This article was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen on November 8, 2016.
Over the course of this year, we’ve seen some truly stunning political developments in the world, and many of us have struggled to understand the choices people have made. What kind of person, for example, would vote for Britain to leave the European Union? Who could bring themselves to believe that what either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders has promised could ever actually come to be?
As much as we in Canada might take comfort in the fact that these are questions for other countries to answer, I can’t help but wonder if some of the wisdom of former Alberta premier Jim Prentice, who died last month in a plane crash in British Columbia, would be applicable here.
Never one to shy away from hard or uncomfortable truths, Jim’s most perceptive observations could sometimes be his most controversial. Few will ever forget, and some may never forgive, when he suggested that those wanting to know who was responsible for Alberta’s difficult financial situation “need only look in the mirror.” Jim’s point was that Albertans had benefited from “the best of everything” without always paying for what it had cost. It was a classic Jim Prentice answer, one that would garner more points for honesty than votes.
I often think back to the central truth of his words, but also their broader significance.
Much analysis has been devoted to examining the typical Brexit and Trump/Sanders voters, and it has found they are, in many ways, just that – typical. They have come from various walks of life, age groups and socio-economic backgrounds. Some are married with children, some aren’t. Some have post-secondary educations, some don’t. Some are rich, some poor.
Despite their many differences, though, they appear to share a fervent love of country and a frustration that the established order of things isn’t working anymore. While others have suggested they represent a triumph of emotion over reason – the heart over the head – that’s too simplistic an explanation.
The fact is these voters are regular people like any of us. They could be our neighbours, our friends or our co-workers. While their views on policy or social issues may differ, even significantly, from ours, we likely have more in common with them than we might expect. To learn from their example, then, is to learn about ourselves.
To that end, perhaps the most striking lesson that this past year has taught us is how easily groups of people can be harnessed and leveraged as catalysts for change. Aided by new technology and targeted social media, seemingly disparate communities can be brought together and built around an idea, an ideal or an individual.
The Brexit, Trump, and Sanders campaigns all began as underdog efforts. Their ultimate success was in identifying and conveying a central message that resonated with those who held, in many cases privately or passively, strong personal opinions about the state of the world, their countries or their local communities.
Of course, Canada is neither isolated from nor immune to these types of efforts. The Canada-EU trade agreement was briefly stalled by the Wallonia region of Belgium. Here at home, the National Energy Board hearings into the Energy East pipeline have been indefinitely disrupted by three individual protesters who showed up in Montreal.
However different these overarching campaigns may be, whether rooted in different views on globalization, the environment or something else, the common denominator these types of movements share is that they are fuelled by groups of everyday citizens – small or large – who found their voice and got engaged.
To paraphrase the great cartoon philosopher Pogo, have we met the social disruption and it is us? We now live in an age where mass social movements can be launched by a single tweet or text. The byproduct of the information era is that networks of people can be rallied together on short notice and at low cost. Anyone can now start a social revolution – and if you want to know what that means, you need only look in the mirror.