Reclaim politics from the cynics

Evidently we're meant to be excited about this election. The Citizen's Susan Riley just confessed, or boasted, that "Frankly, I find this game more exciting than playoff hockey" as she set off to do a campaign blog updated several times a day on exactly what the candidates zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Look, I don't like cynicism, but I am a realist. I don't like cynicism because it's the cheap way out. I don't sympathize with the character in Frank Capra's 1941 film Meet John Doe who says "I don't read no papers and I don't listen to radios either. I know the world's been shaved by a drunken barber, and I don't have to read it!" It's one of those repellent little logical circles that, by rejecting all potential evidence as necessarily unhelpful, never weighs any potential evidence.

I also oppose cynicism in politics because when people expect nothing from government they tend to receive it in abundance. I don't want us to give up. I want us to take our politics back. The first step is to take back the underlying philosophy, to understand that we weren't always governed this way, so we don't have to be in future. I also very much liked the line from a caller to Thinking Aloud (which my wife and I host on CFRA) that "If you can't pay anything else, then at least pay attention."

The problem is that, while I'm not in favour of cynicism, I'm also not in favour of wishful thinking. As the 18th-century Bishop of Durham, Joseph Butler, put it, "Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be; why then should we desire to be deceived?"

Those who are better informed have long been less cynical about public affairs. But if the argument between those who reject political participation as pointless and those who insist that it is an unpleasant but useful duty is being won by the former on the facts, let's try to change the facts, not wish them away. First we have to face them.

So I ask you, what is there about any of the parties to fire our imagination? The Liberals are led by a hollow drum booming sententiously from both sides. Paul Martin declares himself the candidate of changely changehoodship, slams Stephen Harper's judgment and even patriotism because he wants to change things in Canada, then promises total transformation of whatever he's currently talking about, from federal-provincial relations to health care, after being a senior member of the government for most of the past decade, and taking credit for its achievements.

He promises to repair our damaged relations with the United States, slams Stephen Harper for wanting to drag us into the fetid swamp of American-style whatever he's currently talking about, then says "I love the United States but I love far greater that we are different." (Yes, for one thing their leader mangles his syntax.) He declares this the most important election in the history of his ego. But what he won't discuss, while peddling recycled spending promises and defending Dalton McGuinty, is the reasons for the growing feeling that the Liberals are too slick.

On the Conservative side, a man who once headed an organization devoted to "More Freedom Through Less Government" now offers a vast expansion of socialized medicine in the form of federally run pharmacare (along with respect for provincial jurisdiction), plus billions more for regular health care, billions more for defence, billions more for cities, billions more for debt repayment and billions more in tax cuts, all paid for by a ruthless war on waste. They're the party of "Less Government Through More Government." No thanks.

As for the NDP, I think it's unfair to pummel Jack Layton for his flashiness after pummelling his two predecessors for their dullness. On the other hand, as Robert Fulford aptly noted, "In Layton's dreams, workers ride bikes to their jobs at the auto plant." For organizational and intellectual reasons, his party is torn between metal-bashing and tree-hugging in ways that harm its electoral prospects.

Worse, voters would doubt the NDP's competence to ensure a steady stream of boodle to the middle class even if it weren't torn between wishing to govern responsibly and considering responsibility a bourgeois plot.

As for the Bloc Quebecois, what good are lukewarm separatists?

The politicians might reply, in an improbably unguarded moment, that voters can't expect anything else until the majority abandons its implicit political slogan: "What's in it for me?" Fine. Let's. I'm not suggesting we become resigned to or cynical about cynicism in politics especially including our own motives. But let's not delude ourselves that, whatever the underlying cause, politics today is capable of inspiring a normal person.

On the other hand, how 'bout them Flames?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson