“The collective wisdom . . .”

Miranda: Oh, brave new world, that has such people in’t.
The Tempest 5.1.188-9

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Portions of Miranda’s line from The Tempest have been used in many ways through the years, most notably – and ironically – as the title of Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World. References to Huxley’s work can’t help appearing whenever a political change comes which seems to usher in an era of great promise. As I read the reactions to last week’s election victory by Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party, I couldn’t help smiling. I had been bothered by the course of this election for quite some time and I was glad it was over, a widely-held sentiment, I’m fairly certain, from sea to shining sea.

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I don’t think anyone needs me to wax poetical about the power of optimism and hope, but the contrasting campaigns of the election serve to illustrate how it can work when the time is right. Please note that last part: when the time is right. We would be practicing a form of revisionist history if we failed to acknowledge that, in other circumstances, negative campaigns can be very effective. Just ask Stephane Dion or Michael Ignatieff if you doubt that. The number of campaigns south of the border scuttled by attacks far more vicious than anything we would think of mounting in the Great White North are legion.

As we heard from innumerable pundits over the last few years (if you were listening), the evidence is inescapable: attack ads work. At the same time, this conclusion, as with so many others, lacks nuance. Some make the point that negativity can backfire but it tends to be more as an afterthought than a rebuttal of the central tenet that tarring the opposition with any available brush works. As I listened to ongoing coverage of the election results, many expressed surprise, especially with the majority result. To understand, though, I don’t think you need to look beyond the central player in it all: us.

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I’m never sure how well my little part of the country reflects the larger collective so I always avoided making any sweeping claims about how things were going to go as the election approached. At the same time, I was struck by the depth and ferocity of the opposition to Stephen Harper and his Conservative government just about everywhere I went. Never before had I seen anything like the “Stop Harper” campaign that manifested itself in signs, hashtags, strategic voting and a whole lot of ways about which I probably know nothing at all. While it could have something to do with the circles I travel in, the feeling was palpable, it seemed, just about everywhere other than amongst the true stalwarts among Conservative supporters. As I’ve said in previous blogs, this polarization concerns me.

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My hope, now, is that this particular election proves to be an anomaly; that Canadians will, by and large, return to the moderation that was celebrated in the media on the days following the election. The bitter rhetoric and enmity of the campaign was replaced by articles complimenting the rapid concession from Mr. Harper and his congratulating Mr. Trudeau while affirming that the electorate was always “right”. In turn, the two leaders appearing together and cordial while laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier reminded us that we were Canadians, after all.

For me, though, that’s where caution comes in. The Liberal victory has an inevitable character in retrospect. Alone among the three major party leaders, Justin Trudeau hitched his wagon pretty much exclusively to the mantra of hope and change and, quite simply, people were ready for that, longing for it, in fact. People, by and large, want to feel good about themselves and their choices. For the moment, I’m with them. Most people I know seem cheerier this week and that can’t be bad.

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But, as I said, we’re the constant through all of this and we will come to be dissatisfied in time with whatever and whoever ends up doing things that we don’t necessarily like. The grumbling will start and eventually a day will come when the current government will be swept away to a chorus of voices shouting about the need for change. If I’ve learned one thing, “change” is the one constant in every election at any level. And yes, it’s a good thing.

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At the same time, I hope we can hang on to the images and the editorials that were so much kinder to the departing prime minister and his government than anything seemed to be during the campaign. I’m not absolving Harper from blame for much of it, either. History will tell that tale as time goes on. I remain, however, fearful of Canada becoming too much like the United States where your opponents become the enemy within rather than just someone whose opinions differ in certain ways.

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Canada is a special place to me. Maybe I’m just another Canadian buying the propaganda but I really do think we are better than most at getting along and allowing for differences. The extremity of some of the rhetoric on both sides in this now-concluded election has concerned me. I hope it was of the moment and that my Canada is the gracious one I saw over the past week. As a Canadian, that’s the best I can hope for. Even Canadians, after all, are only human.

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.

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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.

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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.