Until November 4th, 2008, I had never lived through a historical event with full knowledge of its gravity. My generation has seen three massive historical moments, but I doubt that any of us could appreciate them at the time. I was too young to understand (or even remember) the fall of the Berlin Wall, and on September 11, 2001 I don't think anyone was prescient enough to realize that our world had been changed on a fundamental level. On 9/11 we were groggy; we were uncertain; we were scared. But on November the fourth, I listened to the words "Barack Obama has been elected the first African-American president of the United States of America", and felt my spirit lifted. I knew that my children and grandchildren would hear about that day, that day I toasted an American that I had never met with a champagne-filled jar in a friend's basement, and then hesitantly sang the American national anthem with pride, for the first time in my life. And I was aware that I would forever remember five young men sitting in complete silence as a man I had been following seriously for a year gave the speech of a generation.
And what a speech it was. I couldn't fully lose myself in it, more due to my education than a flaw in his performance. So as I listened, I also observed from an academic, practical point of view. I noted his strong beginning, noted his word choice, his repeated refusal to take shots at his opponents, his deliberate esteem of John McCain and the Republican party, his noble, glacier-like calm which only slipped for the merest of seconds. He could have driven his victory home, and part of me wanted him to. I wanted to see him look straight into the cameras and condemn all those who had doubted him, wanted him to build to a frenzy, wanted to feel some kind of cathartic finality to an exhausting campaign. But he didn't fall into that trap. Instead, he stood before America: Republican and Democrat, Northern and Southern, gay and straight, union leaders and dixiecrats and rednecks and punk rockers. And in that moment of triumph he stared through the sea of lenses and flashbulbs, through the victory trappings designed to inflate our liberal-minded egos, and invited us to join him. Without a trace of smugness or vitriol, without any sense of entitlement, he called on us all to become greater than the sum of our parts. He declared, earnestly, that the work had just begun, that we would need to prove that we wanted the change we believed in, and that each and every one of us would be welcome. We would need to fight for the society we envisioned, but it would be a joyous struggle rather than a bitter one, a struggle that was above partisanship and elitism and punditry, and all of the other hate we take for granted in politics today. As he built to the climax of his speech, a concise and moving overview of America in the 20th century, he grew in intensity without growing in volume. His pace was steady, his words measured and smooth and, really, perfect for the time and place. And each segment of American history, each little pocket of pain and struggle and progress, was punctuated by those three words: Yes We Can. For just a moment, I felt myself swept away, heard a rushing in my ears and felt energy rushing through muscle and bone and blood vessels. I wanted to leap to my feet. I believed. But then, I have always believed in belief. On that Tuesday night, I felt I had been proven right.
It was Dostoevsky who wrote that it's not enough for a man to live, he has to have something to live for. Barack Obama exemplified that point; he showed that by voting for him, America would be sending a message. They would be backing a man who had a tight, clear set of policy promises, and a single, unifying philosophy. They wouldn't merely be voting, they would be voting for something. His message was one of positivity, his narrative underlined progress and co-operation in a divisive political climate. America understood, and America responded. John McCain's campaign, in contrast, was unclear. McCain was considered a fairly moderate republican, but his running mate Sarah Palin was a religious radical. He was from a reviled President's party, yet promised change. His message, almost universally one of attack, shifted daily. What, then, did a vote for John McCain mean? A vote for the status quo? For change? For greater ties to religion? For “progressive conservatism”? I doubt anyone could have definitively answered that question, and McCain suffered because of it. And while he foundered, Obama mobilized the electorate in record numbers. He managed to tip the scale from apathy to engagement in millions of people. For the first time, they found themselves inspired by politics. They found that they had a reason to care.
Now I’m getting to my point. Our recent Canadian federal election palpably lacked narrative, lacked any sense or desire for unity that wasn’t vote-mongering. What were the issues that this country was fought over? The economy, for which Canadians fell back on a conservative approach, baby steps towards laissez-faire and Reagan’s trickle-down economics. Climate change, which is being touted as the “defining issue of our generation” by people who are desperate to define our generation with something other than apathy. And what else? Health care was low-profile; Afghanistan was a blip on the radar. During the election campaign we were hearing policy packages, not unified messages. The candidates outlined their positions, and then attacked each other in a manner that often bordered on shameless.
Almost all of the federal parties misunderstood causality as it relates to campaign messages. In order for people to truly process a party’s message it must first have a central vision, an intended narrative about Canada, where we have been and where we can go. In turn, policies should be a practical interpretation of that message. Now, I’m fully aware that the two major federal parties in Canada are interest aggregate parties specifically defined by their lack of a central ideology; I’m not saying that the Liberals or Conservatives should become soapboxes for some kind of philosophy. But during an election campaign, it is essential that parties seem like they stand for something more than self-empowerment.
Of the five “federal” parties, only the Bloc Quebecois had a strong, coherent vision for Canada. Of course, it’s of a divided Canada, and it’s a vision that is losing credence in the one province it applies to. Meanwhile, the four truly federal parties utterly failed to provide a narrative. The Conservatives stand for...something, on the right. Maybe they hate the gays? The Liberals attempted to frame themselves as crusaders for climate change, but that is not a truly national vision. It is a policy, and they over-focused on it to their detriment. The NDP still remain tied to labour, but we live in a post-material world with a massive middle class and the NDP has yet to fully commit to their needs. Their fixation on the working class prevents them from creating a truly comprehensive vision.
And finally, the Greens, who were by far the biggest losers in this election. The Greens confuse people because no one knows what they stand for, aside from the obvious. But again, climate change is an issue that requires policy; it’s not a keystone to a political narrative. In countries where the Green party has gained power, they stood for something other than mere environmentalism. In Germany, whose Green party is perhaps the most successful in the world, the Greens were the political manifestation of 1970s counterculture. They were young hippies committed to gender equality who sat around knitting during parliamentary sessions. Yes, they were pro-environment, anti-nuclear, pro-feminist and anti-racist. But above all, they represented a new vision of Germany, a clear rejection of their past and a vision for the future. The Canadian Greens have none of the vision and almost no remaining integrity. If they had been truly committed to combating climate change they should have supported the Liberals (who had the best-rated environmental policy of any party, and a much larger support base). Instead, they ran ads telling people to “fuck strategic voting” and vote Green, even though it would contribute to a Conservative victory. If there could be greater evidence that they are solely interested in their own power, I can’t think of it.
This lack of vision is the reason that Canadian voter turnout dropped to an all-time low of 58%, while in America it soared. How can people care about politics when all they see are policy packages and irrelevant attacks? How could anyone expect these fragmented messages to inspire people? Canada’s federal parties would do well to learn from Barack Obama’s victory. People are not apathetic towards today’s politics, they are repulsed by it. They are averse to negativity. What they want is to hear that their leaders have a story to tell, as well as a policy to enact. And, they want to be included in that story in a positive manner.
I long for the day that I can see a Canadian politician stand tall and proud before the nation, gracious and intelligent, resolute in their moment of triumph. To know that even though we live in a country divided by language and region, we have a common ground on which we are all welcome. I want someone to be unafraid of Canada as a nation, not just a federation of provinces. I want them to be unafraid of our history of division and reconciliation, of French and English, of Internment and Quiet Revolution and Repatriation. I want them to be unafraid to care about Canada in a time where we speak of our country with rolling eyes and cynicism. The Canadian people have responded to Obama’s election. They are ready to have the same pride in their own government. All that remains is for our leaders to rise to that challenge, to believe that we can be more than votes to win. I am ready for the day that I watch a prime minister-elect address the nation, and know that I am watching history unfold.