The federal election campaign was the most recent example of politics falling to the lowest common denominator: what’s in it for me?
All of the major parties were selling some form of short-term benefit for targeted demographics, hoping the pledges would translate into votes, the now well-entrenched policy of bribing voters with their own money … and the cash of future generations.
Politics is no longer about vision or even good governance, what about short-term payoffs. None of the parties plans for any future beyond the next election.
The goal is to appeal to as many people as possible – no matter how untruthful the message out on the hustings – in order to garner enough votes to get or keep power. Each of the parties tried to appear as centrist as possible, the better to seem worthy of the public’s trust. The squishy middle has long been held by the Liberals, who’ve had a mantra of campaigning from the left and governing from the right, at least until the current Trudeau model. The Conservatives made a direct pitch to the wallet, downplaying a long history of fiscal mismanagement and muzzling the unacceptable social-conservative faction. The NDP, most progressive in its aims, tries to appear fiscally balanced to court some soft supporters of the other parties, particularly the Liberals.
In short, it’s all about electability.
It’s the same thing we see in the U.S., particularly among those vying to be the Democratic party nominee for next year’s presidential election. Much of the talk is about finding a candidate that can win the election – polls show most would defeat Donald Trump, though the rubber ain’t hit the road yet – rather than whose policies are best. It’s about getting into office, above all else.
Those who support that pragmatic approach argue that none of the changes proposed in Democratic debates – from universal health care to tax reform – can happen until the party wins the presidency and, realistically, both houses of Congress. “Let’s get in first, then see what we can do” sounds realistic, but it’s always been the start of a downward slide into compromise and settling for little “wins” that turn out to be not much at all.
Incremental steps would be fine if they actually led somewhere other than another set of toned down compromises for the next election cycle, which begins within days of the last one.
The only acceptable topics are those related to short-term thinking, an affliction that’s permeated all facets of our society. Adopting the business model that’s taken hold in the last few decades – today’s stock price, shareholder value and this quarter’s profits above all else – our political system has been shaped by constant lobbying from those who see society through only the lens of finances. It’s what’s made citizens no more than consumers.
Politicians, of course, have a built-in capacity for short-term thinking: the election cycle. They make promises and float policies designed for immediate impact – spend for votes today. That’s problematic in and of itself, as it gives little regard to the idea that actions taken now will have impacts years, sometimes decades down the road.
It’s something of a natural tendency, one exacerbated by the allure of avoiding actual thinking and tough decisions. In that, culpable politicians are aided by a wilfully ignorant and compliant populace. We are naturally impatient and our immediate wants seem most significant. Longer-term issues can seem irrelevant and too far off. We all lead more individualistic lives than in the past which causes a certain amount of self-centredness, so often one’s decisions are made to satisfy oneself. We do not all feel totally sure that pessimistic scenarios far in the future will ever happen, or at least will even happen in our lifetime. Life feels too short to consider things too far ahead – the climate debate certainly falls into that category.
Politics suffers similarly. If decisions are made by politicians for the long term but are felt to adversely affect people in the present then it may affect re-election prospects, and to most politicians staying in power is more important to them than implementing policies for the long term, no matter how good the public benefit.
For politicians, it’s always them ahead of us, and we seem just fine with that, or perhaps we just can’t be bothered to think it through. That’s why they can make and break promises with impunity. Sure, the promises they make come with a price, but 30 years of corporatist lobbying and influence have made taxes a four-letter word, meaning many politicians will try to win votes by promising to spend today while simultaneously pledging to cut taxes. That often means deficits, a situation that’s ideal for politicians intent only on re-election: the bill won’t come due until later, when they’re off living comfortably on gold-plated government pensions.
That kind of thinking is what got us into today’s mess. In the course of a couple of generations, we’ve undone centuries of efforts to create a society based on the common good. Much of the we’re-all-in-this-together ideals that came out of the Great Depression and the Second World War, for instance, has been replaced by relentless individualism.
There’s nothing wrong with looking out for personal interests, but we’re in danger of forgetting that most of the middle-class gains of the postwar years stem from socially-driven ideas. In purely economic terms, the collective efforts are the rising tide that lifted all boats – some more so than others, certainly. Today, however, there’s an element that seems hell-bent on undoing precisely the conditions that allowed for the great prosperity now under attack.
Thanks to decades of concerted effort, many people have bought into a set of diminished expectations about the role of government and, more troublingly, the possibilities of shaping a better society. We’ve had democracy reduced to the occasional trip to the polls. We’ve seen government reduced to managerial functions, where debate is constrained to a few well-worn topics. We’ve seen the economy reduced to fiscal policy – deregulation the order of the day the financial services industry sets the agenda. We’ve seen citizenship dumbed down to passive observation, at best.