We are no longer a nation of joiners. The majority of Canadians have tended to drift away from those institutions that once provided them with meaning and connectedness. We now live in a digital age, where individuals and families are more inclined to connect online for relationships, shopping and entertainment.
Decades ago, American historian Arthur Schlesinger observed the opposite when it came to how the U.S. population was emerging from World War Two, in which most citizens were called upon to play their part, either globally or domestically, to save democracy:
“Voluntary institutions have provided people with their greatest school of self-government. Rubbing minds as well as elbows, they have been trained from youth to take common counsel, choose leaders, harmonize differences, and obey the express wishes of the populace. In mastering the associative way, they have mastered the democratic way.”
This doesn’t sound as familiar as it once did. People have confused politics with democracy, and as they have turned away from its endless partisanship, they have left the heart of their nation to political masters, not empowered citizens. Citizenship is hard to quantify and even qualify for modern media, who have chosen instead to latch on to the endless drama streaming out of political capitals. Citizens, on the other hand, including millions of Canadians, have opted to jump into the stream of social media and cable news to stay informed or to confirm their opinions. The difficulty is that they can do so fully separate from others. It’s democracy in a box, which one can open at home, scrutinize for a time, then put it back in the closet.
Journalist Yoni Applebaum, writing some time ago in the Atlantic, noted how this lack of connection between citizens and their institutions has made possible the massive disconnect and disfunction running through American politics today. He believes the rise of Donald Trump would have been impossible without the growing distance between citizens themselves. In stark terms he wrote, “Trump won by speaking directly to voters who had the least experience with democratic institutions.”
Ouch. If you’re a Trump supporter, this observation will prove enraging – stereotypical, simplistic and an insult to many well-educated and networked Americans who pulled in behind the Trump machine. Yet there’s some truth to it. The president squeaked through in 2016 because an increasing number of Americans had lost touch with those institutions that once used to inspire and prompt them to think of the larger picture. Many weren’t Democratic or Republican, but disenchanted citizens who had come to the conclusion that politics just sucks, that’s all.
Then came COVID – a precarious time when those institutions once rejected were at the forefront of ensuring the essentials of life for Americans and their families, just as in Canada and other nations. That experience gradually sidelined the president’s rantings and ravings against those depositories of American democracy that the people were suddenly finding essential. The more he criticized front line workers, medical experts, bureaucrats charged with protecting the country, equality movements, hospitals, military veterans, the nation’s open-door policy, and, naturally, the Democratic party itself, the harder it became for him to retain supporters other than his loyal base.
In other words, people in democracies around the world are looking to the same institutions they were in the process of rejecting just months earlier. People aren’t as interested in political shenanigans as their own pain. They wish to recapture prosperity, not the petty politics that characterized their governments before COVID arrived.
Canadians are now watching as their parliament seems to irrevocably slide in the direction where scandals, political brinksmanship crass manipulation, and that old hyper-partisanship that many endured only a few years ago. In the past it was just politics; in this COVID present it is both distracting and tragic. We all have our opinions on the parties, but the reality is that rebuilding the nation following the pandemic is no longer the primary purpose of those in national or political parliaments – brand politics is creeping back in.
The new patterns are increasingly reflecting the old ones. Polarization is normal. Political dysfunction is normal. The loss of democracy’s allure is normal. And the lack of ability to build a new and more inclusive nation is normal.
But this wasn’t what post-COVID was supposed to look like. It was to be better, more integrated, less political and more democratic – a Canada for everyone. And the more citizens lose the incentive to build better following the pandemic, the quicker democratic nations will slide back into the destructive practices of recent history.
The secret to a more productive future for a nation doesn’t lie in political agendas but in its people, and if, in their disenchantment about a lack of effective COVID recovery, they opt to pull the plug, disconnect from their peers, head back into their isolation, the comfort of their screens, and loss of hope, then the opportunity the pandemic gave us to reform our ways will be lost in a fashion that might never be recovered. We require a national effort that citizens are willing to sign up for. If we’re not careful, the future might well be decided by someone, or something, else and this moment in history will be lost.