“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist,” comedian George Carlin said during an interview. We are watching this play out in the American election season, as both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have plumbed a motherlode of disenchantment on both sides of the political spectrum. Supporters of both candidates continue to cry out that they want their country back and their leader is just the person to do it.
In the modern era, those seeking election have learned that it’s possible to create something of a political movement by speaking to the despair of citizens, and there’s a point to it. Globally, politics has increasingly become a mug’s game – a sad parody of how it doesn’t seem to matter who gets elected because our greatest challenges as humanity remain significantly under-addressed. Whether it’s a lacklustre response to climate change, financial inequality, or a growing kind of collective distemper, the political class seems never quite able to rise to the challenge. This is playing out in real time as we witness the fascinating machinations in the American election.
In Canada, however, cynicism has to some degree been temporarily suspended. Whether the change promised by the Trudeau Liberals will materialize can’t be known for some time yet, but a stubborn sense of optimism has endured in large swaths of the country since Election Day, and, for a time at least, our growing suspicion has been placed on the shelf.
It didn’t start with Trudeau’s victory, but had been emerging over the last few years, for anyone willing to spot the undercurrents. Progressives across Canada began to see movement in 2013, when British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario opted for more activist-minded governments. Cities like Montreal, Mississauga, London, Calgary, and Toronto voted along similar lines. Something was brewing and at its base was the belief that governments could entertain more imaginative policies than mere austerity and restraint. The movement caught on enough that the Postmedia’s Jim Warren would note:
“The stars have finally aligned and have created an opportunity for real change. We are living in political times never experienced before. All of Canada’s major political decision makers are aligned in political ideology.”
Years of political dysfunction and financial restraint had ultimately resulted in a critical mass of the Canadian electorate pining for something more dynamic. In voting with the pen in the ballot box instead of remaining isolated in their detached cynicism, citizens were confirming they were capable of transcending their pessimism in order to be part of the change they sought.
And so progressive leaders and parties have the levers of power at their disposal. Will it be sufficient to restore hope in what Canada can accomplish? The answer is no. Change has come because Canadians pressed and voted for it, with progressive politics benefitting as a result. The cumulative intervention of citizens on politics in the last few years is what changed our political dynamic in Canada, not the other way around.
Elections don’t change us so much as they reveal us. Like our cousins south of the border we wanted something more hopeful. Yet enough Canadians were willing to transcend their learned cynicism to at least create the possibility of a different future. In putting aside our collective pessimism we affirmed what Sufi mystic Rumi concluded: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I’m wise, so I’m changing myself.”
Will Canadians remain engaged enough to shape their governments towards the change they seek? If not, cynicism is never far off and it won’t take much to tarnish our ideals. The political order has caught the wave, but without citizens paying attention it won’t be able to ride it to completion, whatever the goal may be. The next few years will be just as much a test of citizenship as of politics, and democracy will only flourish if both remain engaged in a partnership robust enough to overcome our main challenges.
Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. Glen is a father of seven, including three children adopted from South Sudan. He and his wife live in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 29 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled The Parallel Parliament.