Where has all the vision gone in Canadian politics?
Is there nothing left that might appeal to the heart, to voters as citizens instead of just taxpayers, to collective endeavours, to something, anything beyond individual self-interest?
All three major parties are focused on what Liberals call the "anxieties of the middle class." Conservatives and New Democrats use different phrases, but their campaigns circle around these anxieties, and little else.
The poor among us have all but disappeared from political sight. Indeed, so forgotten are they that the Liberals propose to raise taxes on the wealthy, not to help the least advantaged, but the middle class, while the NDP proposes to raise taxes on no one and the Conservatives pledge to keep on cutting taxes.
There are anxieties among middle-class individuals and families – about the security of their jobs, their children's education, whether tomorrow will be better than today. People quite legitimately worry about their incomes and their costs (including taxes) and the difficulty of balancing them. These preoccupations always figure in election campaigns and in political debate generally.
On the other hand, when international survey firms test for the contentedness of countries, Canadians rank near the top on the happiness index. Are we, therefore, as anxiety-ridden as certain political discourse suggests – and not only about our incomes, but about crime lurking around every corner, murderers on the loose, terrorists preparing to wreak havoc among us?
You can be poor and happy, or rich and sad. No direct correlation exists between income and happiness. Still, as a country by comparative international standards, Canada is remarkably well-off.
Yet, somehow at least some generosity of spirit, which Canadians like to tell themselves that they possess, has drained out of the country, and it has almost entirely gone from our politics. The idea of trying to convey large ideas, articulate ennobling collective efforts, appeal to the "better angels" of the Canadian spirit, excite the mind instead of tap the pocketbook, develop some national goals for, say, a decade from now – all this is foreign to contemporary discourse.
Perhaps this attitude reflects a widespread distrust of government and its capacity to undertake big projects and to do them well. If collective enterprises require more public money, as they might, then obviously politicians, their wet fingers in the wind, detect no appetite for anything beyond the ordinary.
Perhaps this reflects a conservative (in the older sense of the term) skepticism of anything bold and elaborate, because conservatives believe big schemes overpromise and underdeliver, and always fail to account for the imperfectability of humankind. Perhaps after a decade in Canada of deadening political discourse from the national government, where the Prime Minister's staff advertises his addresses not as "speeches" but as "announcements," we have lost the habit of expecting anything better.
Politicians know us as never before, courtesy of their parties' "analytics:" detailed polling data, micro-understanding of small slices of the electorate, vast (especially the Conservatives') computer banks of who voted and why. The more granular the understanding of who votes for a party, the less interested the party in most of those who don't.
Mobilizing the core, and identifying micro-elements of other parts of the electorate, is how parties now win elections. The Conservatives have practised this kind of politics in the Stephen Harper years better than their adversaries. Conservatives need only 40 per cent of the electorate to win a majority and they don't much care about the other 60 per cent.
If parties target their appeal only to slices of the electorate, why bother with appeals to a broader collective? Big-tent parties are so yesterday now, and with their disappearance maybe has gone big-idea politics.
With their disappearance have vanished value-laden words of public discourse such as justice, compassion and fairness. Voters are now described as "taxpayers," which they are in part, not as "citizens," a description that means responsibilities and obligations and rights as part of the collectivity.
So we are in the early stages of a campaign centred on the "anxieties of the middle class" and which party and leader can best frame a message to these taxpayers whom all the parties assume from their polling are interested in their pocketbooks and not much else. Who is to say the parties are wrong?