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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Welcome to the two minute hate: Canada-style

“As for politics, well, it all seemed reasonable enough. When the Conservatives got in anywhere, [Judge] Pepperleigh laughed and enjoyed it, simply because it does one good to see a straight, fine, honest fight where the best man wins. When a Liberal got in, it made him mad, and he said so,–not, mind you; from any political bias, for his office forbid it,–but simply because one can’t bear to see the country go absolutely to the devil.”
― Stephen Leacock, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

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References to certain features of George Orwell’s 1984 are common; I have used them in my own musings on more than one occasion. Today I’m thinking about the “two-minute hate”, that detail in Orwell’s novel where members of the party are invited to watch a two-minute video on their enemies and summon up as much vitriol as they can and direct it at the screen. As with so many of the features of the book, it might seem improbable in its details but, in its observations re emerging trends in politics, I’m not sure how far off the mark it really is.

I’m referencing the response I tend to hear from any number of friends when the subject of our current Prime Minister comes up. At the mere mention of his name, or even a general reference to the federal government, I’m liable to hear “I hate Harper” as a preface to whatever is to follow. Chances are the face twists into a frown and a certain real passion is evident as a brief elaboration on all that is wrong with Steve follows. Mind you, I’ve learned not to ask for details. The response seems to be largely visceral, a generalized abhorrence not necessarily connected to anything specific; rather, it’s a felt sense of “something wrong”, that some fundamental core principle at the heart of Canadian democracy is being violated constantly. “Dictator” seems to be a favourite word when summarizing the overall impression of the man himself.

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This bothers me, not because I’m a defender of Stephen Harper and his government, necessarily, but more for what it says about the regard we have for the system in which Stephen Harper operates. If you’ve followed my recent blogs regarding the niqab and Bill C-51, you would know that I’m not some right-wing conservative ideologue trumpeting the majestic achievements of our current federal government. At the same time, I am appalled at the readiness with which otherwise rational people suggest that Canada is on the verge of descending into a morass of failed democracy, a disenfranchised population, and a place where fundamental freedoms are sacrificed on an altar dedicated to the establishment of a secret police equal to those found, either currently or previously, in various authoritarian regimes.

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The thing is, I can’t pretend that I’m surprised. I started this blog to counter what I see as the rampant oversimplification of a cornucopia of complex issues in the world today. The “us vs them” mentality – and a very stark version of it – dominates public debate (or the reporting of it, at the very least) whether it is environmentalists vs pipeline builders and supporters of hydraulic fracturing, liberals vs conservatives, criminals vs law-abiding citizens, pro-life vs. pro-choice, etc. I’m sure you could add a few more if you wanted to. In almost every case, the rhetoric is heated and the arguments tend to the “my way or the highway” version of debate which, to my mind, really isn’t debate at all.

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But real debate requires thought and careful consideration and we are not designed for that these days. When complex events are boiled down to the 2-minute newscast or, even more, the “tweet” that is delivered with breathtaking immediacy, a mentality takes hold that, I suspect, is unavoidable. We are buried in an avalanche of unfiltered information. Is it any wonder that, out of a desire to be heard above the noise, those with a message would feel compelled to boil it down to the memorable phrase, regardless of how much such a phrase might fail to represent the nuances of a position/theme/subject? We live in an age of slogans and acronyms, anything that will stick in the mind and deliver the “essence” of whatever we are being asked to consider.

I believe this is poisonous. When we seek to understand the often-rancorous proceedings of the House of Commons, the NB legislature or, for the most appalling example, the United States Congress, we need some introspection. The political class in Canada – a country where our sitting Prime Minister could be turfed this year and would, without question, bow graciously and congratulate the inheritor of the position – behaves as it does because we have made it that way. Having sat as an MLA not so long ago, I can’t help but ask: when your awareness of the business of government is garnered largely from the 2 minute clip of question period, a feature which lasts one half hour out of a six to eight hour legislative day, how informed are you? Also, if those participating in Question Period know that this “proceeding” has the greatest potential for shaping people’s opinions, is it any wonder they would seek to use it for greatest advantage?

Stephen Harper is participating in Canada’s political sideshow, one that people mistake for the actual business of government. Go ahead and disagree with the policies and laws that his government has instituted. Even better would be speaking up and critiquing those laws and policies, but without the stridency that has become the hallmark of so much of what we see and hear. And finally, if you look beyond the “show” that is conducted and the extremes of positioning that result, please recognize that Canada is a remarkable country that is, by and large, governed better than or, at least as well as, any other country in the world.

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A great deal of hand-wringing occurs when it comes to voter turnout in the country, especially when it comes to the young. Ask yourself: how attractive can voting be when the loudest voices consistently condemn our political system as broken, as undemocratic, and your vote as a waste of time because nothing changes? I’d like to hear some voices raised celebrating a system that is, certainly, imperfect but that has, nevertheless, given us 200 years free of war within our own borders, a standard of living surpassed by few and better than 80% of the rest of the world, and a culture that is largely tolerant, compassionate and welcoming of all. In the meantime, it’s time to cancel the two-minute hate, no matter who is the target. Today it’s Stephen Harper. Next? Get in line.