In a time when little seems predictable, when democracy delivers untenable outcomes and citizenship collapses in on itself in order to protect what it believes it is losing, there remains this latent, almost invisible, desire to find something that is definite and that we can count on.
This is where populism is born and could possibly cut a tragic path. At its heart it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many of the great democratic successes in the past two centuries were the result of pressure from the masses to break up the elites in order to share the benefits of freedom. But as Michael Ignatieff pointed out in a recent interview Esade: “The problem comes when you want to use your identity to exclude others … We should be afraid of populism only when it creates a culture of enemies.”
Well, to exaggerate only slightly, that was what our recent federal election became about – the demonizing of personalities, of social conservatives, of progressive social engineers, and at times entire regions of the country. And apart from the politically energized, the result was a turning of the back from everyone else.
What we frequently get in such a climate are opinions, millions of them, that all too frequently have nothing to do with evidence, truth, experience or understanding. A consequence is that we find numerous truth-deniers running for leadership in various nations and frequently becoming victorious. In our own sense of weakness and lack of opportunity, we do what generations before us have done: turn to the strong leader who is all too frequently willing to create division in order to acquire power. To latch on to such corrosive leaders is what gets many to believe that they matter and that they are heard, despite the reality that such citizens are only fodder for power seekers as opposed to the beneficiaries.
Any such conversation drifts almost inevitably to south of the border, where one powerful leader is in the process of removing everything that can ultimately hold him accountable. And he is coming dangerously close to that goal by regarding anyone who disagrees with him as “the enemy.” It remains to be seen whether America can rediscover its hegemony in the post-Trump era or whether the damage is so fatal that it can only remain a sullen shell of its former self.
There is a reason why the Oxford Dictionaries declared in 2016 that “post-truth” was the international word of the year. It was growing prior to the election of Donald Trump, is inescapable during his presidency, and could likely survive him. By undercutting the respect we are to have for others in a democracy and turning nations into a real version of Game of Thrones, we might find it impossible, in an era of declining institutions, to put all the pieces back together again
Things become dangerous and perhaps irreparable when average citizens, manipulated by angry voices, grow certain in their opinions instead of more open with them. It is easier to feel right than to live in doubt, even if such convictions carpet bomb the fragile collective trust of average Canadians.
This past federal election taught us many things, but one of its resonating features was that inflexible opinions can only lead to separation and division if it continues. With the election over, we are waking up to realize that we are less of a coherent and understanding nation than we were prior to it. And it was our politics that accomplished it. Instead of a legitimate contest of ideas and policies, it degraded into bouts of certainty that labelled other leaders as enemies and average citizens as victims.
What Canadians ultimately delivered in the election was, ironically, a new Parliament that will be forced to collaborate in ways it refused to in the past. Minority governments built on respect for institutions, respect for the people, and a dedication to a high life of purpose have proved effective and durable in the past. But it is hard to see how combatants so recently emerged from a toxic campaign can pull it off if they maintain their blind obstinance.
Should they dissolve into disarray, it will, in part, be because Canadians in general have exchanged compatibility and complexity with certainty and simplicity. To save the essence of democracy in this country, we must fight that transfer with the bit of hope that collectively remains in us. If not, we will embark on the sad journey described by Erich Fromm in his Escape from Freedom:
“By becoming part of power which is felt as unshakably strong, eternal, and glamorous, one participates in its strength and glory. One surrenders one’s own self and renounces all strength and pride connected with it, one loses one’s integrity as an individual and surrenders freedom; but one gains a new security and new pride in the participation in the power in which one submerges themselves. One gains also security against the torture of doubt.”