How Ambivalence Changes the World for the Worse

Commentary, Culture Wars, Jack Buckby

In 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, British journalist and inventor Geoffrey Pyke embarked on a remarkable effort to prevent conflict by exposing the German people’s desire to avoid war. 

After recruiting 10 students to work with him on a poll of German citizens, he sent his team across the country to perform interviews. His results showed that most Germans were not so supportive of the Nazis that they would support war. 

While Adolf Hitler may never have seen the results of these polls, it’s unlikely that the German dictator was unaware of what the people thought. That same year, Europe was plunged into a bloody conflict, despite the fact that the German people opposed it. 

Ambivalence led a country to war, even when the country didn’t want it. Today, ambivalence has led Western voters to not only accept authoritarianism, but to turn out and vote for it. In September, Canadians re-elected the prime minister, despite more than a year of lockdowns, mask mandates and a promise to fundamentally reshape society and the economy. To be clear, this wasn’t just a vote for a party aiming to prevent the spread of a deadly new virus, but for the total reimagining of what it means to be a Canadian in the 21st century.

In November 2020, the American people turned out and voted for former vice-president Joe Biden, who, like the Canadian Liberals, promised to reshape the economy, “Build Back Better” and discriminate in the name of achieving “equity.” 

Ambivalence to national politics, even during the COVID-19 crisis and a bitter culture war, meant voters turned out and voted along traditional party lines. They assumed that liberal leaders would stay true to their liberal roots and deliver a return to normality. This isn’t shocking. While it’s not difficult to predict that a politician may not stay entirely true to all of their promises, for many it seems unlikely that political leaders would say one thing and do the opposite. 

During his 2020 campaign, Biden promised to “shut down the virus, not the country.” He and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted that mandating the COVID-19 vaccine was unacceptable.

“We cannot require someone to be vaccinated. That’s just not what we can do, it is a matter of privacy to know who is or who isn’t,” Pelosi said, last April 29. Now, she and her party have overseen the introduction of multiple vaccine mandates that have forced many of the nation’s key workers out of their jobs. 

And while the Canadian prime minister may have managed to avoid setting a similar trap for himself on vaccine mandates, the fact that he went ahead and announced that unvaccinated federal employees would be placed on unpaid leave is sign enough that Canada’s liberals have abandoned their traditional belief in the rights of Canadian workers.

2020 and 2021 have seen some of the biggest U-turns in modern politics, and some of the most authoritarian measures seen since the days of the Second World War. Only now, people are not being told to turn out their lights at night to prevent another Blitzkrieg over London—they’re being told to comply with violating rules in the name of preventing the spread of a virus that most people are already vaccinated against or have natural immunity to. 

Even if this virus is harmful and has tragically killed an untold number of people, there comes a point when society must move on.

Remarkably, these authoritarian policies are supported by a significant portion of the overall population, and have become so normalized that a combination of ignorance and ambivalence means they can be implemented with relative ease. There may be protest and outrage, but those expressing genuine concern about these civil rights violations don’t have much power to do anything about it, while the rest of the public turns a blind eye and accepts it as the new normal. 

This is the power of ambivalence. It once led Europe to war, it led the world into lockdown and it is opening the door for extremists in our institutions. From woke teachers telling children to be ashamed of their race or that gender is a social construct, to government ministers forcing key workers out of their jobs, it’s clear that when people either don’t pay attention or remain ambivalent to radicalism, it creeps into their lives anyway. 

In Francis Hutchins’ 1967 book, The Illusion of Permanence, he described how the fall of British imperialism in India came as a surprise to many. Today, the ambivalent among us—if they are even aware of what woke progressives are doing—appear to have fallen into a similar trap. How we live and what we know today won’t be the same forever, and remaining ambivalent to radicals on the assumption that their radicalism will not succeed is precisely what is required for it to succeed.


Jack Buckby is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels.