My colleagues on The Globe and Mail’s editorial board have lately issued a call for a return of that vanishing breed, the serious political leader: one who “tells voters that governing involves hard choices, that there are no simple answers to complex questions, and that an endlessly repeated hashtag isn’t a policy,” etc. etc. etc. After all, they wrote, “this country has problems that need the attention of responsible leaders.”
With all due respect to the board, that rather understates the case. This country has problems? Try: We are entering a period of profound economic, global and domestic instability, of a kind we have not experienced in decades. The next few years – hell, the next few weeks – could well see everything from an international debt crisis to the use of nuclear weapons in Europe to the collapse of civic order in the United States, with a constitutional crisis here at home for good measure.
The multiple intersecting crises are the more unsettling for having followed a period of prolonged stability on all fronts. For 30 years, much of the developed world has enjoyed low and stable inflation and – the financial crisis aside – the relative economic stability that goes with it: the Great Moderation, as it was called.
This has no precedent in the history of the world. The average price level may not have changed much over the course of the 19th century, when the gold standard was in force, but at the cost of massive swings in employment and output from year to year. Employment and output were relatively stable in the first decades after the Second World War, but at the cost of accelerating inflation. Only in the past three decades have we enjoyed stability in both prices and output, short-run and long.
Likewise, the nearly 80 years since the end of the war during which the developed world has been at peace – in the sense that the great powers did not go to war with one another – is also a record. The Cold War may have been fought in the shadow of a potential nuclear holocaust, with periodic crises that tested the limits of brinkmanship, but it had also a certain stability, with rational actors on both sides, pursuing predictable courses based on well-understood agendas.
And for more than 150 years, since the end of the Civil War, the world has been able to count on the United States as the foundation of both the economic and the security order: stable, solid, democratic, and internationally engaged. Canada, in particular, is premised upon it. We exist as a transcontinental and Arctic nation, with fewer than four people for every square kilometre of the improbably vast territory we claim, because of our proximity to the United States: because we do not have to protect ourselves from them, and because we know they will protect us from anyone else.
Last, for at least the past 20 years, we have not had to fear a domestic unity crisis – since the passage of the Clarity Act, which in the guise of spelling out how secession could be achieved lawfully made clear that it could not be achieved except unlawfully, that is by a massively destabilizing rupture in the constitutional order. Not coincidentally, support for separation in Quebec went into a sustained nosedive from which it has yet to recover.
None of these can be said with any confidence to be likely to remain.
The postpandemic spike in prices across the developed world may well mark the end of the Great Moderation, the surge in inflation likely requiring a deep and lasting recession to extinguish, with all of the risk that poses for those countries most heavily in debt, public or private – Canada foremost among them.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, has until now engaged the NATO powers by proxy, through their role as suppliers of military hardware to Ukraine. It seems increasingly likely to draw them into the conflict directly, despite or rather because of Ukraine’s recent successes: If Russia responds with a tactical nuclear strike on Ukraine, it will require some proportionate response from NATO, with all of the potential for further escalation that implies.
As it is, the war – and related disruptions to commodity prices and supply chains – has added to the short-run instability in the world economy; in the long run, so far as it leads West and East to further decouple from one another, its impact may be even more profound.
The United States looks more and more ripe for some form of political violence, authoritarian repression, or both. Like Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump looks to be cornered but, like Mr. Putin, seems likely to escalate in response: He is already hinting heavily to his supporters that they should respond with violence should he be indicted, as now seems probable.
Republican candidates for both state and federal office, not content with parroting the Trumpian lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him, are lining up to do the same in their own elections, possibly as soon as the November midterms. The infrastructure for a coup attempt in 2024, along the lines laid down in 2020 – refusal to accept the election results, Republican states proposing false slates of electors, and the rest – is being steadily put in place.
And in Canada, the Legault government in Quebec, which looks headed for re-election, has already passed legislation, in the form of Bills 21 and 96, that amounts to a direct frontal assault on the Constitution. Not only do the two bills impose unprecedented restrictions on the rights of minorities – conceded by the blanket invocation of the notwithstanding clause in both cases – but Bill 96 purports to give Quebec powers it does not possess, either to unilaterally amend the Constitution or to regulate in areas of federal jurisdiction.
Moreover, François Legault does not seem content to stop there. He has signalled his intent to demand still more powers in the areas of immigration, language and culture. It is no longer possible to say that he is even a lukewarm federalist. He is, it is increasingly clear, an étapiste, whose aim is to detach Quebec from Canada in stages, rather than at one go.
He is now joined by political forces in Alberta. Should Danielle Smith be elected leader of the governing United Conservative Party, and should she follow through on her plans to pass the flagrantly unconstitutional Alberta Sovereignty Act, the country could soon find itself fighting on two fronts to preserve the Canadian constitutional order from separatism and lawlessness. That, too, is unprecedented.
Those are the immediate crises before us; they are not certain to come, one or all, but they are far from improbable. Meanwhile, there are those ongoing, relatively slower-burning crises to contend with: the continuing collapse, after many decades of muddling through, of the Canadian health care system; the related fiscal and economic stresses associated with population aging; oh yes, and the heating of the planet.
These are, in short, serious times – the most serious that I can recall in my lifetime. They are times that do not just recommend a return to serious politics, but urgently require it.