During the 1992 US presidential campaign, while advising then candidate Bill Clinton, Democratic party strategist James Carville coined the now well-worn political phrase “it’s the economy, stupid.” Adapting this phrase to suit the 2019 political mood, we might argue “it’s the political system, stupid.”
There’s an obvious and deepening malaise spreading across the liberal democratic world which is likely to colour our upcoming federal election. Outmoded governmental institutions breaking down under the strain of a rapidly transforming global social fabric coupled with an insulated, largely tone-deaf elite at the helm has generated serious discontent with the functioning (or rather dysfunctioning) of most of the world’s long-established democracies. Canada is not at all immune from such troubles.
This discontent has manifested itself internationally in numerous troubling ways: from the longstanding trend of ever-lowering levels of engagement and trust in traditional institutions, to growing cynicism about the political process, to the backlash of populist movements worldwide seeking to reverse the real and perceived harms resulting from accelerating globalization. These issues coming to a head has left many well-intentioned individuals and groups across the political spectrum at a loss as to where these problems have arisen from and what to do to about them.
To answer both these questions requires a deeper understanding of how these problems originated.
In some sense, what we are experiencing now is nothing new. The kind of transformational change that results from increasing automation and global trade and dispossesses large segments of people from their traditional sources of income has been happening in waves since at least the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. So too have movements that sought in vain to resist these changes in order to preserve their relative positions.
Previous waves of change also produced similarly widening inequalities, polarized and cynical politics, and diminished social cohesion. If anything at all is different about this time, it’s the scale and speed with which events are taking place.
What improved those situations and will improve our own is a deep renewal of the political system. Just as industrialization brought the welfare state to ensure the benefits resulting from newfound social wealth were widespread, so too must computerization bring new institutions that improve our common prosperity and address the vulnerability and precarity that rapid and sweeping global changes have caused.
The conversation we’re having at present however seems much more focused on reacting with shock to the symptoms rather than on curing the disease. Much is, and should be, made of rising levels of openly bigoted rhetoric and the populist movements that drive it but much less about the economic vulnerabilities that helped midwife such abhorrent tribalism in the first place. If we’re to put a stop to the effects, we must deal with their causes.
Addressing the causes of the current dilemma is not something with which the world is unfamiliar, indeed it’s something we’ve done many times before. There is a general formula to follow and we must dust it off without delay. Renewing our political systems requires building more inclusive institutions that serve the public interest and eliminating those elements that now serve special and privileged interests. It requires broadening access so that all people have a seat at the political table — that they might re-engage with government as a vehicle to improve their lives. It requires repairing the trust and credibility that has been damaged in recent decades. And it requires making sure that shared progress can be made while protecting all against insecurity during the transition phases.
A firm commitment to this direction and to take on the vested interests that benefit from the status quo could begin to reverse the negative trends from which we suffer. A national election is a great opportunity to start this long and much needed conversation. Let’s hope the parties are up to the task.