The heat of the federal election is now over and cold morning of reality has begun to set in. All that energy. All those voiced aspirations of what a great country this is. All those promises that our democracy now matters more than ever. Unfortunately, such noble ideals were drowned out by a context that was as rueful as it was dispiriting.
Penny Collenette called it correctly in her recent Toronto Star article when she likened our election behaviour to that south of the border: “Given Donald Trump’s callous disregard for norms of behaviour, one wonders if he has not instigated a template for a style of politics that we have not experienced before.” Her observation is mirrored in Donald Savoie’s conclusion:
“I’ve seen many election campaigns going back 40 years or so. This would rank as the least inspiring campaign that I’ve witnessed, the most disheartening campaign that I’ve witnessed. Party leaders must realize that their respective war rooms’ focus on attack politics and scandals is turning Canadians off from politics.”
Is anyone surprised by this? We all watched it play out on both traditional and social media and were disgusted by what we saw. Canadians naturally intuited that such deviance would eventually be reflected in Canada as a whole unless the parties themselves put a stop to it. Or as the title of Collenette’s column put it: “Time for our political leaders to abandon the nastiness.” This might well be the overarching lesson to be learned from this past campaign and unless it is learned effectively, future contests will take us down Trump Avenue.
The ugliness of the campaign is a reminder of just how much our Canadian politics have changed. Whereas we were more lethargic about our politics in the past but highly trusting of the process, we are now white hot in our politics and deeply distrustful of the entire system of government. This marks perhaps our greatest challenge if we are to preserve our democracy with some semblance of effectiveness, fair play and self-respect.
We must ask ourselves if we truly realize how much our democracy has frayed. Only a few years ago, a massive World Values Survey noted that when 73,000 people from 57 countries were asked if they believed democracy was a good way to govern a country, nearly 92% said yes. Things have changed, drastically. The European Union’s own research bureau discovered that in recent years, only 30% of Europeans have faith in their parliaments, governments and politicians.
The result of this freefall is now obvious to all: citizens are increasingly supporting strong leaders who have a penchant for not caring about parliaments or elections. What it means, ultimately, is that democracy has endured a crushing blow to its reputation.
Sometimes it doesn’t appear that way, as politics now seems everywhere on our screens at almost manic levels. Nevertheless, both polling and research remind us that our faith in the political process is ebbing. It’s a bit unnerving to witness the image of politics overwhelm its substance. The result will inevitably prove to be democratic fracture, as identity politics eventually divvies up our coherence and hegemony as a people.
The results of this election reflect this reality, as we see ourselves moving down a more splintered path that somehow Justin Trudeau will have to attempt to manage. With Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec increasingly coalescing around regional ideologies, it remains inevitable that the challenge of keeping the country together just got a lot harder.
But our greatest loss might be the ability of the Canadian people to create a roadmap of civility and respect that will have to form the backdrop for attempting to bridge our differences and work out our compromises. If this past election is any example, professional politics has become more of a permanent battlefield than a search for common ground. Might this election confirm what Jean-Jacques Rousseau noted about English politics?
“The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so, in fact, only during the election of members of parliament; for, as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing?”
The gyrations of Britain’s Brexit debacle are a reminder of what happens when a perpetually angry politics lays waste to the tenuous peace of a people.
There are heated opinions in every political party and that is part and parcel of a healthy democracy. But not when such points of view lead to blatant prejudicial contests that cause observers to simply turn away in disillusionment. The targeted lies and innuendos utilized in this past campaign are but a sign that Canada is dangerously close to journeying down the dystopian rabbit hole that other nations are now facing.
Perhaps this will be Trudeau’s great challenge – not keeping the country from splitting apart, but through effective leadership and sound policy bring common people back into the search for a more peaceable nation. But that’s a difficult thing to do when you’ve permitted your own party to play this darker mode of politics. If democracy becomes going to extremes to do whatever it takes to win, then ultimately everyone will lose, especially the country.