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Janet Bufton: Our politics are getting more exciting—And that’s a bad sign

Commentary

I used to think we shouldn’t bother with politics. I discouraged voting unless there was a candidate you really believed in (and when I did, I suspected there wasn’t anyone you really believed in). These were easy positions to take when it seemed like we could take things like political norms for granted. I didn’t appreciate how lucky we were. 

Now, there is probably more reason to care about politics than there has been for most of my adult life. Illiberalism is on the rise in the United States and around the world. Governments in countries like Russia and China are working to undermine liberalism and democracy. Issues that seemed settled, like 2SLGBTQ+ and reproductive rights, are politically at play again in the United States. 

Canada has so far weathered the illiberal backslide fairly well, but that’s not something to take for granted. Political instability from the United States threatens to spill over the border. Canada has a history of populist politics that could take an ugly turn in an environment where so many people feel like everything is broken. A look around the world shows what might not have been obvious only a few years ago: the moral arc of history doesn’t automatically move us in any direction.

But there’s a problem: we’ve become addicted to a sort of politics that is a satisfying pastime because it feeds off the worst of our tribalist impulses and need for belonging, but is unmoored from the foundations on which liberal democracy rests. It’s tempting to play the game of politics. But if we want to preserve the hard-won gains that have made Canada one of the freest and most prosperous countries in the world, we have to rediscover a less satisfying politics: the work of governance. It’s hard work. And it’s worth it.

Polarization, an outcome of satisfying, tribalist politics, is great if you’re a politician. Polarize the electorate and you don’t have to answer for your record. Or promise anything in particular. Or engage with what your opposition is actually saying or doing. Just speak to—no, shout at—no, shout with! shout for! your base. After all, angry and frightened supporters don’t just vote. They give money

Tribalism isn’t a new force in our politics, but we’ve let it take the wheel. It’s part of a vicious cycle. Macleans found in 2019, before the upheaval of the pandemic, that a quarter of Canadians actually hated their political opponents. That kind of acrimonious opposition gives people something that feels worth fighting against, and the camaraderie built in a righteous fight strengthens feelings of both belonging and opposition. It is very human to sometimes want to shout indignantly. But it has become almost all that we do because it is satisfying to have people sympathize with our indignation. 

I regret to inform you that improving this situation is up to us. 

A liberal democracy can coast for a while on institutional strength and broad consensus. So long as most people are generally happy with how things are going (or have made peace with the way things are) it’s easy to believe that something like a social contract will keep things on track. Hamish MacAuley makes a compelling case that many Canadians came of age politically between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 2008 financial crisis when consensus was broad and politics was optional, so they opted out. In times that were good, we lost the habits of democratic governance. We played at politics instead.

In response, McGill’s Jacob T. Levy argues for political action that doesn’t consent to the way things are but also refuses to burn it all down or take our ball and go home. We should participate in politics even—maybe even especially—when it’s not satisfying.

When the foundations of our political order or the rights of vulnerable people are in danger, it makes sense to hand power to politicians who wouldn’t in better circumstances deserve it. It can make sense to join our opponents in criticizing someone we think is obviously the best candidate to hold power. We shouldn’t pretend that there’s no downside to making such a choice, we only have to identify when the benefits outweigh the costs. 

We need to resist the urge to indulge our worst impulses just because it’s so satisfying. Satisfying politics will tell us that a choice is good just because it’s the choice we (or someone on our side) made. Instead, we need to step back and recognize when politics is making us worse. We need to distinguish political rivals from enemies. We have to get better at distinguishing politics as an increasingly combative and antisocial form of entertainment from the politics that we need to address social problems.  

Joining a political party is almost certainly the wrong move. It’s among partisan voters that tribal pressures to gang up and war with The Other Side are strongest. And going through the motions of voting along party lines might not be actively harmful, but it’s unlikely to change the underlying problems that ail us. 

A better strategy is to start with a personal inventory: how are you participating? Are you doing the work or are you still playing? Can you explain different sides of the issues you care about in a way that proponents of each view would recognize? Do you have conversations with folks with whom you disagree with the goal of building understanding, rather than fact-checking or changing minds? Can you articulate specific changes that should be made to policies you disagree with, independent of the positions or posturing of political parties? Do you look for concrete ways to improve things in your community? These are all places we can start to strengthen the foundations on which less superficial politics should rest. 

This isn’t to say that we all just need to learn to accept what seems unacceptable. Persuasion matters, and it’s badly neglected in our politics. Trying to embarrass, shame, or exile everyone who disagrees with us might be satisfying, but isn’t improving things. Persuasion needs a foundation of understanding, whether it’s taking the time to understand the feelings and beliefs underlying positions we disagree with, or just working hard to start with an assumption of goodwill. 

This is all work and it will take emotional resources. But laziness and lack of effort aren’t the problem. While being angry all the time and looking for people to fight might be satisfying, it’s also exhausting. 

If we carry on as we have been and settle for satisfying politics, we won’t hold governments and politicians accountable. We won’t have the conversations we need to build understanding rather than push potential partners toward radicalization. People who have something valuable to add will simply throw up their hands and stay on the sidelines.

And if we only settle for what’s satisfying, we won’t be able to swallow an unpleasant truth: that we’ve dug ourselves deep enough into this hole that there’s probably no clean way out. There’s not One Neat Trick to shore up liberalism and democracy. 

Things have been worse before, and we made them better. Our situation isn’t impossible, it’s just hard. We’ve cared enough to get angry for long enough. Now we should care enough to do the work.

I don’t expect this essay to change many minds. But hopefully, the next time you gear up to start a fight in a comment section or doomscroll through your newsfeed, I can spark some doubt. Pleading with people to do the work—the real work—of politics is not particularly satisfying. But if enough of us can care enough to be persistent, patient, and kind about the things that matter, no matter how far away success might seem, we can start to shore up the foundations of liberal democracy. That has to start being satisfying enough.The author would like to thank Prof. Lauren Hall for her feedback on this piece. She’s responsible for many improvements, but no remaining shortcomings.

Patrick Luciani: Why does Canada’s productivity lag? It’s the culture, stupid!

Commentary

The Hub’s resident book reviewer Patrick Luciani tackles My Journeys in Economic Theory by Edmund Phelps, published by Columbia University Press in 2023. Watch for Patrick’s book reviews every two weeks at thehub.ca.

If there’s one thing that has mystified Canada’s government economists, it is the country’s perpetual low productivity performance. They lament that we lag in innovation and the diffusion of technology once we have it. We thought it was a question of dishing out more subsidies and incentives for businesses to innovate and catch up to the Americans, but things are only getting worse. 

In 2000, we were 82 percent as productive as the average American worker. By 2020, that has dropped to 77 percent. We are doing worse on that scale than Italy, France, the U.K., and Australia. Imagine the French are doing better with all their vacation time, meal breaks, and laws forbidding workers from taking their work home. According to one study, the Canadian worker would have to put in 30 percent more hours to catch up to the same productivity as the American worker. Canada’s most productive firms aren’t keeping up with world-leading firms. Ottawa is trying once more by launching the Canada Innovation Corporation (CIC) to boost innovation and more R&D. Unfortunately, cajoling firms to catch up won’t work.

The reason may be found in the work of economist Edmund Phelps at Columbia University, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2006. His latest book with the rather uninspiring title of My Journey in Economic Theory—but don’t let that throw you off, it’s a great read—Phelps has spent the last twenty years thinking about why some countries are better than others when it comes to innovation and inventing things. His answer is in a country’s culture rather than incentivized government programs. 

To understand what Professor Phelps is getting at, we need some history of what drives economic growth. For the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, who worked at the turn of the last century, capitalist economies are never static and always evolving. Capitalism drives new innovations that disrupt old ways of doing things, leading to what he termed “creative destruction” that forces out old ways of doing things. At the heart of free market systems is the entrepreneur, who recognizes the power of new ideas and brings them to market. Schumpeter recognized that the entrepreneur was the driver of economic dynamism. Schumpeter had no time for the ingenuity of businesspeople and bankers, who he said showed no creativity.

In the mid-1950s, another Nobel economist, Robert Solow, added that productivity growth was driven by these so-called “exogenous” shocks from people’s minds, from Ely Whitney and Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs. Solow’s contribution to economic growth was still in the spirit of Schumpeter in that they couldn’t completely explain why these ideas germinated. 

Phelps asked what if these new ideas and innovations didn’t appear without explanation but were actually “endogenous.” That is, factors inside the economic system could explain innovations. Could it be that the average worker was capable of generating ideas and innovations within a country, not just those of scientists, inventors, or entrepreneurs? 

Phelps theorized that to achieve “wide indigenous innovation in a country, it is crucial that the many workers have the qualities needed for dynamism.” But what is this dynamism, and how do you measure it?

Here, he came up with two cultural variables that could be measured: the importance of work, the incentive to get up each day and go to work, and involvement in one’s work, the willingness to do a good job. Given Europe’s crafts and guild history, Phelps assumed Europeans would score higher on both variables, but it was the Americans who scored higher on these variables than Germans, the French, Italians, Brits, and Canadians. He concludes that a nation with the right values “is capable of much innovation beyond what may be imported from abroad [or] opened up by new scientific discoveries at home.”

If Phelps is right, a country’s values are crucial to driving prosperity on a massive scale, an idea he developed in his 2013 book entitled Mass Flourishing. The genius of prosperity is found not in government stimulus programs but in the ethic of work and discovery in average citizens who take pride in their labour. Prosperity and economic growth driven by ideas is a process initiated from the bottom up, not the top down. Institutions such as property rights and stable government are necessary in Phelps’ world, but they play supporting roles rather than take centre stage. The real action is on the ground where the spirit of the average worker flourishes. 

This view of the future starkly contrasts with the more pessimistic conclusions in Bradford DeLong’s recent book Slouching Towards Utopia (2023)—a book I reviewed last year—that concludes the era of growth in America started in 1870 died around 2010 when America’s engine of productivity began to stall under a failed neoliberal democracy. Phelps isn’t naïve to ignore the climate crisis or the lack of skills many need as we move to a world that demands technical expertise, but his vision of the future is more encompassing, a future that relies on the culture and values of ordinary people and not just the skills of trained experts or hard-driving entrepreneurs. 

If culture and work values play important roles, where does that leave public policy in the race to catch up to America’s higher levels of productivity? First, we should acknowledge that top-down programs have limited value in stimulating innovation. Second, public funds might be better spent on instilling the virtues of pride in work as soon as kids start going to school. On a grander scale, if culture matters more than the political and economic factors that ended the long twentieth century, we might have the good fortune to end up living in Edmund Phelps’s world rather than Bradford DeLong’s.