Thursday, June 18, 2015

Causes of Dysfunction: "And the Trudeau surge? That's so last year."

Or ... so the story in the CBC read. I wanted to say something about this statement not because it actually says anything about the state of Canadian liberalism, but because it highlights -- perhaps, yet again -- problems with public discourse on Canadian politics.

There is some good commentary on Canadian public life but surprisingly little. In fact, most of what counts as mainstream media reporting and commentary is painfully banal if not misleading. It is, I think, one of the reasons that Canadians, in significant numbers, and particularly younger Canadians, have dropped out of public life and voted with their feet, at it were, to not vote. If we want to have a sincere commitment to addressing political alienation ... we need to address the sad state of public discourse on Canadian politics.

Let me take the above statement to illustrate what I mean. Its pithy and makes use of contemporary language: "that is so last year." The language is -- I think intentionally -- a bit stereotyped and actually out-dated, sort of in the manner of a parent trying to sound cool, but it has a pithy quality to it. The story goes on to explain that while the NDP is doing well in the polls "there's still four months to go."  It goes on to note that the decline of the Liberals in the polls may make it less meaning for the Conservatives and Liberals to battle each other. Instead, they may have to face reality and battle the NDP.

The legion of things that are wrong with this view are so many that it would be difficult to catalogue them all. It misses the point of why both Conservatives and NDPers train their sights on the Liberal party. And, in this sense, provides no serious political analysis. The story goes on to discuss the different political parties infatuation with the "middle class," but likewise fails to define precisely what this is or why it would be a politically important vote. But, most grievously, in stating that things were "so last year" suggests that politics is a matter of fad, vogue, and short term momentum. The real problem, of course, is that this can become true and ... create odd electoral situations where parties win power because of image and perception with little connection to their platforms, their own goals, or what might actually be the types of policy debates we need in the country. What is "so last year," I might, in fact, be so bold as to suggest, could be needed for this year.

Think about it. Have things really changed so drastically in the last year? Last year Canada began to grapple with the regionalized economic effects of declining oil production need. This year ... we seem to be grappling with the same thing. Last year, Canadians were amazed at the spending scandals that had beset the unelected Senate. This year ... hmmm ....  Last year, Canadian foreign policy was attempting to define a role with regard to the ISIS; this year ... wait, hmmm .... Last year, access to health care, university tuition rates, the state of Canadian democracy, sexual violence against women, were all key issues ... this year .... have any of these been addressed?

This is an instance in which vogue works against the type of sustained analysis and commitment we need to address the real problems that beset Canada. The environment, widening inequality, sexual violence, a dysfunctioning democracy, etc., all remain pressing issues that cannot so easily be dismissed as so much political surge.

Finally, these types of media reports complicate the job of creating a sustained engagement with politics in a twofold sense. First, they make politics about personalities as opposed to policies. Harper or Trudeau or Mulcair might be good, bad, funny, nice, etc., I don't know and, to be honest, I am not certain I deeply care. What I do care about is there policy options and the issues in which they want to focus. In connecting a surge to a person, as if it were a consumer brand, political commentary is misdirected and demeaned. Second, the idea that something can be last year speaks problematically to younger Canadians who are not voting in the sense that it tells them (a) you don't really have to pay attention to policy and politics because it will be here today and gone tomorrow and, in this sense, is about as important as last year's branded t-shirt to your life. And (b) it disguises the fact that some things are worth the effort.  This is something, I think, we need to tell Canadians and particularly younger Canadians: some things are worth the effort; they are worth the sustained attention you have to direct at them; they are worth the time and energy to read about, to study, to consider and to debate.

Media misrepresentations are not the only reason for a dysfunctional Canadian public life. They are, however, part of the picture and one that needs to be corrected if we truly want to make headway on democratic reform and political re-engagement. Unfortunately, I don't sense any desire on the part of media to play a role in these goals. Indeed, the opposite. I sense a lot of effort to avoid responsibility and simply enjoy pithy comments for their own sake.
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