Three-and-a-half years later, the Liberals and Trudeau resemble the government they defeated more than the government they promised. Ethical lapses — trumped up by the opposition parties here and there, but plenty disconcerting on balance — high-profile resignations, broken promises (you’ll recall that we were promised that 2015 would be the last election under the first-past-the-post system), insufficient action on indigenous reconciliation and the SNC-Lavalin affair have aged the prime minister and his team while reminding them, and observers, that while parties might run for election on sunny ways and doing things differently, no government runs for reelection on those terms.
The Trudeau Liberals aren’t the first to learn this lesson. But imagine if they were the last.
The 2019 election will test the thesis that you can’t go back. The Liberals have already offered some evidence that it’s true by attacking the Conservatives and attempting to characterize them as right-wing extremists, the “party of Stephen Harper” but nastier under their new leader, Andrew Scheer. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. Except this one, say the Liberals, is a white nationalist patsy.
Like any modern political campaign, Canada’s latest will see parties work diligently to cast their opponents in the most unfavorable ways possible, asking voters to evaluate their opponents on their terms. That strategy tends to work well for getting elected but not so well for governance and encouraging good, substantive political decision-making and the sort of elite cues that encourage voters to trust and value the system. In the short run, parties benefit from this approach by forming government. In the long run, they risk there not being a long run.
In January, the 2019 Edelman Trust barometer report found that while trust in government in Canada is fine, there is growing polarization, especially between trusters and non-trusters. This month, an EKOS poll showed that for the first time, opposition to visible-minority immigration has caught up with general opposition to immigration. Those numbers, too, are polarized with 69 percent of Conservatives saying there are “too many” visible-minority immigrants compared with 15 percent of Liberals, indicating that Scheer and his side have a serious problem with bigoted supporters that won’t be helped by attacks from the left and indifference on the right.
Each party, politician, commentator, observer and citizen has an opportunity this year to make the election about policy. Climate. Child care. Pharmacare. Housing affordability. Equalization. Immigration. Indigenous reconciliation. The rule of law. The old wisdom holds that elections are awful times to debate policy, but this insight is true only to the extent that we believe it to be true. It could be otherwise. It should be otherwise.
Elite cues drive our politics. If the parties decided to run policy-driven campaigns while disavowing extremists, especially white nationalists and supremacists, and refusing to bludgeon their opponents, they could. The people would follow them. The Liberals could reimagine and reinvent a more substantive positive politics. The Conservatives could vociferously and routinely reject the worst impulses of some of their supporters. And both could take the New Democrats (NDP) and the Greens more seriously as parties with competing visions of how the country ought to be run. (And given that Canada could face a minority government that might depend on the NDP or Green Party, it might be wise to do just that.)
The world is in a democratic recession with popular self-government facing declining trust and growing resentment — and the ever-present threat of violent extremism. At once, this global moment encourages both democratic retrenchment as elites get nervous and seek to turn away from the masses or welcome their rage and embrace the nasty politics of “our side must win at any cost.” At the same time, the devastating effects of climate change have already begun to arrive, threatening to irreversibly upset the ways we live, and threatening to become much, much more pronounced — perhaps to the point where our democratic institutions will simply collapse under the weight of sustained catastrophe. Best to reinforce them now.
Canadians and their leaders, especially politicians, must commit to do the work of reinforcing democratic institutions today by reimagining politics as a more substantive and deliberative exercise in working out who wants what, why and what the best way to get there is, while bringing citizens into that process through mechanisms including participatory budgeting and citizens’ assemblies. The 2019 federal election is just the moment to start that work.