Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservatives spent the election in Ontario hiding from protestors, the press, and the public. Ahead of the leaders’ debate, nurses were pushed around. PC candidates opted out of local debates and dodged the press. There were plenty of incidents, cynical, bullying, and anti-democratic. It was a frontrunner’s campaign protected by playing keep away. And it worked.
We have ideas about what democracy ought to be—about how campaigns should run, how candidates should present themselves, how an electoral system ought to turn votes into seats, how leaders should lead, how the press must hold politicians to account. These ideas don’t survive the printing of the textbooks they pop up in. Few ideas do.
As much as we might wish Ontario elections operated as some idealized Athens-along-the-Greenbelt (or whatever local reference you might prefer) the truth is they don’t. Debates don’t tend to matter all that much. The electoral system allows parties to form majority governments with a plurality of voters, despite a majority who’d prefer someone else at the helm. The media is heavily resource-constrained and varied in talent. Parties and candidates can get away with things you wouldn’t expect to be permitted in a high school student council election and people will vote for them anyway. Incumbents will be forgiven their incompetence, failures, and misdeeds.
People have material interest, identity commitments, and partisan affiliations that tend to justify—that is to say rationalize—their preferences while guiding their vote. The nasty stuff, the bits that have been a part of politics as long as politics has been something we do, is typically marginalia. On social media, it’s easy to get whipped into a frenzy, bolstered by the likes and shares and messages of outrage. Support for that frustration and anger may make it seem like everyone must care about the norm-breaking, democracy-undermining, and plain old skullduggery. But most people are busy with other things and their votes are the product of different concerns. Even when people do care about failures of leadership and short-changing democratic expectations, they don’t care that much. On a list of the top several issues of importance, such considerations don’t tend to rank.
Should people care more about how campaigns are run? Probably. A party that abuses protestors, hides from the public and the press, and holds the norms of democratic accountability in contempt is a party that is unfit to govern. Untrustworthy. Arrogant. Potentially quite dangerous indeed. But to most people that seems like a problem down the road, if, again, it ranks as a problem at all. Immediate concerns, drawn from the issues that dominate the headlines and fuel day-to-day challenges get priority. And why shouldn’t they? We’ll all have to face the future sooner or later, but right now, our bills are due today.
The problem with ignoring contempt for the public and the institutions that are meant to hold politicians to account is that eventually the problem catches up with you and encourages second- or third-rate politics and policies that produce worse outcomes. In the end, many folks end up suffering more than necessary, those day-to-day concerns remain, their needs left unmet because the canary in the coal mine of respect for the public was left to die and nobody gave a damn.
Over two years into a pandemic, staring into the future of climate catastrophe, weathering ongoing inflation, struggling against a housing crisis, and worrying about global conflict, people are anxious and exhausted. You might expect that to be a moment where the population would demand more from their politicians, but what we seem to get is lowered expectations. Incumbents throughout Canada have fared well, with several returned to office nationally and sub-nationally despite records that ought to have produced punishment. Opposition parties, as in Ontario, have proven themselves unable to persuade voters that the time to change a horse is midstream.
Things probably won’t get better. At least not at the rate we’re going. Eventually, voters tend to tire of one government or another and replace them with the most palatable—or least unpalatable—option at hand. But declining norms and rising crises tend not to produce better outcomes. Things could improve, though. There’s no law of nature that forbids it. But better requires us to simultaneously pay attention to immediate material concerns and respect for democratic inclusion and accountability for everyone. Few have gone broke betting against respect for democratic institutions. And it doesn’t look like anyone will in Ontario this time around.
David Moscrop is a contributing columnist for the Washington Post and the author of Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones. He is a political commentator for television, radio, and print media. He is also the host of Open To Debate, a current affairs podcast. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of British Columbia.