Politicians pretend to be cowboys, and the media pretends this is somehow reasonable

This past week, the self-proclaimed “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” was responsible for the death of yet another two horses, in the name of tradition. Despite the objections of animal welfare advocates, organizers of the atrociously retrograde chuckwagon races insist that there’s no problem here:

The Stampede Chuckwagon Safety Commission said there have been no similar incidents for the last “three or four years.”

“I think the Stampede does an excellent job that the horses are fit,” said the commission’s Stan Church. “I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world that does as much to ensure that the horses are fit when they come onto the track.”[…]

[M]ore than 50 horses have been killed during the event at the Stampede since 1986.

Old traditions die hard. They seem to linger long after the logic behind them has been revealed as flawed, leaving them looking ridiculous and arcane to any observers who aren’t themselves steeped in the traditions.

And so the Calgary Stampede also witnessed a parade of federal political party leaders, dressed awkwardly in their Hallowe’enified Wild West gear, flipping flapjacks and dishing out baked beans and doing their damndest to seem like cartoon portrayals of fairground cowboys, despite the fact that all were born and raised east of Mississauga. To my Ontario eyes, they looked nothing short of ridiculous.

This is one of those cases where a picture is truly worth thousands of snarky words:

Harper, Mulcair, and Trudeau all cowboy’d up (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

You might think that being able to pull off a cowboy ensemble without looking totally ridiculous wouldn’t be part of the job description of an aspiring Prime Minister, but you’d be dead wrong on that count. (Since they’re putting themselves out there for judgement: the black hat and dead-eyed grin make Harper look like a movie villain, Mulcair’s bandana is all kinds of overkill, but JT seems to be trying the hardest, as evidenced by this:

This didn’t end well. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

See, I wasn’t kidding about the flapjacks! Plus check the belt buckle – like wow!)

This kind of electioneering is old hat (unlike Mulcair’s allegedly fresh-out-the-box Stetson) – so why am I even bothering to comment on it?

For one thing, because the media by and large gives this ridiculous playacting a free pass, or even treat it as some kind of fun joke that everybody’s in on. Like look at how the Canadian Press covered this nonsense, under the headline “Federal politicians wrangle for votes at Calgary Stampede” (get it?):

The upcoming federal election is casting a cowboy-sized shadow over the Calgary Stampede as party leaders wrangle for votes.

This happens every year as the top political gunslingers take verbal shots at each other during the week-long event.

“Cowboy-sized shadow”? Really, CP? You had the whole world of Wild West puns at your fingertips, and that was literally the best lede you could come up with?

But bad-pun-shaming aside, this type of behaviour deserves to be called out because it’s a particularly egregious form of pandering.

I have no issue with politicians going into Calgary and hustling for votes at traditional local events (the Stampede is a pretty weird one, but as a resident of the city that brought us FordFest, I don’t feel like I’m in a good place to pass judgement). What I do have an issue with is people like Harper and Trudeau and Mulcair going into Calgary and pretending that they’re just like average everyday Calgarians.

Because they’re not. Not even Harper, who’s lived in the city for a few decades at this point. They live on a different planet than average Calgarians. They’re not cowboys, they don’t drive pick-up trucks (or any vehicles at all most of the time), and they’re probably not especially fun-loving folks. But they feel compelled to pretend to be/do all of those things for a week every July, and the press feels compelled to treat it as a legitimate pursuit.

I suppose what really gets under my skin about this is that these folks will pretend to be whoever it is they think you want them to be when they’re in your town or at your event. Their wardrobe is contingent upon your expectations; might not their policies also be? How deep does their willingness to pander actually run?

In the months to come we’re going to be treated to the spectacle of politicians dressed in all manner of “everyday” “ordinary people” outfits. We’ll see them wearing hard hats and army vests and safety goggles and lab coats. We’ll see them tour factories and workshops all across this land. We’ll see them roll out policy announcements against a backdrop of construction equipment, surrounded by hard-workin’ folks just like you ‘n me.

Every bit of these presentations will be phony, staged, contrived for maximum impact. (See this fantastic piece from the Tyee of how meticulously planned Harper’s photo ops are in particular.) If the style is all a facade, why on earth should we trust in the substance?

It’s a hackneyed stereotype that all politicians are liars, but the truth of it becomes immediately apparent when you see them pretending to be cowboys. It’s hard to say what grates more – their willingness to make fools of themselves for votes, or the media’s willingness to pretend the whole thing isn’t ridiculous.

So much like the gratuitously cruel chuckwagon racing, I think it’s time to retire this preposterous practice of dressing our politicians up in flannel and cowboy hats and making them dance for the public. Can we all just agree to recognize that politicians aren’t normal people and then not expect them to pretend? Can we put an end to the election-as-costume-party/contest trend that nobody ever particularly enjoyed anyway? This superfluous superficial dishonesty acts as an obfuscatory screen – let’s try to see these people for who they really are, not who they want us to think they are.

One last photo, for those old enough to remember:

Way back in 2000: Stockwell Day arrived at his first press conference as Canadian Alliance leader in a wetsuit on a jet-ski. No, seriously.

Hasn’t this been going on for long enough?

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