Throwback Thursdays are where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.
It is election time in Canada. For Americans, you might be surprised: It is always election time in the USA, so a little election in Canada is barely worthy of attention compared with the globe’s newest soap opera, “The White House.” People in Britain and Israel are embroiled in your own series of catastrophic electoral and constitutional crises. Good luck with that. The rest of us are waiting with Brexcitement to see what happens.
Still, here we are in Canada, a country small in population but with the potential to lead the world in response to climate change, global migration, and innovation–if we chose to do so. The electoral fortunes are shifting as I speak and we are almost certainly headed toward a minority government or coalition of some sort. The data in this piece is a little dated as I am talking about the 2015 election. But the principle remains: Most Canadians will be unhappy with the result next Monday.
This disappointment is not unique to us. In the 2017 UK election, the Conservatives secured an uneasy minority government that has chosen to rule as if it was still a majority government–partly because its opponents can’t decide which kind of failure they want Boris Johnson (and Theresa May) to experience. In the 2016 US election, not only did President Trump fail to receive a popular vote mandate from the majority of Americans, he did not even get the highest vote count. 46.1% of Americans voted for Trump, and Trump holds the record for the highest vote deficit in history. And it isn’t even close. So while I am talking about Canadian realities, most of my readers are American or British. Though my thinking has developed on point #3 (see this post for an example), I think the lessons are more universal, and I’ve tried to include some UK and US realities in my comments.
Here’s to disappointment!
Monday, October 19, 2015, Canada
After the longest campaign in memory, Canadians are lining up to vote today. Even though I am discouraged by the media’s election coverage and fed up with the level of conversation by the parties, I will probably be up late tonight arguing with friends at the pub and trolling TV stations for the best coverage while I tweet out the madness.
The truth is, despite my growing despair, I love politics. I love the race, the hunt for precise, simple ideas, and the hope that someone will emerge with a clear vision of what we could be as a country.
Yet, there are three clear reasons most of us will be disappointed by the election results. The first has to do with the system, the second has to do with us as people, and the third is because of our consumer culture.
The first reason is that most people will vote for a party that did not win. This happens in parliamentary elections where you vote for a local person who is part of a party, and can happen in America’s electoral college system. At the end of the night, the party with the most local people elected (seats) win. If they have a majority of seats, they form government. In a minority there can be coalitions–formal and informal partnerships between parties where they agree to support each in rule, or rule together. There have been significant coalition governments in Israel, Japan, the UK, and most of Europe. We have not seen a coalition to form government in Canada since confederation, though there have been cooperative agreements (and there is talk of a 2019 coalition on the left).
This First-Past-the-Post system creates huge disparities in voting powers. In the UK it only took 36.9% of votes to help the Conservatives form a majority government in 2015. Almost 2/3rds of Brits were disappointed in the 2015 election. Moreover, the UK is divided by region. Though the cities split between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, other regions voted in blocs. The strongest was the Scottish National Party who got nearly twice as many representatives in parliament than their popular count would warrant.
In Canada, we had England’s old two-party system until WWI. Like the US, the elections were usually 50/50 with a few percentage points going either way. Beginning in WWI, however, we had bloc parties and special interest parties—usually in French-speaking Quebec, but also in the prairies of Western Canada. After WWII, a third party emerged as a significant voice and is now the official opposition (now the NDP—similar to Labour in the UK).
Since 1960, only once have the majority of Canadians voted for the party that won. This was Brian Malroney’s Conservative win in 1984, and he got a smidgen more than 50% of the vote. In the last 55 years, most Canadians felt their view wasn’t represented in Ottawa (our capital is not Toronto!). Only once since WWI has a Canadian Prime Minister received more than 51% of the party vote: William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1940, who led Canada into the second war.
I lived in Alberta for five years when conservative parties were divided. The sense of dissatisfaction with the government in Ottawa was palpable. Even now (in 2015), with a conservative government, Albertans have voted a provincial NDP majority—largely because of dissatisfaction. That sense of discouragement and despair is driving the vote in my region of Atlantic Canada, which remains the poorest region of the country.
The US has had the majority of votes disappointed 16 times since John Quincy Adams beat Andrew Jackson with only 30.9% of the vote. JFK beat Nixon in votes, but still did not get to a majority, and Nixon would win in 1968 with only 43.4% of the vote. Nixon’s was the 5th lowest result in history, yet still ahead of Bill Clinton who even with 5m votes more than Bush Sr. only had 43% of the people. As polarizing as Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Hoover, and FDR were, they received some of the highest vote pools in history. In recent memory, George W. Bush received 500,000 fewer votes than Al Gore, prompting one of the most contested election results in US history. Donald Trump has one of the largest vote deficits of a President, with nearly 3m fewer votes than Hillary Clinton.
In America, though, the discontent moves past the numbers. George Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 both received majority votes, yet people were not happy. Movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street show the growing frustration of people with the system itself. Indeed, we should view Trump’s 2016 electoral victory as a protest vote. And while the U.S. Primaries are entertaining in 2015, they sure didn’t give most of us in the world very much confidence in the quality of leadership we’ll see in the decade ahead.
Whether it’s the electoral college system of the US or parliamentary systems in the UK and Canada, there are real limitations to first-past-the-post politics. It is the system that is broken. In this day and age, with all the technology and communications systems available to us, can we not invent a representative democracy that isn’t based on systems created before electricity and the railroad? We have parliaments today based upon an age of pages. We are doing telegraph age democracy while living digital daily lives.
That has to change.
If the US party system is any indication, there are only two kinds of Americans: Red or Blue, Right or Left, Conservative or Liberal. The UK has many more voices in parliament, but two or three big parties typically stand out.
In Canada the colours are opposite and it is a bit more complex. We are Red (Centre-Left), Blue (Centre-Right), Orange (Liberal-Progressive), Green (Progressive Special Interest), and the Light Blue Bloc Québécois (Centre-Conservative Regional Bloc). Even our conservative party isn’t very right wing, though it has strong elements within it that would connect with the US’s Tea Party movement [note: There is now a deep Blue right-wing party that has developed out of dissatisfaction with the centrist nature of the Conservative Party of Canada].
At the provincial level it is even more complex. In some cases the Red-Left and Blue-Right are indistinguishable, like here in PEI where neither has any clear ideology. In other places, there are true Conservative parties, like Alberta’s official opposition, the Wildrose party. There are conservative-leaning parties in power in Saskatchewan and the Yukon, and the Quebec and BC Liberal Parties are left-right coalitions–none of these are aligned with federal parties. Throughout the country, we also have special interest groups like the Marijuana Party, the Marxist-Leninist Party, and the Christian Heritage Party, but they get few votes.
This is the second problem. I am a fiscal conservative, mostly, but in Canada’s scene most (but not all) of my social interests are liberal or progressive. For example, I’m interested in environmental protection, which puts me in with one of the three major left-leaning parties. In my opinion, though, these parties, the two bigger ones in particular, misunderstand the relationship between job creation and social reform. The conservatives would be the most efficient at streamlining refugee entry in a safe way, but (against my view) are the least interested in giving people a home in Canada to start businesses and send kids to our schools. I have views on foreign policy, rural economic development, abortion, end-of-life-care, Pharmacare, research funding, equity, immigration, human rights protection, aboriginal relationships, minimum wage, and the role of culture and religion in public policy. Add these together and there is no party that represents even half of them.
And nobody, it seems, wants to talk about education. We are a society founded upon education, and it is slipping to the background. By the time we want to do something about it, we won’t be smart enough to do anything about it.
So where do I fit on the spectrum between Blue and Red in Canada?
You see, I don’t fit. I am colourless in Canada’s black and white politics.
I am not alone. Being a Christian makes the question even more complex. Christians, and anyone else who lives out of a deep worldview, can do well in Canada, the US, or the UK. There is a lot of space for us to live and breathe and have our being. While there is overlap between a Christian worldview and a political party, they will never match perfectly.
Often enough, Christians vote for the party they think will do the least damage.
Evangelicals in the US are often highlighted for driving the Republican vote. I think that is true, even if it was less true 15 years ago. But evangelicals are becoming more environmentally sensitive, and have diverse views about immigration—both hot button Red-Blue divide issues. Moreover, the culture of an evangelical is different in Kansas City, Orlando, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Calgary, Halifax, Edinburgh, London, and Utopia, NY. While evangelicals share a great deal at the deepest levels, there is diversity–despite the way the media presents it. Non-American evangelicals will always wonder why some American Christians feel so deeply about gun ownership, just as American evangelicals will be puzzled by Canadian or British evangelical tolerance toward same-sex marriage.
Evangelicalism is diverse, even in such a local place as the US. Add other Christian expressions to the mix and we’ll find that Christians don’t perfectly fit well in the Red-Blue spectrum. Americans, when you look around do you only see two kinds of people–red and blue? Even if you happily align with Republicans or Democrats, and despite the increasing polarization, you’ll recognize there is more diversity in the US today.
And, of course, the way we vote will connect with what we see as important in our local context. I won’t tell you how I’m voting, but I’m not voting on the particular issues that I mentioned above. Any of the four parties alternately intrigue me and horrify me.
Instead, I’ve decided to vote for the party that I think will best use power well. Because this election will result in a minority government, I am voting based on my confidence that these elected officials will create the kind of political environment where I think the least damage and the best good can take place.
And I think most of you are like that too. Not all of you. Some of my readers will be committed to a party with conservative, progressive, centrist, or special interest focus. Well done. Some of you will be disappointed in the looming UK election, the Canadian election, or the impending US election. Others of you will be perfectly pleased.
But if your political personality is more like a scatter map than a spectrum, you are likely to be disappointed. Even if the party you vote for gets in, the best you might feel is relief!
The third reason why most of us will be disappointed is that we now live in a culture that has made truth-telling impossible. Instead of an open culture of debate and exchange of ideas, we are now being governed by Scandalocracy. We have an entire media group dedicated to the project of exposing the stupid things people say.
One by one our Canadian politicians have fallen off the ballot because of things they have said on social media. Some of these things are really old. One is a comment that the oilsands in Alberta are like Mordor—a seven-year-old post on facebook. Another was a relatively sophisticated religious criticism where the politico used a single wrong word. Some complaint is legitimate, like the candidate who encouraged someone on twitter to “Go blow your brains out,” and said, “Your mother should have used that coat hanger”. There is also a lot of Islamaphobia playing to a particular population—I wish these were called out more. But some of the comments are just dumb things people say out loud.
When did we come to believe that the state of never being offended is a human right? People say offensive things about my worldview all the time. The rights to freedom of speech guarantee us that if we say something truthful that isn’t libel or slander, we haven’t infringed on another person’s rights. But now the range of what people are allowed to say out loud is super small.
It won’t help, by the way. It simply means that people will keep their crazy beliefs to themselves, breeding them at the family table and pub and lunchroom. It is why antisemitism is still an issue in Europe, even if it is illegal.
More than Scandalocracy, our commercialization of politics has made it impossible to have a real debate. When you have to sell your 300-page party platform in 30 seconds, how can you ever say anything visionary, constructive, or even truthful? For a couple of generations now we’ve known that the party with the most cash will make the best play. Now it’s the party with the most cash and brightest smiles–and with the best social media researchers ready to reveal the sins of the past.
Frankly, I don’t care that our Prime Minister looks like a Lego figure, that our opposition leader is a bearded man in a country that doesn’t trust bearded men, or that the frontrunner today is a pretty boy with a gorgeous family. Somebody please convince me of the correlation between the ability to campaign and the ability to govern.
I have yet to see the link.
Well, the winner isn’t me. And it probably won’t be you either.
I suspect the liberal party (Red) with the pretty boy leader will win the most seats tonight, though about 20% of the seats are too close to call. The Lego PM and his conservatives (Blue) will get about 1/3 of the vote and will still have a chance to win the most seats, though not by much. And the bearded non-hipster NDP (Orange) will come either 2nd or 3rd, unless Quebec and BC go orange. Though they are a favourite among undecideds and youth, they are only polling at 25%. The Green party with Elizabeth May will get one or two seats, but will come in second in a handful of areas.
The result? Either a Blue squeak-by with an opposition that will sink the government, or a Red or Orange win and a stable minority government. Only the Red liberals have the chance to take off now, and I think are in a minor surge. I suspect tonight Justin Trudeau will be asking our Governor General to form a government and Stephen Harper will be resigning.
None of these parties will get the confidence of 40% of Canadians. 3 out of ever 5 Canadians will lose in tonight’s democratic event. And more that than will feel like the people in Ottawa don’t represent them—or even understand where they are coming from.
This is the result of a broken one-size-fits-all system that is supposed to make complex people think in idiotically simple ways about very complex issues.
That’s why most of us will be disappointed last spring in the UK, next fall in the US, and late tonight in Canada.
Still, though, see you at the pub and on Twitters tonight!
Note: I was right about all the predictions, except that Trudeau’s 39.5% was enough to get him a majority government as confidence in the NDP faltered in the last week.