EVERY ONCE in a while, Preston Manning delivers a morsel of wisdom that changes the way we view politics in Canada. He did it again last week when he spoke about the impact of the Trump phenomenon on our country.
Speaking to many of the country’s leading conservatives at the Manning Centre Conference in Ottawa, Manning urged them not to become defensive in the face of the wave of populism that swept the flamboyant, mercurial and divisive Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
“The answer to manifestations of Trumpomania is not Trumpophia,” Manning argued, “but political leadership that addresses the root causes of voter alienation and redirects negative political energy into positive ends.”
As is often the way with such insights, there’s a deeper current under what might seem like a shallow pool. Politics – much like journalism and the judicial system – are at a low ebb. A 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer poll reported that only 43 per cent of Canadians trust their government. That’s down a full 10 points from a year ago, which was early in the post-election Justin Trudeau honeymoon. This year’s Edelman results put Canada into the list of “distruster” countries for the first time in 17 years.
Listen up politicians, it’s not your abilities that are in question, it’s your backbone; it is no longer enough to be polished and politically correct
Even more dramatic: eight Canadians in 10, fully 80 per cent, feel the country’s elites are out of touch.
Such a collapse in trust is certainly bad news for Trudeau because it suggests a lot of people who voted for his “sunny ways” style of enlightened politics no longer believe he is delivering on the promise. It’s also bad news for every federal politician, regardless of political stripe.
Canadians want better than we get in our politicians. That doesn’t necessarily mean brighter or more accomplished. Many who move into the world of politics have excelled in law, business, academia and other fields; we even have a former astronaut and a former top soldier in this Liberal cabinet.
It’s not their abilities that are in question. It’s their backbone. Time and again, we have seen people of principle sworn into office and then witness an instant transformation – into marionettes parroting the party line, spewing scripted talking points seemingly designed to obfuscate and deflect.
There is a perfectly rational argument for requiring cabinet ministers to speak with one voice. As the reasoning goes, the brawling and posturing takes place behind closed doors so that when a decision is presented to the public, our leadership appears united. A singular voice makes it easier to sell tough decisions.
That’s the theory. In reality, voters are no longer prepared to choke down the verbal pablum we’re force-fed. In the age of instant accountability via social media, you can no longer fool “all of the people some of the time,” as Abraham Lincoln once claimed.
That’s the true lesson from the Trump phenomenon. For all of his many quite horrifying faults, the new U.S. president gained popular support because his no-filter, shoot-from-the-hip speaking style convinced cynical voters that here, at last, was a guy who must be saying what he truly feels, because surely no one who listened to his advisers would ever say some of the things he did – and still does.
So here’s the fundamental tension: On one hand, leaders who speak without filter run the risk of turning off voters. Trump is the exception who proves the rule and it’s why our politicians are increasingly controlled by handlers. On the other hand, contrived messaging no longer has the impact it had on previous generations who didn’t have today’s instant feedback-via-smartphone on everything politicians claim. Today’s media-rich voters have seen enough crap over the years that they can smell a fake halfway across the Prairies.
The answer to this dilemma is as simple as it is daunting. To succeed in the future, politicians must learn a lesson from The Donald: It’s better to be open and honest than it is to be polished and politically correct. The re-democraticization of our political system starts with politicians who have the backbone to speak from their hearts, rather than from a script.
Honestly. Frankness. Courage. That’s really what Manning is urging of our next political generation.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.
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