The Evolving Moments of 2016

Barry F. Cooper, Commentary

Most of us have had what Peggy Noonan, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, called a “2016 Moment.” When the experience hits, you realize that something of great significance has already taken place in our common political life. The game has changed. The old political world cannot be restored. That’s when the Moment really gets to you. And you wonder: now what?

In Alberta the event took place last spring when the NDP replaced the PC party after the province’s May 5 election. For many, the Moment did not arrive until sometime last summer.

Then for all of Canada, a Moment arrived with the election of Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. There was some continuity with the pre-Harper era, but not much. Selfies, smiles and personalities, not policy debates, monopolized the attention of the Canadian electorate during the campaign. When, in answer to a serious question, Trudeau answered “because it’s 2015,” many Canadians experienced another Moment.

Now the same is happening in the United States and Europe.

A year ago no one thought Donald Trump would or could be the Republican presidential nominee. Nearly everything covered in the media about his early campaign was critical. He knew nothing about politics; he was a vulgar, sexist New Yorker; he was wasting his own money; his policy positions were utterly preposterous, insulting, unjust or unhinged.

A year ago Jeb Bush was destined to win the Republican nomination and the Americans would have witnessed a Bush-Clinton rematch. The radio-heads were looking forward to it. No one mentioned a little-known Senator from Vermont named Bernie Sanders.

Initially, when it dawned on the opinion-leaders of the establishment media, when gradually they experienced their Moments, they were appalled. You could hear the dislocation and regret in their voices, except, perhaps when they spoke of the pleasantly surprising “Bernie.” They nearly always used only his first name.

Of course, there are commonsense reasons to explain the American Moment – the economy; greedy financial institutions; generational change; immigration; populism; social media; decades of lousy presidents; the one-percenters owning the Republicans; the Clintons and their hacks owning the Democrats; the blank obliviousness of political leaders to the plight of ordinary citizens.

All this American discussion recalled the experience of Albertans by the time the PCs had completed their own metamorphosis into a self-serving, oligarchic political machine.

In short, the events that lead to our collective Moment reflect a decline in our political institutions. In North America it began with the political parties but spread to the courts, to the churches and universities, to the professions and bureaucracies, both public and private.

Something similar has been going on in Europe as well.

Initially the threats to the European Union came from the southern periphery. A Grexit imposed on the Greeks seemed to be a serious option. But now the British are holding a referendum over a voluntary Brexit next June. Today, that is, the threat to the EU is from Eurosceptic parties in northern Europe: Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and Scandinavia, not the south.

Here are a few examples. The Austrian election for president on May 22 is between candidates running for the nationalist Freedom Party and the Greens. It has been 65 years since an Austrian president was not a member of one of the establishment parties. Austria also recently closed the border with Slovenia and introduced controls on the border with Italy. In Germany, the established parties are losing ground to the Alternative for Germany, the AfD, which is rapidly becoming a serious Eurosceptic party.

For many northern Europeans, historically the center of pro-EU sentiments, their Moment arrived not as the result of a terrorist attack or the migrant crisis. Rather they have come to wonder if the EU remains legitimate. “Brussels” has come to symbolize a racket run for its own benefit, not for citizens.

In Alberta the Moment came with the realization that the PCs were gone; for Americans with the unprecedented presidential nomination campaigns of 2016. Now the Europeans are having their Moment when they realize that the EU may collapse.

These 2016 Moments may prove as significant as the last big one: September 11, 2001.

Barry Cooper is Research Chair in Foreign Affairs, Security and International Trade at the Frontier Centre.