Election Fever

The United States has a president elected not only by a majority but on a wave of genuine enthusiasm.  And yet it remains a deeply riven society.  It has, not political differences, but camps of intransigent antagonism, both convinced that nothing less than the soul of the country is at stake.  Its political discourse has become vitriolic and hysterical.

In Canada, by contrast, we have a prime minister who enjoys a tenuous minority and, skilled politician though he may have become, generates little in the way of electricity on the hustings.  The Conservatives have their core support, but there is no such thing as “Harper-mania.”  In the midst of continuing financial turbulence and economic slowdown, the government could fall at any moment.

You might think, then, that we would be the ones to be worried and frightened and at one another’s throats.  But we’re not.  Our differences persist, but they are not so pressing that the country is consumed by them.  Given the opportunity to have an election as soon as we want one – to contest how and by whom the country will be governed – for the moment we’d just as soon not.

No one but the most hawkish partisans actually wants an election.  I daresay that for all their bluster about bringing down the government at the earliest opportunity, after the week they’ve had, that includes Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party.  The party that moved a non-confidence motion on Thursday is surely now painfully aware that had the motion passed and the government fallen, the results would have been catastrophic for them.

Why is there no great appetite to go to the polls?  On the Hill, that has to do with the parties’ respective calculations of their fortunes were an election to occur in the current climate.  But abroad in the land, it’s less cynical.  People don’t want an election because they feel no great need for it.  They don’t believe there is enough at stake to warrant the exercise – and certainly not the very soul of the country.

That, I submit, is a key feature of the current electoral dynamic.  There is no equivalent in Canada to the health care debate currently raging in the U.S.  There is no single issue that speaks to national identity; that makes a lightning rod of the country’s ideas of what it is about and what it values.  Relatively speaking, Canadians may be their typical cranky selves when it comes to their government, but they are not unduly upset.  If there were such a thing as the National Political Panic Index, our ratings would be no more elevated than usual.

Which is really quite remarkable when you think about it.  We are embroiled in a war half-way around the world.  How often does that happen in Canadian history?  And a war, moreover, whose purpose is as murky to most people as its outcome.  We have been fortunate to have been sheltered from the worst of the U.S.-triggered economic crisis, but our portfolios plunged in value too, our pensions were threatened, our university and hospital endowments melted away value along with those of Harvard and Stanford, and the mere fact of economic slowdown in the U.S. has across-the-board consequences for Canadian businesses.  As well, if we are honest with ourselves, we know full well that our own health care system is not working as we would wish.  It’s no good promising cost-free health care if you can’t guarantee access to the necessary treatment when people need it.

And yet despite the fact that we should have the same anxieties over the same issues as the U.S., we remain comparatively calm.  In part, I believe, this is because we have not been presented with competing, divisive, simultaneously polarizing and galvanizing visions of what Canada should be about – and told we have to choose.

It’s true that the NDP, the Bloc and the Greens are relatively clear about where their priorities lie, but none of these parties realistically stands a chance of leading a government.  And the two major combatants, the Conservatives and the Liberals, have thus far failed to articulate anything approaching a full-blown, coherent, unequivocal philosophical platform.

In the case of the Conservatives, this is obviously deliberate.  Were they to give voice to such a programmatic statement of their priorities and intentions, they run the risk of alienating too many voters.  So their strategy, as we know, has been one of “incremental conservatism” – inching the country toward a comfort level with Conservative management of the country, and therefore with Conservative policies.  In the past, this failure to disclose exactly what they would do were they to form a government played into their opponents’ hands, who could then accuse them of being less than truthful with the electorate, of having a “hidden agenda” of right-wing extremism that would only reveal itself were the Conservatives to take power.  But now that the Conservatives are in power – albeit in a minority government – those charges are to a considerable extent blunted.  As Faron Ellis and Peter Woolstencroft titled their chapter in our book, The Canadian Federal Election of 2008: “Stephen Harper and the Conservatives Campaign on their Record.”  Not on some messianic zeal to transform the country, to dismantle the legislative record and institutions of more than a decade of Liberal rule, but on their record of political stewardship.

So, the Conservative unwillingness to state baldly the party’s ideals and long-range intentions may be disingenuous, but it’s perfectly understandable.  More remarkable has been the failure of the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff to provide a big-picture visionary platform intended not only to rally support and define the Conservatives by contrast, but to inspire.  I defy you to tell me in a succinct sentence or two exactly what the current Liberals stand for; and why, beyond their reflexive opposition to a government they see as bullying and arrogant, they are committed to its downfall.  What do the Liberals believe is at stake in the prospect of continued Conservative rule?  And if the Liberals can’t or won’t spell out what is fundamentally at issue in the contest between them and the Conservatives, it’s hardly any wonder that the country on the whole feels no urgent need to put the matter of its future to the vote.

Why the Liberals have been so reluctant to articulate a vision for the country I find quite mystifying.  After all, they chose a leader who is ostensibly a lofty thinker, a political philosopher in the mould of Pierre Trudeau.  That, as far as I can gather, is his sole strength.  It’s certainly not his management experience.  As a university professor and a public intellectual, he’s never run anything in his life, not even an academic department.  And although the publication of his latest book, True Patriot Love, is clearly intended as a reflection on the Canadian character, it does not amount to a manifesto of national direction.

Unless, therefore, an issue emerges that vividly points up divergent potential futures for the country, that reveals the diametric oppositions of the two leading parties, this will be the climate in which the next election will be fought: one in which there is no sense of national emergency, nothing deeply held that will animate the contest, but merely a choice between one set of administrative managers over another.

This sounds dispiriting, and I suppose in a sense it is.  But in a way it is also a backhanded compliment to a peaceable dominion that functions reasonably well, all things considered, and that perceives no real reason to get all worked up.  On this score, we have no call to envy the political temperature of the United States.

Carleton University Political Science Dept.  October 7, 2009