The reversal by the US Supreme Court of abortion rights seemingly bolstered like-minded militants in this country. In the US, there’s a fear an activist court – stacked with dubious candidates by the dubious former president – will take aim at other freedoms. Any such move is likely to spill over here, too.
Abortion rights. Legalized marijuana. Gay marriage. Endless apologies for past sins and grievances, no matter how slight. Canada is no slouch on the progressive front – or at least what passes for trendy progressiveness that ignores the underlying anti-democratic oligarchic trend.
Still, there’s no avoiding the culture wars that grow more virulent on a daily basis, most notably to the south of us.
We’ve not seen anything like the paralysis in the US, where partisanship and irrational tribalism have all but destroyed the notion of a civil society, but we could end up following suit. Canada usually trails the curve when it comes to such things. That’s certainly true of the lessening tolerance for change and the (in some cases justified) scapegoating of “elites” and immigrants, among other targets of growing anger.
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As with dog-whistle politics and resentment elsewhere, we’ve reduced some large, systemic problems to often ill-informed screeds about the likes of abortion, gender rights, immigration, sexuality, race and even governance itself. The very mention of words such as “refugees,” “climate change” or “CBC” are now codes for a subtext that takes valid discussions into the worse forms of us-versus-them identity politics.
Much of the degeneration of civility is intentional, a divide-and-conquer distraction from the real crimes against our collective humanity.
We’ve fallen into the trap here, though Canada hasn’t gone as public with its extremism. In the US, Europe and elsewhere, the political victories of more extreme elements have prompted those even more removed from mainstream thought and civility to become more outspoken about their views.
The rise of such politicians comes from an underlying resentment and anger, some of it related to race, immigration and rapid, visible change. You can say these people are wrong – people are people, why can’t we all just get along? – but that doesn’t make the issue go away. Instead, we’ve seen the rise of the likes of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
Closer to home, Stephen Harper employed the dog whistle in the 2015 election, a model adopted by Jason Kenney, in Alberta, and the people that brought Doug Ford to the head of the Ontario PC party and the premier’s seat.
In Ontario, an uptick in the culture wars came early and often under Ford, who was overt about it on the short-lived show he and his late brother Rob did on the late and unlamented Sun News channel.
Ford’s populist appeal got him elected in 2018, though he later toned down some of the law-and-order rhetoric and anti-elite rants. That, coupled with a lack of competition, led to his re-election this year.
Right now, the populist lens is focused on federal Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre, who appears to be drawing on the US playbook.
We’re not afflicted with the Republican-led political disease, but we’re certainly a long way from the civil discourse of elections past. Deliberation long ago gave way to sound bites and kneejerk reactions. Anger and divisiveness are nothing new, chipping away at decency over many years.
The actions of our politicians follows a general decline in society, not just civility. 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.
Rapid urbanization whereby we no longer rely on family, friends and the broader community – indeed, we may not even know our neighbours – makes us forget just how interdependent we really are. A consumer-based society, pushed by marketing, focuses on individual pleasure. This comes at a cost to the collective ‘us,’ especially when it discussing matters of financing the common good: taxes are seen as taking money away from ‘my’ enjoyment. Increasingly, we’re encouraged to give rein to our natural tendency to look after number one. Couple that with an individual’s capacity to seek immediate gratification, and long-term planning for our collective future becomes even more difficult.
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.
And it’s so-called populists – the ones who prove you can fool many of the people all of the time – who are aiding and abetting the decline.
In being duped, we’re on a downward trajectory.
It’s clear identity politics have replaced the big-tent approach when it comes to seeking political power. This is nothing new, creeping in for decades, but certainly much more central – and visible – in our narcissistic , selfie-obsessed day.
Today, the political calculation is overt – tactics based on whether there are more votes to be won or lost by any particular stance. From gender issues to ongoing racial discrimination – real issues that affect real people – the concerns about identity politics take on more gravitas when all we get is symbolism and not any real change to our failing democracy.
Such is the navel gazing on the left, driven into a 24/7 frenzy following the election of Donald Trump, who relied on dog-whistle politics, longstanding divides and anti-elitism to put him in power.
Here, we can colour ourselves as more progressive, what with our sensitive PM at the helm – he’s divisive in his own right, of course, just not to the extent we seen in the US (that’s probably not possible here or anywhere else).
The causes themselves are, for the most part, worthy of fighting for. There’s peril, however, in breaking into small groups each with an agenda that excludes all others – it’s our way or the highway. It’s an offshoot of the me-first attitude, one in which we put so much stock in an assumed identity to the exclusion of all else, including reason in some cases.
This version of politics, harnessed effectively by the right, is a problem on the left, where there’s a risk of a united-we-stand-divided-we-fall outcome.