How Did Election Campaigns Come to Be So Meaningless?

October 8, 2019 Updated: October 8, 2019

There seems to be general agreement that this year’s Canadian election is a dud. Shrill, empty, with no apparent movement in the polls from the overly scripted campaigns and candidates. Why then is it so shrill? Who thinks the tone is appropriate or helpful?

Now to some extent the answer is that politics is always shrill and always has been. We see nothing today to rival the rhetoric of the 1820s, in fact, or indeed of the late Roman Republic. As with many things in life, there’s a balancing act here between wanting to do better and respecting the limits of the possible. (It seems to me that, again as with many things, the only way to avoid sinking continuously downward is to strive continuously upward.) And when it comes to wanting to do better, one thing that springs to mind is the remark attributed to Henry Kissinger that academic politics is so vicious because the stakes are so small.

In fact this observation, sometimes known as Sayre’s Law after U.S. political scientist Wallace Stanley Sayre of Columbia University, has been attributed in various forms to all sorts of people including Woodrow Wilson. Probably because it’s not a novel phenomenon. And it’s worth considering that when people are fighting over really big things, it makes sense either to go all in because winner takes all, or to try to observe rules and boundaries for the same reason. Hence, in the Second World War, protections of prisoners of war were generally observed on the Western Front on the second ground and ignored on the Eastern on the first.

It can go either way. But if you’re really fighting to the death, there’s not much point in making unpleasant remarks unless they are also very funny. (For instance, when Philip of Macedon asked the Spartans menacingly whether they wanted him to come into their lands as a friend or enemy and they responded “Neither.”) What good can a dumb cheap shot do? Except earn the disrespect of your allies, an even more unpleasant death than was already planned from your enemy, and ridicule from posterity? If you’re concerned about not fighting to the death when it could happen, it makes sense to maintain a certain level of civility. But when nobody can lose or gain much, there is immense scope for pettiness.

Which we are certainly seeing in this election, with people accusing one another of everything from sexism to fascism to planning to wreck the environment. “Andrew Scheer promises American-style gun laws for Canada,” the Liberals hiss. But they know he didn’t, and he knows they know. And when it’s over, they’ll all gather in the House of Commons for the ritual mudstorm of question period then drinks together afterward. Because nothing is at stake.

Canada is not the sort of country where losers get their heads stuck on a post, their house demolished, or even get their taxes audited repeatedly. And when it comes to major policy issues, from deficits (all against in theory, in favour in practice) to abortion (all totally pro-choice or unwilling to utter the word) to defence (nobody planning to spend any money) to climate change (all against it, nobody planning to impose measures that sting voters’ wallets) to tax loopholes for everyone capable of voting (all in favour), there’s just no significant difference between the parties.

These days their idea of a blockbuster proposal is free admission to national museums. So it doesn’t matter to voters or really even to politicians who wins. Or what outlandish things you say, because nobody even gets sued.

Periodically someone gets dumped as a candidate, like the Conservative who said rude things about gays in 2016 or the Green Party candidate who said rude things about abortion in 2014. Or retained as a candidate, like the Liberal who said rude things about women in 2013. But so what? Life goes on. It’s not like losing the power struggle currently going on in Hong Kong.

I think to some degree Canadian politics is so shrill these days because the alternative for participants is to recognize that they are wasting their time, even their lives, on things that don’t matter. (And journalists cover it solemnly for the same reason.) There’s a line from G.K. Chesterton’s “The Napoleon of Notting Hill” that the only really good news any human being can hear is that their life has not been wasted. And so everyone lashes themselves into a frenzy over the dreadful consequences if their hateful adversaries win, and the spectacular benefits if they themselves do. And it gets louder and meaner to drown out the little inner voice saying “Oh come off it, not even you believe it.)

If Canadians really were debating substantial issues, or rather if their politicians were, because in our private lives we are not as silly as we seem during campaigns, they could afford to bring a certain gravity to the table. Indeed, they might feel obliged to because of the weighty responsibility of making actual decisions about immigration and culture, about taxation and prosperity, about defence and security, or about the sacredness of life or its fundamental pointlessness. And for fear that the passions aroused by debating and deciding important matters could carry on into the post-election period.

As is, it’s a Punch and Judy show where everybody knows they’re just hand puppets and sound effects. So they hammer away relentlessly while voters wonder in dismay whoever thought Punch and Judy was good.

John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, commentator-at-large with News Talk Radio 580 CFRA in Ottawa, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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