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Emerson Csorba: Sure, there’s glamour in globalism. But we need politicians who care about our communities first


Mark Carney attends a session during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 24, 2019. Markus Schreiber/AP Photo.

“If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” So goes one of the famous sayings of Hall-of-Fame New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, known equally for his sporting prowess on the field and his memorable sayings off it. As Canadian politics kicks into high gear, speeding toward a national election next year, and with speculation of a potential change in the Liberal Party leader, we can reflect momentarily on this “Yogi-ism.”

Specifically, we’d be wise to remember that politics and people are not perfect. Political effectiveness—which one might define as both electoral success and a meaningful record of governance—requires engaging with real people, on their terms, wherever they are. In contrast, what, I suppose, one might call perfection—as in seeking a rapid rise to the top via the right networks and credentials, incurring minimal damage along the way—avoids participation in the actual, dirty world, where losing is a real possibility.

As a recent case-in-point, we can look to the resurfacing of rumours of Mark Carney as a potential Liberal leader candidate, waiting in the wings as pressure mounts on Justin Trudeau to step down. By objective standards, Carney is a highly accomplished Canadian leader, if not the most accomplished Canadian at the global level. Carney’s track record features names such as Harvard, Oxford, Goldman Sachs, the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, and the United Nations.

More recently, he was one of two Canadians (along with Liberal Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry Francois-Philippe Champagne) invited to the annual Bilderberg Meeting, arguably the most secretive and selective convening of world leaders across government, business, and technology. If there is a marker of perfection in these sectors, a sign of having “made it,” then Bilderberg is as good a proxy as any.

But perfection does not equate to success in politics. Nor should it. And nor is it typically effective—especially these days. Technocratic elites have become increasingly disconnected from the very people who they are meant to serve. The reality is that political leaders with otherwise compelling personal backgrounds have seemingly lost their ability to relate to so-called “ordinary citizens.”

John Ivison, in a recent National Post op-ed, highlights Carney’s use of “ten-dollar words” such as “dynamism” instead of say “strength” or “vigour.” Another example is the “Overton Window” instead of more common language like “popular” or “publicly acceptable.”

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak suffers from this problem—his own Goldman Sachs-turned-hedge fund manager background disconnecting him from an otherwise interesting backstory growing up in Southampton. The result? A failure to connect with people (his campaign kicked off in Wales, asking Welsh pub-goers whether they were looking forward to Euros soccer—unaware that Wales failed to qualify).

A risk in little time spent with people in their local communities is that a person loses their fighting spirit, an unwillingness to give up in the face of whatever circumstances arise. This spirit is borne out of prior experience or even witness of life lived genuinely on the edge, where the line between prosperity and poverty is thin. Carney’s life narrative suggests an awareness of this thin line. But this awareness can erode. I write this from personal experience that overlaps in important ways with Carney’s.

Much like Carney, I grew up in Edmonton, a creative city nevertheless once referred to by writer Mordecai Richler as Canada’s “boiler room.” We played sports in the same secondary school gymnasiums, spent summers working at the University of Alberta, and later earned PhDs at the University of Oxford. We have been in similar or the same rooms and meetings over the last decade, whether the Conference on Inclusive Capitalism in London, the World Economic Forum in Geneva, or Ditchley in Oxfordshire. We both have strong theological, Christian, commitments.

If not careful, however, these global experiences dull a person’s spirit, negating lessons learned from otherwise relatable personal narratives. The more time spent in these global networks—despite exposure to interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places—the more that connection to ordinary people rooted in local communities is lost. This is not a mere possibility. It is an inevitability: the Oxfords, Goldmans, and WEFs of the world disconnect a person from reality, despite the best of intentions to remain grounded while in them.

We lose our connection to our roots—our “saltiness”—and the ability to fight more quickly than we realize. And while this connection can be recovered, it is difficult to do so, taking time.

The jet-faring set also inevitably begins to lose connection to their own countries, cultures, and fellow citizens. How could they not? In trying to solve the world’s problems, you will to some extent neglect your nation for some other supposedly “greater” cause.

So what do political leaders need to do to counter these forces? How can balance be kept between the global, which brings valuable perspective, networks, and opportunities, and the local? The answer lies in spending extended time in places that are not necessarily prosperous and that have real mixes of people, from many different socioeconomic backgrounds. For every hour spent in Madrid (the location of this year’s Bilderberg Meeting), a wise political leader ought to spend several hours in Olds, Alberta, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, or Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.

Lester B. Pearson, known for his Nobel Peace Prize for contribution to the Suez Crisis, was educated at Oxford. Much less known is his WWI service with the Canadian Army Medical Corps, his coaching of the University of Toronto football and hockey teams, or his work in a meat-packing factory. This type of on-the-ground experience was a key part of who he was.

It’s a good reminder for others. Local engagement requires sustained effort because the temptation for most is to turn away from this in favour of prestigious global endeavours. Local engagement is, in global networks, not intuitively rewarding, conferring no vaunted status.

When spending time in communities caught between prosperity and poverty or simply in poverty, we quickly realize that impressive educational and work backgrounds don’t matter. What matters are direct encounters between people as people. Time spent in local communities helps people to preserve their fighting spirit. You see what really matters. In a time of profound change and economic uncertainty, many people are barely getting by. Political leaders need to spend time in local communities where there is actual uncertainty because this engagement keeps people aware of their own missions in a genuine way.

Conversely, years of learned conversations, extravagant dinners, and global travels meeting fellow jetsetters dampens the soul. It leads even the most disciplined of people to forget what life is like for most people. The philosopher Michael Sandel refers to this distancing as the “skyboxification” of life, in which different socioeconomic classes no longer sit with each other in sports stadiums, baseball the prime American example. Robert Putnam talks about this distancing between classes in his semi-autobiography Our Kids, reminding us to resist the temptation to literally withdraw into our own gated physical and metaphorical communities.

Finally, engaging in local communities with a mix of all kinds of people reminds us that we sometimes lose. Global networks, in which people come together for high-level conversation on the big issues of the day, are interesting, but often low-stakes. Relationships in these global settings are transient, such that eloquence matters more than action. In local settings, conversations more consistently lead to consequences that matter, because the people involved know (and often care about) each other and must work together.

Put differently, there are clearer “wins” and “losses” in local settings. In fact, courage is needed to build local communities in the first place, where success is not a foregone conclusion. Here, we can turn from Berra to another philosopher, the boxer Mike Tyson, who says “in order to be good, you have to lose and understand loss, because loss is life.” Good politicians need to experience losing, regardless of their educational credentials or past professional success. Perfection is the technocratic solution, in which small cadres of self-interested elites orchestra top-down solutions for the downtrodden. These solutions do not typically resonate with people. Nor do they often work.

Aspiring politicians, if desiring political success and even more importantly, effectiveness, would benefit from engagement with fellow citizens in local communities. This is vital in preserving saltiness, maintaining relatability, fighting spirit, and the courage to do what is right in the face of potential loss. We should not seek perfection, as per the Yogi-ism, but rather time spent with down-to-earth people, on their terms, and in their locales.

The Weekly Wrap: Is this finally the end for Justin Trudeau?


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers remarks in Ottawa, on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press.

In The Weekly Wrap Sean Speer, our editor-at-large, analyses for Hub subscribers the big stories shaping politics, policy, and the economy in the week that was.

Is the Liberals’ leftward lurch here to stay?

It seemed like this week almost more than any before it, one could envision a world in which Justin Trudeau was no longer the Liberal Party leader or Canada’s prime minister. New polling from Ipsos that showed nearly 70 percent of Canadians think it’s time that he step down signaled that we may soon be entering a post-Trudeau era.

Speculating about what politics will look like when he’s gone is a bit fraught—especially since he continues to say that he’s not leaving—but it’s hard not to consider in light of his decade-long dominance over Liberal politics and the country’s politics more generally.

As we discussed on this week’s Hub Roundtable, it’s pretty clear that Trudeau has shifted the Liberal Party to the Left of its previous spot on Canada’s contemporary political spectrum. It was an effective political strategy in the short term. It helped the Liberals to marginalize the NDP and climb from third to first in the 2015 election.

But in hindsight, it set up the incoming Trudeau government with a poor governing framework.