In the Stampede to the Middle, Political Vision is Trampled

Worth A Look, Think Tanks, Frontier Centre

In the age of the Internet — with new galaxies available at the touch of a key — the public debate shrinks and the political imagination narrows.

More awareness spawns more detachment. Election turnouts dwindle, the people grow more cynical, the political leaders — with new springs of knowledge at their disposal — have only old habits and hackneyed thought to show them.

Welcome to what the McLuhan effect has produced in this country: a decade of dross.

It’s as if the times haven’t changed, as if the country was an echo chamber, as if we’re as dull as our reputation once had it.

From Jean Chrétien, few expected more than the raw-boned pragmatism he gave us. Perhaps the best illustration came at the dawn of the new millennium. It was suggested to him that here was his golden opportunity, like Sir Wilfrid Laurier a century before, to chart the nation’s course, to give Canada a sense of mission. The little guy wasn’t interested. He shrugged and said the new millennium was no big deal and Canadians didn’t really care. They’d just go out and have a couple of beers and maybe go to a show.

For a time, it looked like his friend to the south, Bill Clinton, could stir the imagination. His was a beautiful mind, kaleidoscopic, bottomless, an outsized marvel that pirouetted amid the grey zones and pondered new frontiers. Surrendering to smaller appetites, he never found them.

Paul Martin’s zest and curiosity appeared to hold some promise for his lighting up the firmament with a new idealism. But then came that night in November ’03 when, finally taking the reins of power, he reached for inspiration and out came one of the great clunkers of our time — “The politics of achievement.”

This from a student of Ted Sorensen, who scripted many John F. Kennedy speeches. It was a harbinger of what was to come.

Old politics. Old ideas.

The others at the top are similarly stale. Jack Layton stays out of trouble by mainly sticking to the standard NDP script. The media won’t cover the Green Party. Conservative Stephen Harper sounds like he’s not quite sure he likes the country. His caucus members will tell you he needs a vision. Despite his wealth of intelligence, he can’t seem to articulate one.

Everyone trends toward the vague middle. Writing in Walrus Magazine, public-opinion expert Allan Gregg points to the stifling effect of the everyday polling process as one of the culprits. New ideas are killed the moment they arrive, by strategists citing a bank of surveys. Can’t do it. Too risky.

Everyday polling means that everything is based on old opinion, not the possibility of minds changing, which requires leadership courage and leadership skills.

Polling chill contributes to the narrowing of debate. So does, across a wide range of issues, political correctness. It’s not advised, for example, to talk of the effects — ask Western Canadian politicians — of Quebec’s four-decade domination of the power structure in Ottawa. A subject of broad ramifications, it remains unexplored. The francophones are a minority. Leave it be.

Likewise, no one will open up the file on alleged native peoples’ spending abuses. Evidence suggests the Liberals may have scandals on their hands worse than sponsorship. But hey, the native peoples are a minority. Leave it be.

Because of 9/11, as Ambassador Frank McKenna recently stated, the United States has changed, probably forever. It has become — for understandable reasons, you might say — more paranoid about security, manic on military spending and far less respectful of human rights. The consequences for Canada could be dramatic. But the discussion here is limited and guarded. To speak out against the trends in the U.S. is to risk being tarred as anti-American.

Let’s hope we’ve moved beyond the stage in which a cabinet minister could be pilloried — censored as if he lived in a former Soviet satellite — for being honest enough to say, as Herb Dhaliwal did, that George W. Bush was not acting like a statesman in his rush to war in Iraq. But a chill remains. Our press, with the odd exception, remains as tepid in its coverage of some of the Bush administration outrages as the American media.

It’s all in keeping with the bar-lowering trend line. At a time when technologies have opened new paths, when the public is more educated than ever, when the political dialogue should be spilling over with new thoughts and new destinations, there are none to behold.