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By Nathan Gorall, Executive Director of Public Governance, Institute on Governance
How does one cover the effects of Trumpism on governance trends in one article? One can’t, and does not even attempt it. This is the first installment of ongoing IOG commentary on what this phenomenon means for Canada and the world.
If you are not a supporter of the American President Donald Trump, you likely have one of two reactions to the man. You are either horrified by his words, temperament and actions, and his disregard for the decorum and conventions of the office he holds, or you are patiently trusting in the machinery of democracy to continue to grind forward and ultimately lead to a new president in 2020. In this state of resigned Zen, you assume a momentary loss of consciousness by American voters in 2016 that will be rectified in two more short years.
If you are paying attention you probably oscillate between these two groups. You have likely also become aware that for some reason, there is still strong and stubborn support for Trump, and for what he represents. In short, a return to a more forcefulpersonality type among leaders, more interested in supporting the perceived needs of some sub-set of citizens and economic interests rather than the needs or views of all, or even those of a future generation (for example, climate change policy, or lack thereof). This can manifest itself in policies and laws and even in how we speak to each other. It is inherently divisive and laden with values that resonate with some segments of society who feel aggrieved. Moreover, with a wink and nod towards populism, this strain of political thinking tends to eschew expertise and analysis in favour of symbolic gestures.
But this is not an American pathology; these views cross borders, oceans, language, religion and race. The rise of far-right political parties and leaders with an authoritarian bent threaten to upend the presumptive ideal political model: western style liberal democracies. Around the globe, journalists, court systems, and minority rights have come under duress, directly counter to the trends stemming from the conclusions of the Second World War and the Cold War. In many respects, the discussion of the relative merits of political systems was viewed as an archaic conversation a few years ago; yet now it appears as though many citizens of other countries are reopening this debate.
So what does this mean for Canada? In the short term, not much. There are no identifiable extremist parties vying for seats in federal or provincial legislatures. There are no charismatic leaders of national or regional standing who are agitating for a change to the way we conduct our democracies or to provide some groups with special rights over others.
Our country is one of compromise and accommodation. Our conflicts are generally assuaged through the ballot box and our rights through the courts. We hold “peace, order and good government” as a national goal. This reconciliation of conflicting values and interests through an agreed upon democratic framework is the essence of a liberal democracy.
Yet extreme views do exist in Canada. We are not an isolated country unaffected by global trends; there have always been far right political perspectives in Canada (and far left) and yes, populism will continue to be dogmatic grist for the political mill in parts of Canada. As long as Canadians continue to seek redress and compromise through our democratic institutions, these points of view will usually be accommodated and sorted. The system is built to withstand diversity: different people, different perspectives, and different policy preferences. Importantly, our people may not be homogenous but for the most part our underlying political values are; diversity, the rule of law, inclusion, free press, and fairness. These are what are under attack in other places, and should be guarded against here.
So how do we maintain awareness of the risks to our governance in the age of Trump? Unfortunately, quick, easy and permanent fixes are not possible, but here is an idea to ponder: we can make a conscious effort to focus on engagement. For starters, we can commit to being engaged in our communities (i.e. volunteering or even helping a neighbour). Civic engagement makes for better communities, a sense of efficacy within ourselves, and shared ownership in creating better outcomes for fellow citizens.
We can also engage in the political process by demonstrating higher turnout, understanding the views of our candidates, or joining a party. In some nations with fair election laws and challenging social or economic concerns, turnout can be as high as 90%. That is what ‘being engaged’ looks like.
Finally, we should consider meaningful engagement with each other as citizens. At a time technology has made the entire planet flat and accessible, we have become less engaged in exploring ideas and more engaged in positions and labels and slights. Think of this the next time you want to fire off that angry tweet, or find yourself joining in on some form of political tribalism. As the Covey maxim states, ‘seek first to understand before being understood’. Understand that civil dialogue matters. That ideas matter.
So while we patiently (or impatiently) wait for 2020 to roll around, let us practice engagement and in doing so protect our common political values and support for the institutions that matter. As Canadian political commenter David Frum wrote:
“Perhaps the very darkness of the Trump experience can summon the nation to its senses and jolt Americans to a new politics of commonality, a new politics in which the Trump experience is remembered as the end of something bad, and not the beginning of something worse.” (David Frum,Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic)
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