disquieting signs of trouble in health and education. The former came perilously close to reducing the government to a minority last year and with little improvement in sight there, the government has settled on an education agenda as its second-term signature accomplishment.
The McNeil government has, thus far, satisfied a plurality of Nova Scotians that its values are not out of line with their own. With mixed reviews on the tangible essentials, the Liberals can’t afford to slide in the public’s perception of its values or, like Trump, they’ll be history except in far fewer and smaller books.
Trump’s base is in on his ruse, and so is unfazed and unmoved by his 3,000-and-counting verifiable presidential lies. Nova Scotians wouldn’t put up with that pile of BS, but the premier comes across mostly as a straight-shooter, so the government isn’t particularly vulnerable there.
Nova Scotians are also fair-minded and expect fairness from their government. That could be where the government and Nova Scotians ultimately part ways.
The information security lapse and government’s response are less problems of competence than fairness. Yes, Nova Scotians expect their personal information to be protected, but unless lax security becomes endemic, it’s is a political hiccup.
The lingering political problem comes from what looks like a heavy-handed response from a government and a premier that were quick to assign blame and sic the cops on a blameless 19-year-old kid. That response is sticking hard in the craw of Nova Scotians because it lacks fairness. Advanced Education and Labour Minister Labi Kousoulis’ freeze-out of a university student-representative who had the temerity to criticize him in a public forum draws a similar reaction.
Fairness is already a problem for the government with organized labour and its sympathizers.
The government is prone to authoritarian instincts inconsistent with Nova Scotian values, but tolerated until exercised as unfair treatment of individuals or groups. So far, the Liberals have survived the tendency, but any further examples of unfairness and the government risks losing its plurality of Nova Scotians.
Perception has a momentum, and once an image starts to form it generally finds ways to sharpen in the public mind. Whatever junk governments accumulate in their closets has a habit of spilling out, often at the most inopportune time.
Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.