Can’t we all just get along?

The political machine triumphs because it is a united minority acting against a divided majority.
-Will Durant

Believe it or not, politics is not my favourite subject to write about. I much prefer education, having spent almost half of my life teaching and many additional years as a student myself. In fact, I’m back to school even now (more on that in another blog maybe). But politics dominates my thinking these days, without question. Part of that can be ascribed to my personal involvement as a city councilor and then, MLA, but I have always been interested.

Comments that have struck me recently as we approach our impending election day concern the particular horror represented by the “Harper government”. As is common in Canada, the government and its leader tend to become inseparable if they prove to have any longevity at all. In Stephen Harper’s case, though, that commingling of identity seems virtually absolute.

In my most recent blog, I reflected on what I see as Canada’s drifting toward the polarization so many decry in the U.S. and the demonization of Harper (please suggest another word if that one seems inaccurate) is just one facet of that. The three major parties go to great lengths to find the “defining moment”, the “one bad thing” that can be used to characterize an opponent. Harper’s latest gaffe is the “old-stock Canadian” comment. Trudeau has been pilloried for his remarks about the “budget balancing itself” and Mulcair’s stumbles over balanced budgets and tax hikes, while lacking that defining phrase, are a constant theme for the other parties’ leaders.

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Some years ago (15 to be exact), when I was writing a regular column for the Telegraph-Journal (Saint John’s local paper), I reflected on the cynicism that I felt was taking hold in the U.S. surrounding elections. Time, of course, has only made the matter worse for our neighbour. Here is an excerpt:

There have been columns and analyses and polls and forums and I don’t know what, almost beyond numbering, all trying to get to the heart of what Gore and Bush, respectively, stand for. Little wonder: in the potentially ruinous maelstrom of competing lobby groups, special interests and political correctness neither the Vice-President nor the Governor can really dare to have a great deal to say about much of anything lest they offend anyone.

The part that I find most amazing in all of this is that the commentators and other pundits seem to think that this is not only inevitable but is, in fact, simply the “way it is.” Especially when referring to the recently concluded series of presidential debates, analysts nod sagely and remark on how well or poorly candidates have avoided, on this latest occasion, the “one mistake,” the wrong word or glance or position on an issue that might alienate the voting public.

Has it really come to this? Can the one mistake be so thoroughly devastating to a candidate’s chances? More importantly, what does this brand of analysis say about American’s expectations of their politicians? Commentators seem more interested in whether or not the particular candidate’s mask has been kept in place than they are in any substantial contribution to public debate made (or not made) in the course of the evening. Americans see validated repeatedly the notion that character is constructed. The challenge is to try and see the man behind the mask in order to determine if he even remotely resembles the persona that has been created for him.

I chose to revisit this old column of mine in order to illustrate, hopefully, in another way, our slide toward extremism. Contrary to what some might think, I am not here trying to support any particular party or view. As a Canadian, I am concerned that we are, to my mind, drifting closer and closer to the American reality where opposing political views can barely exist in the same room. While we may not be there quite yet, my recent experience suggests we are not that far away.

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To put it another way, I encourage one and all to vote for the candidate or party you find most appealing. But, as you do so, please realize that you are voting for a construct. As the incumbent, Stephen Harper garners the most attention for the things he says that confirm either his flaws or his strengths (depending on your view of the man and his party). As the challengers, both Mulcair and Trudeau have far less baggage to account for but they are as much constructed by handlers as Harper.

As things stand now, the outcome on Oct. 19 seems most likely to be a three-way tie. Should that be the case, what will that teach us about those who would lead our country? Will anyone be willing to compromise? Is minority government possible when parties spend their time demonizing and vilifying opponents? Another reflection from 15 years ago: “Elections allow politicians the opportunity to convince us that beneath their desire to maintain power there is a legitimate dedication to public service.” Because of my personal experience, I know that those who pursue political office commonly do so with the intention of doing good. A minority situation just might offer the voters of Canada a chance to be reminded of that. It might even remind the politicians themselves.

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.

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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.

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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.