Last week, as federal party leaders made their final pitches to Canadians on the campaign trail, national politics reporter Stephen Wentzell spoke to Washington Post columnist David Moscrop, author of Too Dumb for Democracy?, about his observations of a pandemic election that saw misinformation and violence dominating the news cycles.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the violence facing candidates on the campaign trail, what do you make of that?
We saw a glimpse of it in 2019, when Justin Trudeau had to wear a bulletproof vest at an event. Since then, we’ve only seen the fires of hatred, racism, and generalized toxicity become deeply troubling. It comes from somewhere very specific. I mean, it is mobilized and enabled in no small part by political and media elites, who don’t have to bear the consequences of what they brought. We ought to take it very seriously.
Can you talk about how violence on the campaign trail might not only deter people from voting, but also from running for office?
I don’t know if it will deter people from voting or not. But in terms of running for office, I mean, it’s a longstanding problem for many candidates, but especially women [and] racialized folks, that it’s just a wretched life. And not just for oneself, but for their families and so on. And who wants to deal with that? The more that this becomes common, I think the less people are going to want to run, especially those who are most likely to face this stuff. And then often the sorts of people who we hear from the least. I think it’s a major threat to suppressing people’s desire to run, and all the more reasons that we ought to be dealing with it structurally immediately.
In an August op-ed, you called this election unnecessary, but very important. I’m wondering why you chose to characterize it that way.
Well, it’s unnecessary insofar as the government had the confidence of the House of Commons, and could have continued to govern if they so chose. And given that parliament was, at times, yes, a little toxic, but overall functional. Given that we were in the midst of a pandemic, another wave, there was no reason to have an election. We could have just kept governing, could have kept our eye on the prize. But instead, the government, which is the Liberal Party in this case, wanted to try to secure a majority and so they went for it. So we ended up with an election where the stakes were high. The issues that face us from pandemic recovery to climate change to childcare, housing and so forth are important. But we’re adjudicating what ought to be done among the electorate when we could have been sorting it out in the House of Commons and the Senate. At least for another 18 months.
I’m wondering, maybe in a more abstract sense, if you could speak a little bit to how people’s misconceptions of our political system in Canada cause further polarization in political engagement. For example, the party that gets the most votes isn’t necessarily the government who forms.
So we’ve got a couple of problems here. One is that we don’t really explore the whole range of what’s possible in our system. I’m thinking for instance of coalition governments, of which we’ve had one. But we could have had more. Other countries have them regularly. And they worked to varying degrees of success, but they worked just fine in many instances, and they would presumably work just fine here.
Another thing is that political parties will cynically message and make claims about outcomes, because they don’t want to see them. So for instance, the Tories have, and we’ll almost certainly again start talking about how, no matter what the party that wins the most seats on reforming government. That’s just simply not true. They might not like that it works that way, but the fact is, that’s how it works. We may wish to change elements of that, but we should distinguish between what we want to be the case, normatively, and what is actually the case in practice according to the Constitution. It’s parties and their supporters who tend to mislead people because they don’t like the outcomes that they’re facing. It’s up to those of us who know better to come out and say, actually, this is how it works.
What are your thoughts on the media coverage of this election?
There are things that aren’t even on the table that ought to be, for instance structural change. We frame the whole election within the neoliberal consensus, as if there’s no other possibility that could be imagined beyond it. But I will say this, the media is constrained to some extent by what the parties are willing to talk about. And the parties want to talk about the things that they think will help them. And the things that they think will help them form government aren’t necessarily the things that we want to talk about or need to talk about. But we get stuck with it. I think that’s part of the reason why climate change has been talked about quite a bit less than it should. And gun control, while important, has been talked about. relatively more than something that is an existential threat to humankind. The media bears a little bit of responsibility for that content, but I think in large part, it’s the parties who are driving that discourse. I guess, same as it ever was.
What’s your take on Elections Canada’s decision to suspend the Vote on Campus Program?
I found that deeply disappointing. This is critical, especially among young voters, who are less likely to turnout than older voters. They’ve got us sorted out. They have no problem putting voting booths in long-term care homes, where they should be by the way, they shouldn’t have any problem putting them on campuses. It should be normalized. I worry that they’ve undermined a lot of the important work they’ve been doing to mobilize young folks for the last several years. I hope that they’ll correct course and do better going forward. It is of note that they cited the fact that it was the “minority Parliament” situation that prevented them from having the program. But the fact is, you can call a snap election during a majority government. Jean Chrétien did so. They need to be ready to go all the time. That’s their job.
We’ve seen the last few campaigns where candidates are being forced to drop out or withdraw because of some of their history with social media that is controversial. I’m wondering, as we look ahead to more elections in this decade, what are your thoughts on how prevalent our social media pasts are going to be when it comes to pursuing office?
Well, I think we’ve reached the point where they’re as significant as they are going to be, which is significant. But again, we now have wrapped our heads around the fact that social media exists in the world. Now people are growing up with it, and are existing in the world with it, know what it is and where it is and how it works. It’s going to be, I think, fairly routine, during elections, as it has been, for parties to lose candidates because of things they’ve said in the past. I hope that the consequences of that is that people will, in one sense, learn to think about what they say, not to be bullies, not to punch down, but also that we accept that people are people, especially when they’re young, and they’re figuring things out as they go.
We’re going to have to accept that that’s going to be playing out online for a lot of people, because what we don’t want is a bunch of people who start policing every thought and word from day one of their lives and never say anything interesting or important for fear of being controversial. Although we ought to contrast that with people who are simply bullies, toxic, racist, sexist, homophobic, and so on, to say genuine things that ought to be disqualifying from those who say controversial things when they’re just sort of sorting out what’s what. The question is, what do you believe now? What have you learned and who are you as a person and a candidate? Not did you say something stupid when you were 16, as odious as that may be.
Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred stories.
Image: Justin Trudeau/Twitter