Goldy Hyder is president and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Canada.
While Prime Minister Trudeau was at the NATO summit in Brussels earlier this month, he spoke about “the rise of populism, of aggressive nationalism, of polarization in our public discourse in Canada,” trends he linked to the anxiety people feel when they worry about how they will earn a living.
Being Canada’s most famous Star Wars fan, one can imagine that Mr. Trudeau was also thinking about Master Yoda’s warning to the Jedi Council: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
When people worry about maintaining their family homes or putting food on the dinner table, that fear can quickly turn to anger. Anger needs an outlet, which is why agitators on both the left and right are eager to offer potential targets.
If Prime Minister Trudeau is serious about stopping the rise of an extreme right, the best thing he can do is rein in the extreme left. Bring us back to the moderate middle. And, as Yoda instructed, he must either “do or do not, there is no try.”
Canadian elections have never forced voters to choose between hard left and hard right. Most campaigns have been waged, and won, based on which party demonstrates that they best represent the pragmatic political middle ground.
Globally, however, leftists are increasingly becoming strident advocates of extreme progressivism, while the right is lured by the siren song of populism. These dark forces are coming to Canada just in time for the next year’s federal election.
What’s worse is that they mobilize each other. When liberals move left, conservatives move right. Many have described this as the political equivalent of Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
Perhaps the closest Canadian example of this “political physics” was seen in the recent Ontario provincial election. In adopting an agenda further to the left than Andrea Horwath’s NDP, Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals paved a path to victory for Ford Nation and the Progressive Conservatives.
Some have argued that Ford voters were nostalgic for some glorified past. That’s wrong. They’re more concerned about the present and the future. They’re not pining for yesterday – they want to face today’s challenges and prepare for tomorrow.
When governments focus too intensely and too intensively on a hard-left agenda, as some argue the Wynne Liberals did, it leaves them open to the accusation that they’re ignoring economic concerns and vulnerable to populist-style attacks.
To be clear, I’m in no way suggesting that progressive values shouldn’t be championed. As a first generation Canadian and the father of three daughters, I’m a firm believer in both gender equality and a firsthand beneficiary of our country’s diversity.
It is also true that Canadians should not be asked to make a false choice between the economy and our environment. Both are vital. Yet, we must strive to strike a balance between protecting nature and not penalizing hard-working taxpayers.
My point is that a government’s commitment to progressive values can’t be seen to eclipse its commitment to “pocketbook” priorities. Canadian voters need to be reassured that their ways of life and livelihoods aren’t under threat.
When governments commit themselves to lofty ideals, lowly concerns fall through the cracks. This is what frustrates voters, who get exasperated, don’t confide in pollsters and then vent their frustration in the privacy of voting booths.
Prime Minister Trudeau is right: If Canadians are worried about how they and their children will be able to live, work and raise a family in the uncertain economic times we now live in, they’ll become more receptive to extreme solutions.
It is the obligation of both Liberals and Conservatives to avoid the polarizing rhetoric that pushes the political pendulum sharply to the left or right. Our leaders must seek to temper their actions and agendas, and focus on pocketbook issues.
We can’t allow the legitimate fear that many Canadians are feeling to degenerate into anger and hatred, or we will all suffer. Angry Americans voted for Donald Trump. Angry Britons voted for Brexit. Let’s not see what angry Canadians would do.