Former federal Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole spoke for many Canadians distressed at the increasing nastiness of our political discourse in tweeting a desire to see fewer “profanity-laden Trudeau flags” hoisted across the country in 2023. He was spot on in warning that these banners attacking Prime Minster Justin Trudeau “and the hyperaggressive rhetoric that often accompanies them are slowly normalizing rage and damaging our democracy.” Kudos to him for speaking up.
No, Mr. O’Toole has not switched sides after being ousted as leader in the early days of last winter’s occupation of downtown Ottawa by opponents of vaccine mandates. But he appears to have had a change of heart after learning the hard way about what happens when attempts to feed popular anger for political gain turn against you.
Remember that Mr. O’Toole ran for his party’s leadership in 2021 by promising to “take back Canada.” The slogan implied that conservatives had been dispossessed of their own country by a Liberal government that was pursuing a leftist agenda. It sought to stoke indignation and anger in just enough new and old Tories to win the leadership under rules that gave disproportionate weighting to low-membership ridings.
Mr. O’Toole fatefully went on to discover that, in the social media age, exploiting the anger of a highly mobilized faction of uncompromising voters can quickly come back to bite you at the slightest sign of betrayal. A vocal minority of hardliners shows zero tolerance for nuanced thinkers within their own parties or movements. This rule applies equally on the right and left, which is why our politics have become so polarized.
Mr. O’Toole became a casualty of this polarization just as Pierre Poilievre was discovering its usefulness in advancing his own political ambitions. Mr. Poilievre’s embrace of the Freedom Convoy protesters who descended nearly a year ago on Ottawa, where the F*** Trudeau flags that Mr. O’Toole denounces first proliferated, demonstrated his superior grasp of the dynamics of social media.
American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has attributed Donald Trump’s improbable rise to the U.S. presidency in 2016 to his mastery of these dynamics “in which outrage is the key to virality, stage performance crushes competence, Twitter can overpower all the newspapers in the country, and stories cannot be shared (or at least trusted) across more than a few adjacent fragments – so truth cannot achieve widespread adherence.”
Mr. Poilievre won the 2022 Conservative leadership race to replace Mr. O’Toole by following this same social media playbook. He has continued to follow it since, largely bypassing mainstream media channels to reinforce a message that seeks to intensify feelings of indignation, frustration and anger among Canadians seeking to vent.
His November YouTube video, in which he asks whether “everything is broken in Canada” against the backdrop of “another tent city” in Vancouver, is pure performance art. It is highly manipulative, and representative of the fragmented politics of the social media age, where the art of persuasion has been replaced by efforts to reinforce the confirmation biases of your existing followers.
“I don’t like the flags, and I don’t like the rage,” Mr. Poilievre offered last week in response to Mr. O’Toole’s tweet. “But I think we have to ask ourselves: ‘Why are people so angry?’ And the answer is that they are hurting.”
Perhaps. But perpetuating the myth that they have been dispossessed of their own country by “woke Liberal and NDP governments” does nothing to alleviate their hurt. More likely, it drives them to recede even deeper into their own echo chamber, where they seek and obtain quick and easy validation of their Trudeau-is-evil world view.
None of this absolves Mr. Trudeau of part of the blame for the deteriorating political climate in this country. He has shown unwillingness to reach out to voters outside his “tribe” (the term social psychologists use to describe rigid political constituencies in the social-media age). He has shown contempt for points of view that differ from his own on a host of issues on which reasonable people can disagree, from vaccine mandates to gun control. He feeds off the anger directed at him rather than seeking to abate it.
We are not alone in noticing this.
“In 2023, deepening polarization and regional antagonism in Canada will add to growing political instability on the [North American] continent,” Eurasia Group, the New York-based firm where former Trudeau principal secretary Gerald Butts now serves as vice-chair, warned this week in a report on the top global political risks of 2023. “As the political temperature rises, we will see closer co-ordination between American and Canadian far-right and far-left fringe groups – with an increasing risk of disruptions, protests, civil disobedience, and even violence.”
Canada is not broken, but our politics are. Will any leader dare to fix them in 2023?