One of the louder complaints on social media about the election campaign that is unwinding itself across the country in viperous fashion is that its nasty tone and hypocritical theatrics are reasons to despair for democracy.
People wonder: How can we hope to be properly governed when the politicians who want to govern us are wholesalers of conveniently packaged demi-truths that are delivered in rote talking points from which the candidates, like short-circuiting robots, are unable to veer?
How are we supposed to decide on a party when revelations of embarrassing personal secrets force us to question our choices? How are we meant to measure the fitness of leaders who won’t tell us who they really are until something unexpectedly penetrates the non-nutritive cereal varnish their parties coat them in?
And how can we not lower our opinion of leaders whose parties, or their political allies, resort to snide personal attacks delivered in social-media memes, and who continue to spread those memes after they have been debunked? How do we stand it when one leader criticizes another for having what amounts to exactly the same position as he or she does?
It’s not just the politicians who have been annoying. How does an overpriced and unnecessary bureaucracy that organizes leaders’ debates manage to reduce the number of English-language debates to one, and then stage that debate as a noisy, overcrowded cocktail party at which five moderators conspire to make six leaders look shallow and dumb by giving them 45 seconds each to explain an entire plank of their platform?
Not that the leaders are eager to answer questions, of course. This is an election campaign in which someone asked about immigration gives an answer about pipelines, or turns a question about federal responsibility into an attack on a provincial politician.
Then there is the blind partisanship that discolours everything. No doubt at this point some readers are penning letters to the editor to defend the honour of the one party – their party – that they believe is the self-evident exception to the unpleasantness described above.
But as bad as all this is – and it’s bad – it’s important to acknowledge the truth about election campaigns, and about Canada.
Federal elections are always this way. They’re condensed periods of heightened emotion and partisanship, during which parties that are essentially centrist in nature have a small amount of time to convince voters that there are stark, existential differences between them and their opponents.
It wouldn’t be much of an election if the leaders confessed the truth – that it won’t in fact be the end of the world, and that Canada won’t stop going forward and you won’t stop getting ahead, just because another party wins the election. Electoral success depends on convincing people that they urgently need to make the effort to vote for your party. “You must choose us! (Although the world won’t end if you don’t)” is not a great campaign slogan.
On the other hand, it does represent a truth about Canadian politics, and about the solid foundations of our society. We can vote our conscience, because we live in an enviable country with a stable system of constitutional government, a strong and independent judiciary, the rule of law and a bias for moderation and common sense.
Our two main federal parties have usually been avatars of that national character. Canadian voters have toggled back and forth between Conservative and Liberal for more than a century, and somehow the country has still managed to progress and grow. Canada is today a place people immigrate to, not from; one that offers the sort of life, liberty and security that people in Hong Kong feel is worth putting their lives at risk to fight for.
We are not trying to go all Love, Actually on you; there are many unhappy endings in Canada that Ottawa and the provinces need to address. And there are at least two prominent issues in this election that feel a bit more life-and-death than usual: climate change; and the dangerous rise of right-wing populism.
But addressing those issues will require cool heads. Keep calm, give thanks for the country we have and don’t let the cynics get to you. The election matters. Your vote matters. And the country we share won’t end if your side doesn’t win.