The future is in our hands

And be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear
And break it to our hope.

Macbeth 5.8.19-22

Finally, it’s over. I’m not sure how much longer any of us here in Canada could have endured election rhetoric. We’re not like our southern neighbours. Nothing in my experience could prepare me for the 2 and more year marathons now commonplace in America. In so many ways, we are so lucky here. I hope we consider that particular good fortune if we feel like complaining at length over just how interminable the finally concluded Canadian version felt.

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And now that Stephen Harper is set to fade into memory, reality will begin to come home to roost. I’ve been scanning the media this morning and, as expected, the message of expectations vs. reality is already playing a prominent role. My bringing it up isn’t original in any way. It’s important to note, though, especially for the sake of those who came out in a big way (or so it seemed to me and others) for the first time, namely, young people in general but many of them first-time voters.

I served as a novice Deputy Returning Officer yesterday and, I have to say, I truly enjoyed it. Some of the highlights were the few new Canadians who were so apparently pleased to be casting a vote. Their pleasure was obvious but so too, quite often, was that of the young people who came as a result of the concerted get-out-the-vote campaign that seemed to me driven largely by the unifying disdain for the now-departing Prime Minister.

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And depart he has, in a fashion quite unexpected by just about everybody. I can’t recall any credible predictions of a majority government for anyone and certainly nothing of the commanding scope given the Liberals under Justin Trudeau. If I’m one of those young people who helped to swell the turnout some 7% above what it was in the last election, I have to be impressed. I’m feeling today that the always seemingly tired notion that your vote really can make a difference has more truth to it than I ever imagined.

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As a returning officer, I saw that satisfaction a lot last night. I made a point of congratulating people, especially those who seemed new to the ballot box, when they dropped their ballot through the slot. I was inspired watching it happen. Such a simple process and yet, at the same time, such a profound exercise of social consensus and civilized action. Expecting perfection of any system invites disappointment so I never fall victim to that. As I’ve probably expressed before, I always used to think that Churchill’s caution about democracy being the worst form of government ever devised by man, except for all the others, was just witty.
I’ve changed my mind on that one. Not unexpectedly, it’s just as imperfect as we are.

But it really is the best we’ve got and I happen to think Canada is, in general, one of the best practitioners of it. As the quote from Macbeth suggests, though, I fear what expectations unfulfilled might do to the new optimism and sense of empowerment that I detect in the aftermath of Trudeau’s resounding win.

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Over my last few blogs, I’ve focused in different ways on my fear of Canada’s drift toward polarization of the American variety, where those who oppose you are vilified as the destroyers of worlds, or at least of the economy, democracy, etc. I’m all for reasoned objection; I just wish it could be reasoned.

Justin Trudeau, to my mind, is to be commended for avoiding, for the most part, the tactic employed with increasing ferocity as the campaign proceeded by the Conservatives and somewhat by the NDP as well. The message, essentially, was that a win by the opponent would be catastrophic in some way. While such a message might tend to play well with the hard-core supporters, the average person, to my mind, is skeptical. You might even say, most people are just too “Canadian” to buy into the catastrophe scenario.

At the same time, those opposing Harper painted him in irredeemable colours that left no room for any allowances being made. It became an all-or-nothing proposition. I hope, with him gone, that that fades and we return to a more balanced assessment of the political choices we face as a country.

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The first challenge for the new government will be to hold the interest and commitment of those who “voted for change”. If things slip into the usual morass of qualifications and “buts” and other factors that tend to lead to disillusionment among those who had high expectations, I fear whatever gains we might have made, especially in terms of engagement among the young, could be short lived.

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But for today, I’m inspired by my experience as a Deputy Returning Officer. I watched a steady stream of people come forward and cast a ballot believing that what they were doing was significant, important even, and, as I’ve always believed, they were right. The trick now, from my perspective, involves keeping that belief alive. Our future (always has, always will) depends on it.

Drifting toward the black and white: polarization in Canadian politics

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth
– Marcus Aurelius

Some years ago I was dating a woman from the States and, while George Bush was president (his first term), we visited some of her relatives in Minnesota. I’ve always been interested in politics, even before I became involved personally, so I was happy to engage when our conversation took a bit of a political turn. I’m not sure how it came up but the contention one of the relatives raised that has stuck with me is this: all Canadians (or anyone from anywhere for that matter) want to be Americans. According to this gentleman’s view, the rest of the world is consumed with envy. Given the chance, anyone would abandon the land of his/her birth in favour of a place in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

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Absurd you say? Certainly I thought that but it didn’t take me long to realize that I would be wasting my time if I tried to develop any kind of argument to the contrary. For this guy, the world’s desire to be American was a matter of faith. If I didn’t think his observation applied to me, I was simply deluding myself. Somewhere deep inside, there was an inner American seeking the light.

This encounter was just one highlight of a time where I came to realize in a profound way how difficult it was becoming to have a political discussion in the U.S. Considering that this couldn’t have been any more than 13 or 14 years ago, it’s hard for me to believe that the radical polarization of politics in the U.S. is so young. And yet, as I say, this was just part of my developing understanding at the time that politics was not something that you wanted to bring up unless you were sure of the company you were keeping.

polar 1

Flip forward to 2015. A general dismay is expressed over the early success of Donald Trump’s candidacy in the Republican presidential primary campaign. The pundits roll out any number of explanations for his popularity and, in general, dismiss his long-term prospects. While they may be right, I can’t help thinking he would appeal to my then-girlfriend’s relative. Trump’s xenophobic brand of American triumphalism is rooted in the idea that everyone is jealous of America and, since not everyone can BE American, those wannabes will spend their time, spitefully, trying to undermine the country.

To a rational person, Trump’s viewpoint seems absurd (I hope!) but, at the same time, I can’t help thinking it is a logical outcome for the divisive and extreme polarization that has become the hallmark of so much of politics in the United States. I’ve mentioned in this blog before that one of my guilty pleasures when I’m traveling in the States is listening to talk radio of the Rush Limbaugh variety. I am endlessly fascinated by how bizarrely extreme the rhetoric of the Limbaugh crowd really is. They all despise Barack Obama but it is the way in which they despise him that intrigues me. It isn’t simply that his policies are bad or his leadership ineffective; he is “destroying” America, “tearing up” the constitution, etc. Trump’s and other’s buying into the birther nonsense regarding Obama’s origins was just one especially laughable (disturbingly so) manifestation of trends that have been building for some time. As Canadians, (correct me if I’m wrong), we tend to look askance at the politics of our southern neighbor and are thankful that we aren’t like that.

polar 3 Note the stylized flag

And that is the point of my musings today. How different are we? On Saturday I visited the Fredericton market and did my best to avoid the “Anyone but Harper” table where proponents are trying to mobilize an anti-Harper vote to ensure that vote splitting doesn’t allow a Conservative candidate to ride the middle to victory. On Sunday, I ran into a friend of mine campaigning for the NDP who gave me a hug while saying something about hugging a Conservative (I pointed out I am NOT a Conservative but a Progressive Conservative, a distinction that is quite readily dismissed by friends of mine who are in the anti-Harper camp). I know for a fact that conversations I might have with any number of friends come to a screeching halt as soon as I indicate that I am not ready to participate in the wholesale condemnation of Harper and the federal Conservative Party that has come to be taken as a given by those who are supporting “anyone but”.

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When I started writing this blog (if you were wondering where I’ve been, I took the summer off), I tried to make clear that my motivation was to defeat the oversimplification that I believe is endemic in politics, education and virtually every facet of common public discourse. As Canadians, we like to believe that we are distinctly different from Americans in any number of ways. Sadly, when it comes to politics, we are drifting more and more toward the American model.

And let’s be clear: the federal Conservative party has had a large role to play in creating that “us vs them” approach, an approach that demands the demonization of opponents at the expense of reasoned policy debate. At the same time, those who would otherwise oppose such oversimplification are drawn into the fray. People who are generally thoughtful and open to nuanced consideration line up to sign the “anyone but Harper” petition or pledge, as though that represents a reasonable (and reasoned) choice. Demonization through ads, pronouncements, social media and any other means becomes the order of the day for ALL parties, whether constituted political parties or specific groups pursuing an agenda.

It makes me sad. As a Canadian, I have long felt that we have managed to avoid many of the worst excesses of our southern neighbours. I contend that even as those who support the “anyone but Harper” movement claim that they are acting in the best interests of Canadian democracy, they are, in fact, ensuring that we will continue our slide into the starkly oversimplified polarization that we so readily condemn when we look at the U.S.A. And that, more than anything, would be a dreadful stain on the very democracy we all claim that we hope to protect.

The Choices We Make

___________ is rich in radicalism, and anyone who says that our society has drifted into fatalism and apathy should get out more.
– Geoff Mulgan

voter 1
As we approach the onset of federal electioneering (“approach?!?” you might ask, in light of the onslaught of advertising we’ve been seeing for the last few months, if not longer), I’ve found myself explaining my views of certain realities related to politics to a friend of mine. To my mind, she is an excellent representative of a large portion of the electorate: smart, informed in a general way (reads the local paper, watches the news, and picks up information from other sources), and likely to vote for any one of the three major parties. In short, she belongs to that demographic coveted by all parties, the undecided voter.

voter 4
It’s easy to understand her dilemma. As campaigns develop in the run-up to an actual election, the sales jobs that each of the parties mount are unified in their simplicity. If you are the Conservatives, most of your time is taken with drilling the somewhat clever play on “Justin” Trudeau’s name – “Just Not Ready” – into the national consciousness. To all those who complain that largely negative advertising is objectionable and does not work, I would agree with the former but generally object to the latter claim. Even if you find it distasteful, there is a reason why parties return repeatedly to a negative approach: it has been shown to work. Plant doubt in the minds of voters and that doubt can grow. When, like my friend, you don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about politics and elections, the things that stand out in memory become very important. It is often said that we shouldn’t be overly influenced by first impressions. That might be a fine ideal but, in practice, I’m not sure how true it is. If you can get your message, however simple, planted in people’s brains, it has potential to grow. With so many distractions available in modern life, making anything particularly memorable in an area where people seem generally indifferent has to be considered a victory of sorts.

voter 2
For the Liberals, things are ostensibly a little easier. I can’t say how things are anywhere else in the country, but here in Saint John, New Brunswick, that “stuck in memory” phenomena has taken hold for many people. What has stuck in people’s memory is the name Stephen Harper and there seems to be very little nuance in the way in which many view that name and what he is thought to represent. I can’t think of another politician whose name awakens such visceral loathing. I realize that is a harsh assessment but I’ve encountered it on many occasions, usually in the company of such words as “dictator”, “control freak”, “bastard” – you get the picture. In a country so long dominated by two major parties, you might think the Liberals would be able to make it a cakewalk. The “we’re not him/them” rule is one that we should all be familiar with. Popular wisdom in this country says that governments aren’t so much elected as unelected. Capitalize on Stephen Harper’s unpopularity among many and the road to victory for Canada’s once “natural governing party” would seem to be assured. Or that’s how it used to be.

voter 3
But then came the last federal election and the decimation of the Liberals accompanied by the rise of the NDP to Official Opposition status. I was among the many who would have thought of the NDP surge as a flash in the pan, an anomaly in the historical power swap of Liberal and Conservative governments. But then Rachel Notley cruised to victory in Alberta and, all of a sudden, all bets were off. This has meant that the NDP has had to think long and hard about how they might sell themselves to a hesitant electorate. Speaking from the East Coast, the historical general reluctance has been largely the result of, in my opinion, fear that the NDP would be too radical, that an NDP government would upend the generally centrist record of previous governments in favour of a socialist approach that would be inimical to business, largely answerable to unions and without constraint in all matters of fiscal accountability. So it is that NDP ads to date have focused on a friendly, ordinary guy, very much “one of us” you might say. Thomas Mulcair, if people know of him at all, has, to date, been little more than a name. As the NDP suddenly finds itself in the lead in most polls, getting to “know” Tom Mulcair becomes extraordinarily important to all concerned. Whoever manages to win the “first impression” contest – and it has to be a first impression that can withstand the inevitable counters from opponents – will have gone a long way toward winning the day. Since the Conservatives and Liberals seem largely content to rail at each other (with some exceptions beginning to appear), early indications would be that the NDP might win that particular battle.

voter 5
In a very real sense, little of what the next few months bring by way of campaigning will help my friend make up her mind. My take on the entire thing is determined by my faith in our system, in her, and in all like her. Repeatedly we hear complaints about any number of elements deemed wrong or imperfect in Canada’s model. While acknowledging that it could be improved, I will continue to defend its effectiveness. Ours is a country that knows a peace and security increasingly rare in the world, it can seem. Whatever the result in the fall, I choose to believe we will continue to develop peacefully, securely and without fear of military coups, insurrections or other systemic upheavals. And THAT, more than anything, is what I’m always voting for. We may not be perfect, but we’re pretty damn good.