With a federal budget announcement in the offing, can an election be far behind? Coming out of the pandemic, so much about our politics will be tested. Did it prove to be up to the COVID challenge? Will there be a clear direction for economic recovery? Will there be a plan for debt recovery or poverty alleviation? Will small- and medium-sized businesses, and workers themselves, receive the required investment to enhance their future?
Perhaps the greatest test of all will be in seeing just how engaged Canadians are in their politics. The early months witnessed a benign appreciation for how important governments are in times of crisis. But the length of the pandemic and the bumbling vaccine rollout have cut into those early vibes, leaving huge swaths of the Canadian population questioning the efficacy and efficiency of politics itself.
We shouldn’t be too surprised. Four years of political chaos south of the border, while endlessly fascinating, turned politics from efficiency to entertainment, from declining trust to dystopian theatre. The stream of endless press conferences throughout political jurisdictions, while required for the dissemination of COVID updates, created something of a deadening effect as the months wore on, as millions waited for some kind of relief. And when the vaccines eventually arrived, the confusion and delays over disbursement turned grateful hope into collective angst.
We have had a lot of politics since the last election. And the abiding presence of COVID, with its accompanying uncertainty, has left Canadians in an unpredictable mood as to how they will vote, or even if they will mark a ballot.
Election-level partisanship has yet to emerge, as Canada’s political parties innately understand that openly playing politics amidst a pandemic could spell disaster for the brand. The battle lines are inevitably being drawn, however, through numerous backroom political strategy sessions and open policy conventions. The election day is coming. We know it. And that expectation is made all the more confounding as the lingering effects of a pandemic that just won’t seem to go away are felt.
Five years ago, Atlantic writer, Jonathan Rauch, coined the phrase “chaos syndrome” when describing what seems to be the irreversible belief that politics globally no longer carries the confidence of supporters that it once did. He went on to define the problem even further:
‘Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself.”
While Rauch poignantly speaks to the American scene, politics in nations around the world fall in different places along that declining curve. It’s neither an easy time to be in government or opposition. The challenges requiring attention continue to climb, and they will prove costly. The Internet has changed everything regarding political life and it continues to morph every year, allowing single-minded activists to press their agenda directly with the media and the public. If used collectively, it has within it the power to transform politics for the new era, but it has instead reduced political hegemony to endless splinters, and no one has the ability to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Social change is challenging our very systems of political life, as power continues to erode from centralized systems to myriad offshoots, pitting focused groups against one another.
Politically, we live in a time of diminishing returns – each successive generation of government finds it more difficult to manage. As Rauch concluded in his article: “It wasn’t Trump that caused the chaos, but the chaos that caused Trump.” The cycle of increasingly blaming politicians for our societal ills becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, unless a generational change in party cooperation finally permits politics to address the great challenges it was created for, and summons citizens to greater levels of sacrifice instead of indulgence.
Canada has been fortunate to escape some of the excesses of political intransigence in recent years, but trust is nevertheless in decline. There is no better time than a post-pandemic era to realign politics to be truly effective. But that requires growing collaboration and declining confrontation – something few Canadians are expecting. Our politics will continue on its present path until the process is reversed for the sake of Canadians and their future.