What has happened to this country? Stephen Harper seems able to carry out the most outrageous acts, week in, week out, and there seems to be barely any consequence. From breaking the law and lying about it (dismissing charges laid on the election financing case as all about accounting), to publicly condoning (and almost certainly ordering) Bev Oda’s repeated lies, to the infantile ejection of the media from an event organized by the Indian High Commission so they wouldn’t be able to cover remarks made by Michael Ignatieff — the list is endless and growing.
These morsels are, of course, just the appetizers of the meal from hell that Harper has been dishing up for five years. It gets depressing listing them all — over and over again — hoping that at some point there will be a critical mass of vicious, autocratic, hyper-partisan actions that will finally create the outrage which will liberate us from this man and his un-government.
But, of course, that may be just the point. Harper wants us all depressed, disengaged and running, screaming, from politics. He is counting on the denigration of the political culture to secure a majority in the next (ugh) election. Harper — whether by design or just the serendipitous result of his malignant narcissism — has made politics so profoundly offensive and almost unbearable, that perhaps the only people who really want to get involved are the pre-pubescent junk yard dogs he has hired throughout his government to bully and insult and attack anything that moves. I wonder, sometimes, if they aren’t ordered to inject themselves with speed every morning — like the U.S.-sponsored Contras in Nicaragua used to do (it made them even more nuts than they already were — and willing to do anything).
Have people adjusted to this new normal in Canadian national politics to the extent that they don’t even recognize the newest outrage? Do they — and I realize that most Canadians still do reject this government and its mean little dictator — simply ratchet down their expectations of what kind of behaviour is to be expected of politicians? Is there a limit to bad political news beyond which people experience a numbing effect — like soldiers and other experience during war time? I know friends of mine who were political junkies now avoid the news and political conversations.
One of the successes of the political right over the past 25 years has been its lowering of people’s expectations of what is possible — that is, what is possible from government. Campaigns focused on the deficit in the early 1990s, huge cuts to social spending by Paul Martin as finance minister, the relentless propaganda that we can’t afford anything any more (despite the fact that we are twice as wealthy per capital today as when Medicare was established) and the general demonization of government and government employees, has had a terrible impact on people’s trust in government. And of course when you cut funding to services they do inevitably deteriorate and further convince people that government just can’t do it any more.
It’s only a matter of time that those lowered expectations begin to erode participation in elections — the process that creates government. If you believe that government won’t deliver the goods no matter who you vote for it could get harder and harder to convince yourself that it’s worth voting. Then add in Harper’s importation of the hateful political tactics of the U.S. Republican Party and you have what may be, for many people, the last straw.
But if Canadians succumb to this political malaise they will be engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Harper gets a majority because another five per cent of Canadians stay away from the polls (a disproportionate number of absentees are Liberal and NDP voters) we really will have a situation in which government will not deliver — because Harper will dismantle much of what is left.
We can’t let this happen. In depth values research demonstrates that Canadians’ values — in contrast to their expectations — have changed little since the late 1970s. They still desire a government that will tackle climate change, provide economic security, help their kids go to university and end child poverty. They think that government should do these things — and a clear majority even say they would pay more taxes if government pledged to do them. But for good reason they look at the political landscape and see little hope that government will speak for them or their community.
Perhaps if people realized that their distaste for politics is no accident but the result of a 25 year campaign to lower their expectations, and their democratic participation, they would not give up so easily. I hope that is the case as we get closer to a possible election. As people again try to apply strategic voting in close ridings, it seems to me that one strategy that we haven’t pushed at all is simply this: don’t even think about not voting.
While Canadian politics may seem at its lowest ebb possible things can change anywhere with amazing speed (think Egypt). But if we abandon politics and the civil society foundation it rests on, we are contributing to our own demise. Remember, Harper is like a mild depression: you think it’s going to last forever. But it doesn’t — eventually it goes away.