On division and negativity

Oct 24, 2019 by

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Like many Canadians, I had an eye on the national election the night of Oct. 21. Election results and commentary provided the background noise throughout the evening, as I had dinner with my son, as I went to the gym, as I watched a bit of soccer and talked with my wife, and as my head eventually hit the pillow. To the surprise of probably no one, the end result of a nasty campaign characterized by polarizing rhetoric, majoring on minors and minoring on majors, name calling, fearmongering, avoiding issues, peddling partial truths or simply outright lying, was a minority Liberal government. This was what many pundits and pollsters predicted and for a change they got things pretty much exactly right.

As I’ve said before, I am no political junkie. I have no allegiance to any particular party. I am very grateful to live in Canada and to have the freedom to vote, but I routinely find political discourse to be frustrating, incoherent, evasive and often little more than an exercise in spin and manipulation in the pursuit/maintenance of power. As exhibit A, I submit to you this bit of post-election commentary from our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who was reflecting on his party’s election-night fortunes in a speech last night:

“From coast to coast to coast tonight, Canadians rejected division and negativity. They rejected cuts and austerity and they voted in favor of a progressive agenda and strong action on climate change.”

From coast to coast to coast tonight, Canadians rejected division and negativity.

Er . . .

This is an interesting analysis of what most commentators describe as something of a chastening result for Trudeau and the Liberals. It’s a victory, yes, technically, but of a rather anemic sort. The Liberal party has gone from a strong majority to a minority government which means they will have to collaborate with other parties to get anything done. Trudeau’s personal popularity has plummeted due to the SNC Lavalin affair and his kicking of Jody Wilson Raybould and Jane Philpott to the curb in the aftermath, as well as the whole brownface scandal. Not such “sunny ways” this time around. More like “overcast and windy ways,” perhaps.

And then there’s the actual content of his remarks. When held up against, well, reality, how do they sound? From coast to coast Canadians rejected division and negativity? Really? This is a curious interpretation of an electoral map that shows a profoundly divided nation. A resurgence of separatism in Quebec, an almost complete shutout of the Liberal party in Alberta and Saskatchewan where 65-70 percent of the vote went Conservative. Sizeable swaths of the popular voted going Green and NDP in protest of Trudeau’s pitiful record on climate change and reconciliation with indigenous people. And, again, all this after a campaign defined by division and negativity, if not from some of the more peripheral leaders, then certainly from Trudeau and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. From which coast to which coast, exactly, is Trudeau discerning a rejection of division and negativity?

Instead, what we get is rather typical political speak. Mask the truth with platitudes and uncritical cheerleading for our team, which can do no wrong, for defeating the other teams, which can do no right. Is it any wonder that people have grown weary and contemptuous of the political process? Is it too much to ask for someone to speak truthfully?

Here’s what Justin Trudeau might have said as he pondered the outcome last night, if he wanted to tell the truth and, indeed, to “reject division and negativity.”

— From coast to coast to coast tonight, Canadians demonstrated that we have some pretty significant differences — differences that are often inflamed by their political leaders, including me. It sounds rather hollow to praise the rejection of division and negativity when my opponents and I have been trafficking in it heavily for the last 40 days.

— From coast to coast to coast tonight, Canadians appear to be a bewilderingly diverse lot. We are a vast nation whose citizens inhabit and reflect remarkably different social locations. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to think that just endlessly repeating sound bites like “diversity is our strength” and “tolerance” and “inclusivity” and “progressive values” will be the best strategy to unite us over the next four years. Perhaps more is required to sensibly govern people who really do think very differently about things (i.e., who are actually diverse, rather than the theoretical diversity that I’m fond of praising in my public remarks).

— From coast to coast to coast tonight, Canadians showed that there are very different sets of priorities from region to region. Some people appear to be quite angry and frustrated. The prairie provinces seem not to like me much at all. I’m sure many people in ridings more typically friendly to the Liberal Party probably voted for us mainly to avoid a Conservative government rather than as a ringing endorsement of my leadership. I’m not sure what to do about all this. Governing turned out to be a lot harder than campaigning.

— From coast to coast to coast tonight, Canadians quite accurately reflected the division and negativity that exists in our country and which I have done very little to address or heal.

Any of these responses (and others) would have been more truthful ways of speaking about what in fact transpired in Canada’s election. But statements such as these would have made a truly lousy post-election speech. I can’t imagine there would have been much sign-waving or cheerleading. The truth isn’t always very marketable. But still, it would be a refreshing change from political business as usual. We’re good and right about everything, everyone else is bad and wrong about everything. Go team! Sigh.

I can’t wait until three to four years from now when we get to do all this again. Democracy is good and all. I know this is the right answer. But sometimes the spectacle of actual democracy in actual action is almost enough to make one long for a benevolent dictator.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge (Alta.) Mennonite Church. He writes at Rumblings.


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