Brendan Sheppard, Queens University.
One month in, one week to go. The end of this torture seems simultaneously distant as ever and far too soon. One month of endless rhetoric leaves the heart pulsing but the brain numb. The awareness of another week elicits strange sensations – Anticipation? Fear? Exhaustion? Perhaps the flavour depends on your disposition, and on the outcome you deem most likely.
But the election disregards your disposition. It marches toward you while you cower at a dead end, knowing it will overtake you, and then, for better or for worse, this will be over.
Let’s take a moment to mourn for the politicians themselves: those more invested in this election than the worst-addicted of us onlookers; those who must have suffered many dark and lonely nights where their dreams realize their fears with a smidge more authenticity than their smiles. For Justin Trudeau, whose tale has taken on a haunting note as the demons of his past have risen to challenge the identity into which he casts his present self. Does he take any small refuge in the fact that it is no longer his father’s legacy he must overcome, but his own? For him and Andrew Scheer both, whose parties have depleted arsenals of scandal-fodder and tax-credits to minimal effect against the nigh-impervious skin of their polling averages. For Jagmeet Singh, who has everything a candidate could desire: youth, passion, resilience, fervent progressivism,humanizing moments aplenty, and opponents riddled with scandal – but has learned that in 2019 these grant only moral victories against the behemoths who lumber to the finish line. For Elizabeth May, trapped fighting the same battles even as public outcry lunges to the position she has always espoused. How horrifyingly futile all their efforts must seem, as they along their well-plotted courses and find that for all their best-laid-plans, the conclusion of this election could have been predicted from the outset.
And yet, not quite.
Despite the immunity to scandal and strategy with which the polls have mocked us, the outcome of this election has never been clear. Thus, the partisans have worked diligently to incite in us a frenzied horror at the possible outcomes of this apparent coinflip. While matching tax cut with tax credit and scandal with scandal, the two major parties continue to polarize themselves with vitriolic rhetoric. Is Justin Trudeau a racist, a hypocrite, a fraud? Is Andrew Scheer a homophobe, a right-wing extremist, or, God forbid, an American?
This polarization has a dual effect on its victims. First are the partisans, who, hearing rhetoric, become more ardent in supporting their chosen candidate, and more fearful of their chosen heel. This group must be feeling all the frenzied panic naturally accrued in one who drives for a month non-stop mere meters ahead of a pursuer. Surely, they plead, one of us has to run out of gas!
The second group is no better off, but their sentiment is despair. They acknowledge that this election will be won by a party that with each passing scandal looks worse and worse. But, afraid of casting a vote that is at best futile and at worst the last straw between red and blue, they resign themselves to voting for a lesser of two evils of two evils. It is desperation: an attempt to exert what modicum of influence remains to them in a system that feels so far beyond their control..
Too many of us have come to dread election’s eve simply because we see no good options. Are our standards too high? Or has our system failed to provide options at once satisfactory and viable? The statesman Winston Churchill tells us, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.”Democracy is imperfect – a point easily conceded – but you will be hard-pressed to find Canadians who favour some other form of rule. So from the imperfect, our challenge is to create something better, but adherent to the same principles.
This is an old challenge. Even Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer pay lip-service to issues of polarization and radicalization which harm our democracy’s integrity. The fight against fake news and disinformation is widely endorsed in speeches and platforms. And when Mr. Trudeau retracted his 2015 promise to replace First Past the Post, he did not claim that Canadians no longer wanted to change the current system, but blamed discord and partisanship for the failure. The rhetoric exists, but the actions do not: even as they preach against polarization, both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer strive to render their dichotomy into a choice not between two acceptable options, but between a hero and a hypocritical villain who at all costs must be stopped; even as they warn against the dangers of disinformation, both parties justify the employment of these tools against their rivals.
Beyond the surface of Canadian politics, concrete proposals do exist. Should we hold more debates, to discourage their rushed and superficial nature? Should we lower the voting age to make it a high school routine, increasing the likelihood for youth to develop a lifelong voting habit? Should we adopt proportional representation, to encourage voter engagement by improving each ballot’s ability to affect parliament? Complex issues, the like for which this campaign’s politicians have no time. This attitude towards governance displays an absence of trust invested by the government in its constituents to address issues beyond their immediate experience. So proposals which could improve our democracy gather dust, while politicians trudge by with their smiles and focus-group approved slogans, abandoning their duty as our leaders to keep us informed. Churchill’s contemporary, Franklin Roosevelt, expressed this duty: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” I doubt that many of us feel educated by this campaign on any subject beyond our distaste for modern politics.
It is a failure of our democratic institutions that these issues have not risen to prominence in this campaign. Either this is symptomatic of a disengaged populace, in which case the issue returns to the root of this disengagement, or of a system wherein governors can focus exclusively on the demonization and eventual defeat of their opponents without fearing consequences for ignoring the issues with the greatest impact on the population. Additionally, this failure is symptomatic of a governing class that lacks genuine care for the well-being of its people. If it possessed such care, it would foster a discourse and force a choice on these issues due to the recognition that to be idle any longer will be more harmful than to make any reasonable and proactive decision. Modern Canadian democracy is worse than Churchill’s statement suggests, because globally, various alternative democratic systems have already been employed, with the effect of nearly doubling the number of effective votes. Our system is no longer the least-worst.
But in this election, today, what can we do? How can we make our mark in the face of this growing impression of our own irrelevance? We must each be mindful, at the least, of the privilege of voting at all. It seems a small privilege today. But when this step to democracy was taken, centuries ago, it was a step in the right direction. Now we must apply this scrap of power to end our stagnancy and continue our progress towards the maximum empowerment of each individual within the expanded constraints of the modern world.
The most terrifying sensation is that of powerlessness. It is befitting that exactly such a sensation is being so universally evoked by this late-October election. The great promise of democracy is that it gives power to the people – a slogan heard with rising frequency in a world swept over by populism. The fact that we should return now to finding comfort and hope in this refrain is illuminating about just how powerless our population feels, and just how disenfranchised they have become not with the idea of democracy, to which they still flock as do moths to a lamp, but with its unchanged execution. We can dream that October 21st will be the first day on a journey towards a greater and more empowering democracy for this country. But I fear it might still be too soon.
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