It used to be that we thought of revolutions as periods of episodic anger in history, where enough angst had built up to overthrow systems – political, economic, religious, cultural – in order to bring about change. But we are now comprehending that revolutions in the modern globalized era can also take a different direction.
Canada’s recently concluded federal election gives us a hint of what this looks like, not just in this country but across the globe. Media accounts of how the average voter had grown disgusted by the negative behaviour and innuendos of the various political parties were everywhere. One Conservative organizer laid it all out for journalist Matt Gurney:
“I spent weeks knocking doors. And people didn’t want to talk about the election. It was remarkable. I’ve done a lot of campaigns. People normally want to tell you how they’re going to vote. We didn’t get that this time. There wasn’t anger; there was just fatigue. People were annoyed and disgruntled by the election . . . It was a toxic election, and I think people were ashamed and embarrassed by the whole thing. They just wanted it to be over.”
It was a sentiment played out everywhere across the country and had the effect of “deadening” the public space instead of energizing it. We watched in real time the stark extremes of political inflexibility, character assassination, and the sheer lack of democratic progress that curses our age and leaves us exhausted and disillusioned. As increasing numbers of citizens shun political parties, the result is a vacuum where people no longer know where to turn for the vital democratic values of freedom, prosperity, individual power and national hegemony. Western societies are now becoming unmoored from what once gave them a sense of hope and promise.
The result is that our societies feel empty somehow, as those democratic guiding lights that once assisted people in working out an equitable society have opted to take on the worst practices of human behaviour while at the same time seeking public support.
It seems unavoidable that once one party seeking power opts to utilize the dark arts to achieve their ends it inevitably leads to others adopting similar actions in order to compete. Over the period of years, however, the high bar of democracy is eventually compromised and our ideals become tarnished. The professional political class views this as inevitable and that parties must get tough or perish. Many in the media believe it as well. But no one is blind as to what this is doing to how people view their government and politics in general. Social media only exaggerates the decline since it has so enabled the weaponization of political rhetoric and attacks, including among citizens themselves.
One of the most troubling offshoots of this new democratic norm has been the slowly eroding faith in our future, most especially for the emerging generations. Democracy works best when the public spirit is infused with optimism and the sense that our kids will be better off than we are. It’s a difficult exercise to find Canadians who feel this way. At times our belief in progress feels almost unsustainable.
Voters will continue to lose faith in their future if politics itself, and its leaders, aren’t open to changing their practices for the better. We will get instead a new kind of revolution, one driven by apathy and not energy, about transgressions and not transformation. Citizens are partly to blame for their condition, as they increasingly subscribe to NIMBYism and a politics that only benefits them. These two conditions – and increasingly negative political order and an apathetic citizenry can only move in a downward direction.
Will our political leaders learn from the numerous negative actions of this last campaign and its results? There is no sign of that yet. And the onus will largely fall on the party leaders to work out effective collaborations – an achievement made more difficult by the deplorable rhetoric of this past election.
We are inevitably arriving at the place Henry David Thoreau described in his Walden (1854):
“Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance that covers the globe … till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality.”
Every Western nation requires a new collaborative leadership if we are to get through these challenges together. We need look no further than Brexit, the protests in France, the struggles in Germany, the brewing cauldron south of the border, and our own decline in civility in Canada to understand our need for a higher calibre of both leaders and followers. Canadians voted in a new mixed Parliament that will now have to prove its collaborative abilities or risk another electoral showdown. Democracy is ultimately about the ability to get along for the greater good. Perhaps this time we can choose a different, more inspiring path.
Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 32 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“. Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.