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Matt Gurney: What if we are in decline?
Is Poilievre irresponsible for tapping into the public fear? Or would it be irresponsible for leaders to ignore it?
By: Matt Gurney
What if we are in decline?
Seriously. What if? As a country, as a civilization. I’m not saying we are. I’m not even saying there is a way to objectively answer the question. But what if we were? Is that something we should be thinking about?
Earlier this week, The Line ran an essay by Colin Horgan, who argued that although Pierre Poilievre is not himself an extremist, "the new Conservative leader [speaks] in a kind of meta-text. An internet language of decline." Horgan asserted further that pessimism about our prospects is rife online, and that Poilievre doesn't have to speak like an extremist to speak in ways that are recognizable to them — and to anyone else convinced this country is going very badly off the rails. He can be their guy, so to speak, without using their words, if he gets the tone right, and the vibe. I agree with Horgan on that. There is a pessimism in the air, and Poilievre does speak to it — both when he assigns blame, and when he offers (admittedly vague) cures for what ails us. I agree with Horgan further that it's impossible to truly determine if we're in decline. It's an important question, but as Horgan noted in his essay, though there are lots of grim signals today, only time will truly tell. This is the only reasonable answer. Anyone who tells you with certainty that we are in decline, or are not, is just projecting their hopes or fears.
So let's grant that up front: let's all agree that only the historians will be able to answer the question of whether Canada, and the West more broadly, is in a state of decline. Let's further agree that the answer is probably going to come down to how we define decline.
Even though we've all agreed to leave the final judgment and the precise definition to the historians, it's certainly fair to ask ourselves if we believe we're in decline. And a lot of us do. Ipsos polled Canadians (and many others) last month; 57 per cent of us said they felt Canada was on the wrong track. This was actually a fairly cheerful finding; Canada was among the more upbeat nations surveyed — a full 73 per cent of Americans felt their country was going in the wrong direction, for example, and there were even grumpier populations out there. But this feels like an incomplete measure — being on the "right track," or off of it, isn't a perfect proxy for what I'm looking for.
What does come closer is asking people whether their children will be better or worse off than they were. That feels closer to the mark — are things getting better or worse on the timescale of a generation? It also seems to capture, in raw form, what most of us would probably agree is "decline" — a falling standard of living, with fewer among us able to enjoy a lifestyle more could once access. Pew Research has been tracking that metric for years, and reported last month that Canadians are pessimistic — notably so. A full three-quarters of us say that children will be worse off (financially) than their parents — and that number has been rising steadily in recent years. Perception is not reality, but that's a pretty stark perception.
Maybe we're all just burnt out. It's been a long pandemic, now we have war in Europe and painful inflation, and Canadians were able to squeeze a whole convoy crisis in there somewhere, too. It's hard to maintain a sunny disposition when life is repeatedly kicking you in the gonads.
Fair enough. Maybe it's a post-COVID/convoy hangover, exacerbated by ongoing military and economic fears.
Maybe it's not, though. Consider this — a five-part questionnaire on decline.
Are the major problems facing us today, as you see them — as individuals, as a country, as a civilization, take your pick — getting better or worse?
If worse, are there things we can do to change that?
If so, are we doing these things?
If so, is it working?
If we aren't trying, or if we're trying and it's not working, are you optimistic we soon will be successfully addressing the challenge?
... this is not a cheerful exercise, is it?
It's really the last three questions in that sequence that bring down the gloom, right? Despite what Line readers might think given my frequently grim columns, I'm actually a long-term optimist. I think most of our problems are solvable — either we have the means to solve them, or we'll develop the means. We face major challenges today, but I still truly believe that if we really put ourselves to the task, we could make big, big progress on a lot of them.
But we aren't. And I don't think we're going to start any time soon, or that we'd necessarily succeed even if we tried.
Call it a collective-action problem, uh, problem. (Sorry. Awkward sentence!) Call it a lack of state capacity. Call it our expectations being a problem. Call it what you want. But most of our problems today won't fix themselves. It's true that some of them are caused beyond our borders; we have to be realistic about the limits of what we can do.
But are we doing even that much? Are we maxing out what we can do to meet the challenges of our era?
On most fronts, it's pretty clear that we are not. Are we building the infrastructure we need to sustain our economic growth? Training the right number of needed workers in all the various specialties we rely on? Are we adapting to the dangers of climate change? Are we fielding an armed forces able and ready to meet the growing challenges? Are we building enough houses? Are we fixing the health-care system? On a day to day level, do we get the sense that our governments are adaptive and nimble enough to respond to whatever may come next?
We are not putting serious effort into addressing our most critical challenges. Even when we do try to accomplish things, our efforts often fizzle out, or take the form of another paper-pushing task force or inquiry. Process is observed and the bureaucrats keep busy, but tangible results are often lacking. That isn't proof of decline, of course ... but it's a hell of a red flag.
So let's return to the first question: if you are someone who thinks that we might be declining, what do you do? More to the point, what do you want your politicians to do?
I share Horgan's concern that Poilievre could accelerate the process of decline in an effort to get elected. It's easier to destroy things — like gates manned by gatekeepers — than it is to build them. Change is not always for the better, even when change is warranted. To paraphrase our prime minister, worse is always possible.
Perhaps I'm a man out of time, but as someone who's still a small-c conservative (as we understood that term not all that long ago), I have an automatic suspicion of anyone who thinks they can replace our institutions and norms with something that will be a certain improvement. That's not a defence, per se, of the institution and norms. It's what I think is healthy skepticism that anyone out there is guaranteed to do better.
But if we are in decline — if — are politicians that are not speaking in that language and vibing that vibe doing their jobs? Horgan worries that Poilievre speaking in the language of decline will make everything worse. It'll add to the toxicity. It very well might. But is there not danger in politicians refusing to talk about this, especially when almost three-quarters of us already believe it's happening?
Again, I have real concerns about Poilievre. As we've noted many times before at The Line, he's trying to walk a very fine balance between the mainstream and a pretty dark fringe, and he'll have to be both lucky and good to succeed. I don't think he's nearly as scary as some of his critics make him out to be, but there are choices he's made that should alarm rational people. Horgan isn't wrong to be worried. Poilievre could worsen and deepen the crises he alludes to when he speaks, either by compounding the pessimism or further entrenching cynicism and despair when he can't solve the problems he has identified.
There's a more basic question, though — a brutal but fairly simple choice. If you believe that we're in decline, who are you more likely to support — the politician who seems to get it, and talks in language you find familiar, or the ones that don't want to talk about it at all?
The Liberals certainly aren't. It's not that they aren't worried about some of the major challenges we face — in some ways, I think they've had their eyes appropriately open. But there isn't much sense of urgency and very little of humility. In my conversations with many Liberals in recent years, I've come to suspect that some of the more passionate defences of Justin Trudeau, and some of the strongest attacks on Poilievre (and O'Toole and Scheer before him) go deeper than just the usual political strategy and partisan animus. Deeper even than what can be explained by the thin skin for criticism that seems a feature of the modern Canadian Liberal.
Are some of the animated defences and attacks, I sometimes wonder, driven by a fear among some Liberals that in the face of numerous domestic, foreign, economic, geopolitical and environmental challenges, we are indeed in decline? A decline they aren't able to stop? Are they worried that things might be about to "go bad" on their watch?
It's a theory, I confess. But it's one worth mulling over. If Liberals, or even just Canadian progressives more broadly, do think we might be in a period of decline, do they dare say so? Do they worry that it'll just help someone like Poilievre? That it would be a concession or an admission that they aren't up to the challenges of the day, and deserve to get tossed out and replaced? Even as Canadians tell pollsters they think the generation ahead will be worse off, are the Liberals afraid to acknowledge that fear, leaving that entire field open for someone like Poilievre?
If we are in decline, and powerful people in this country don't want to admit that, and specifically won't admit when they come up short trying to turn things around, that may be all the help someone like Poilievre needs.
So I'll leave you with this: ask yourself if we're in decline. And if you think we are, is that something politicians should discuss?
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