A report by Samara Canada garnered a lot of attention recently as pundits reacted to what has been the elephant in the room for a decade. Another report echoed Samara's conclusions. To no one's surprise, Canadians care less and less about politics. Less of us vote, less of us volunteer for campaigns, and less of us even talk about politics among ourselves. As a young Canadian, political disengagement among my generation has been a constant part of my life. Samara made sure to define political engagement as more than simply posting about it on Facebook or reading political news – it required active involvement in the political community. For Samara, participating in the politics of a democratic state requires action and effort. It does not work without it, which unfortunately is too much to ask many Canadians especially those under the age of 30.
It wasn't always like this, was it?
Democracy came to Canada slowly, albeit peacefully. Jeff McNairn examines the progression of democracy in English Canada in his work, The Capacity to Judge. He traces the rise of “public opinion,” a term that seems natural and well-worn today, but for the Upper Canadians during the first half of the 19th century, “public opinion” represented a crucial new way to govern the state. For the first time, Canadians regularly and publicly commented on political issues rather than leave it to British authorities to decide. The Enlightenment envisioned by philosopher Immanuel Kant had arrived. Though Enlightenment ideas had a long history and many other contributors, it was significant that Canadians had finally realised they had Kant's “freedom to make public use of one's reason in all matters.” The importance of what seems like such a simple liberty to us cannot be overemphasized. To allow individuals to comment on how they were governed, using their own personal reasoning whatever it may be, was the very foundation of democratic government. You could not only express your opinion, but you could try to convince others to agree with you. The power to govern was granted by the people, not by decree or hereditary lines. For the first time, Canadians began to govern themselves.
Reformers called for, and received, “responsible government” in Canada that answered to the people, not a British monarch. Newspapers appeared all over the colony as political debates raged in small town taverns and large, urban centres. Voluntary associations, like masonic lodges, debating societies, agricultural societies, and libraries, all brought different Canadians together to talk about the issues of the day. Often it wasn’t even about politics, but it represented community engagement. Canadians cared about their communities. Eighty percent of adult Upper Canadians could read and write in 1840, so participation for most was easy if they chose to be engaged. Democracy grew, vote by vote, voice by voice. Even the Parliamentary deadlock between the French and English after the Union of Canada in 1840 did not dampen the enthusiasm for Democracy.
So far Canada sounds like a hotbed of political engagement, as long as you were a white male, weren't poor and preferably originated from Britain. While there were still limitations of gender, class and ethnicity, the road to Confederation was vastly smoother than the path of our cousins in the First British North America, the United States. Both nations' adoption of democracy was eagerly desired by its citizens, though Canadians were less likely to express it through gunfire. Likewise, today both of our countries seem to suffer from the same cynicism in regards to democratic government.
It is difficult to pinpoint the weakening pulse of social engagement with democratic government in North America. There are so many anecdotes and too few sources for historians to point to any event, or day, or year and say, “ah, that is where we changed.” Such transformations are slow, hard to detect by those who look for them and barely perceived by those who lived them. So what follows is more about questions than answers.
Perhaps people got sick of the government telling them what to do. Not only did the American hippie counter-culture movement distrust the government that was sending young men to die in Vietnam against their will, but President Nixon's incredible betrayal of public trust in the Watergate scandal a few years later only heightened political cynicism. Canada, meanwhile, saw Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau alienate the West and Quebec, also through an increasingly more powerful government that dictated policies to the people. Even though Trudeau believed his actions were making a better Canada, many disagreed. Seemingly unable to influence the actions in the halls of power, Westerners and Quebecois turned to regionally focused parties that gave hope to some level of representation in Ottawa, as they sought to reinvigorate democratic action. Unfortunately, many more probably turned away from politics altogether.
Perhaps it was the new way of doing politics. In the early 60s, Prime Minister Lester Pearson brought in an advertising company to sell the Liberal brand to Canadians. It had taken a beating since repeatedly coming up against the Conservative leader, the populist charismatic, everyman John D. Diefenbaker. In the late 50s and early 60s, the Liberal party had little to celebrate. Diefenbaker had turned a Conservative minority into one of the largest Parliamentary majorities in Canadian history. Pearson decided to copy the success of the young John F. Kennedy, the Democrat who won the 1960 Presidential election against his Republican opponent and political veteran Richard Nixon. His slick ads that predominantly focused on Kennedy's handsome face created a Kennedy brand –not necessarily based on policies, but on likability. The famous television debate with a sweaty Nixon under the TV lights while Kennedy appeared calm and collected swung the election to the Democrat's favour, despite the fact that many listening over radio believed Nixon had performed better. Pearson, knowing that many Canadians felt more comfortable with Diefenbaker, had to build his own brand. Public opinion then cared less about rational expression of positions and increasingly about the popularity contest between political leaders. Pearson went on to win the election of 1963. Brand building in Canadian politics would be perfected within a decade by his successor, Pierre Trudeau. “Trudeaumania” swept the nation and the Liberals won their first majority in a decade. Though, as I mentioned, many would be disenchanted with the suave politician soon enough.
So as voters have become disengaged from politics, so have our politicians. The one-way interaction of television allowed politicians to shape public opinion without engaging citizens. The lessons of past elections is that less substance is less easily attacked, or at least more easily defended. The more politicians have separated themselves from the political process and won elections, the more voters have disengaged with politics, and the more disengaged politicians are successful. Arguably, this cycle has been occurring for a long time, but certainly it has worsened since the 1960s as political cynicism became ingrained in our political culture. Voter turnout dropped federally, provincially and municipally – fewer and fewer Canadians trusted politicians or believed they could make a difference. Without that confidence, public opinion lost its power.
The future looks brighter though, as the age of television politics draws to a close.
In article touched on this issue in, of all places, The Canadian Parliamentary Review. The Hon. Monte Solberg, a former Reform-Alliance-Conservative MP and Cabinet Minister, wrote about social media and the political process. He argues that the content of the message, rather than the medium, is more important for the political process. The politician must decide between “cheap input” and “authentic input.” Cheap input, which consists of “methods of communicating with very low barriers to entry” such as form letters, mass emails, twitter, petitions, etc., should be ignored in favoured of thoughtful and heartfelt letters or emails. Regardless of the medium, he concludes, the message and its content will always be more important. Like Samara Canada, Solberg believed that political engagement has a standard which must be reached to be influential. Increased interaction with public opinion is not necessarily an improved interaction
What does the Canadian disengaged with politics today learn from this article?
Today, like Solberg inadvertently suggests, we are on the precipice of another transformation. The internet and computers offer the possibility of citizens becoming involved in democracy again. Samara Canada and Solberg are wrong to dismiss the “cheap input” of Facebook and Twitter. Solberg favours genuine letters as a sign of a constituent carrying through on their thoughts at election time, which is a fair approach given the concerns of a politician. What's more important though is that someone engaged in the political process even in a minimal way.
What would Kant make of the internet? Would he praise the freedom to use one's reason on Facebook and Twitter, even if it's in 140 characters? Would the cacophony of voices that online interactions create outweigh the value of that freedom? I don't think so. Like the taverns of Upper Canada that filled with discussions of the day, not necessarily political ones, the internet represents a new genesis for public opinion. It is a new place for people to interact with one another and with their political representatives. It is easy to forget that voting and volunteering for politics is the final step of political engagement. Before that comes the everyday interaction of conversations. How often do you discuss traffic congestion, or the food at the farmer's market, or how nice the new flowers and trees are outside of city hall? These are all political issues which government policies affect. The “cheap input” of the internet represents real conversations, that for some translate into real action. For politicians and citizens alike, these interactions are what first made public opinion into the governing force of the democratic state.