Editor’s note: Over the course of the next week, Paul Litt, Timothy Stanley, Matthew Hayday and Colin Grittner will provide insights on the history of elections and electoral politics in Canada from the 19th century to the present, with a special focus on the 1949 and 1979 – 1980 elections. Although references to history have dotted the current election campaign, they have largely been confined to the political lifetime of the party leaders. This special Active History series offers a space in which to consider the politics of elections more broadly.
This year’s election is somewhat unique insofar as there is one big, urgent issue on which the majority of the electorate favours decisive action. Yet so far the campaign has been about the party leaders’ personalities rather than global warming. Leadership has always been important, but since the electronic media came into their own it has been more important than ever, prompting election strategists to double down on the politics of image. The leadership debate earlier this week was rehearsed theatre in which the leaders’ performances trumped policy. How did we ever get this way? In search of answers, this post looks back seventy years to the federal election of 1949 to examine an earlier case of image-driven electioneering.
The 1940s were an interesting period in the history of Western liberal capitalist democracies. Thomas Piketty has documented how the triple whammy of world war, depression, and world war managed temporarily to interrupt the inexorable “rich get richer” logic of capitalism. Neither business nor the mainstream political parties had any answers to the challenges of the Great Depression. The 1945 election was similar to this year’s in that there was an overwhelming democratic consensus on one big issue. Canadians thought that in return for their participation in total war they deserved a postwar society with an economy that not only worked but worked for them.
The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), founded in 1932, called for economic planning, social programs and a fairer distribution of wealth. It hadn’t done very well at the polls in the 1930s, but in the early 1940s its support ballooned. Wartime mobilization showed Keynesian theory worked in practice – state intervention could revive and regulate prosperity. The CCF ran a strong second in the 1943 Ontario election. A public opinion poll indicated it had the support of 29% of the electorate nationwide, 1% more than both the Liberals and Conservatives.
The established parties quickly changed their spots. The recently renamed Progressive Conservatives pledged their commitment to many CCF policies. Mackenzie King congratulated himself that his 1918 masterwork, Industry and Humanity, had envisioned “pretty much the whole programme that now is being suggested for post-war purposes” and created the Advisory Committee on Reconstruction. In 1943 it produced the Marsh Report, which called for a comprehensive social security system. The government’s Throne Speech that year promised “a charter of social security for the whole of Canada.” Even so, in 1944 the CCF formed a government in Saskatchewan, where the Liberals were used to being in power. Surely some revelation was at hand?
Nope. Mackenzie King got out in front of the issue by instituting the Baby Bonus in 1944, giving family values monetary value. The Liberals slithered a bit further to the left as the 1945 election loomed, adopting “Build a New Social Order” as a slogan. When a familiar old party offered the same thing as an untested new one, why take a risk? The government party’s conversion was just enough to deliver them a slim majority in Parliament.
And then a funny thing happened. The Liberals lost their fervour for reform. When another federal election rolled around four years later, the much-feared postwar depression had failed to appear. The economy was strong, the electorate more complacent, the spirit of change dissipated. With capitalism saved from itself, men of good sense could see that there was no longer any need for social justice. So what would they campaign on in 1949?
Personality. The Liberal government had close ties to corporate Canada and was learning how to use its consumer research and marketing techniques to manage the population. Now the Liberal campaign team would apply them to an election. They had a nice elderly gentleman to market, a corporate lawyer from Quebec named Louis St-Laurent, and they turned him into “Uncle Louis,” a patriarch perfectly suited to preside over a return to normalcy. They staged photo-ops of St-Laurent whistle-stopping and interacting affectionately with children or playing with his grandchildren gathered around him at home. (Within the decade, an American fast food franchise operation would adopt a similar image to sell fried chicken. But we Canadians can take pride that our Liberal party did it first.) The Liberals also pulled off what today is recognized as a major objective of electoral strategy: they defined their opponent’s image negatively before the opposition could do so positively. They successfully portrayed Progressive Conservative leader George Drew as “an arch-imperialist, a stuffed shirt, an ally of big business and the liquor interests, and the enemy of the working man.”
Radio addresses, sympathetic print journalists, and a newsreel bio produced by friendly foreign business interests and shown in their movie theatres disseminated the message across the country. Commentators noted that the campaign’s unprecedented focus on St-Laurent was eclipsing local candidates and issues of the day. It worked. The Liberals won the biggest parliamentary majority ever seen, with 50.1 percent of the vote and 190 of 262 seats. “People vote for men they have confidence in rather than for party programs,” St-Laurent explained.
Seventy years later, capitalism is alive and well and has presented us with a new crisis, this time an environmental one that cannot be evaded by shrewd political manoeuvring. Once again there is a level of consensus on an issue rarely seen in democratic electorates. And what do we get? More image politics. The cult of personality evident in St-Laurent’s 1949 campaign is now, more than ever, a fatal flaw in the electoral culture of Canada and, indeed, of western democracies generally.
Paul Litt teaches in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies and the Department of History at Carleton University
 Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century,translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014) 20-21.
 Donald Creighton, The Forked Road: Canada 1939-1957 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976) 82.
 David Bercuson, True Patriot: The Life of Brooke Claxton, 1898-1960 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993) 203-204.
 Dale Thomson, Louis St. Laurent: Canadian (Toronto: Macmillan, 1967) 264.