Does any normal person still care about Canadian politics?
That seems like the obvious question to ask in the aftermath of Tuesday's revelations -- first broke by the Huffington Post -- that virtually every single person involved in a supposedly "impromptu" protest at a recent Justin Trudeau press conference was actually on the Tory payroll.
Not that they hid their tracks particularly well, of course. The fact that the protestors waved signage bearing the precise slogan from a current line of Conservative attack ads -- "JUSTIN IN OVER HIS HEAD" -- as opposed to something a less on-message a regular angry person might write -- "TRUDEAU SUCKS," for instance -- was a bit of a tip-off.
There was a revealing poll a couple years ago suggesting the amount of Canadians who actually care about Canadian politics had fallen to a measly 15% of the electorate, and I'd be surprised if the number is any higher today. Politics is becoming such a thoroughly unpopular pastime in modern Canada the odds are now pretty solid that anyone caught expressing a particularly showy opinion on a political party is probably receiving a paycheque for doing so.
The root causes of such alienation are obvious. Most of the "issues" and "debates" that dominate contemporary Canadian political headlines are of little interest for anyone beyond that narrow clique of geeky obsessives for whom federal politics functions as something between a soap opera and NHL playoff.
Whether or not Justin Trudeau is, in fact, "in over his head," for instance, might make for a fascinating case study among those who spend a lot of time pondering prime ministerial biographies, but it's thoroughly irrelevant for the great mass of commoners more concerned with health care reform, job creation, better schools, or any of the other quaint things Canadians tell pollsters they actually want their politics to be about.
But those things are tricky. And, as the public accurately assumes, the political class don't actually have any answers or ideas to address them. So the conversation shifts away from real-world problems and towards proxy debates on touchy-feely abstract issues, like the "leadership," "competence," "likability," and "trustworthiness" of the individual politicians themselves, with the assumption being that such Myers/Briggs-type personality evaluations are the closest we're ever going to get to figuring out what Leader X is actually going to do about the deficit, or whatever.
A political culture dominated by evaluations of personalities invariably breeds a political system dominated by personality cults, however. And in an individualistic society such as Canada's, most citizens will have a natural aversion to placing too much trust or love in a single authority figure -- no matter how good he looks in a sweater vest or how well he busts a move with his wife. So most normal humans opt out, and only the sycophants stay, the career-climbers and lickspittles who look at Justin, Tom, or Steve and cry (genuinely or not), "o Captain, my captain!"
In the Huff Po story on the phony Trudeau uprising, reporter Althia Raj noted that in order to become a paid Tory
protestor intern these days, one must first "write essays on such topics as: 'What do you think the biggest success of the Harper Government has been over the last six years?' and 'Who is the political figure you admire most and why?'"
"Interns joke that the right answer to that question is Stephen Harper," she added.
But really, why wouldn't it be? Canada's party system is sharply hierarchical, and the sheer powers of the party bosses -- to dictate policy, control parliamentary votes, nominate candidates, and expel heretics -- far exceeds anything elsewhere in the western world. To support any Canadian political party in any serious fashion thus requires an unsettling degree of willingness to defer to the dude on top, and all the incoherent, esoteric things his handlers have told him to stand for.
If our political parties were less rigidly authoritarian, if, say, party membership was recognized as a basic civil right, rather than a privilege to be paid for, the power of the leader might be a bit lessened, and things might be a bit more natural. But so long all parties demand such profoundly unnatural levels of loyalty, obedience, and adulation from their members, we're destined to remain with an unnatural status quo -- a country where less than 1% of the population participates in the selection of party bosses, where the only people who ask questions at town hall debates or call-in radio shows are paid partisan staffers, and where even running for office is usually a sign that you've spent an unhealthy chunk of your adult life kissing the party ring.
Stories like Althia's are troubling not because they expose a Prime Minister's Office with an undue propensity for "dirty tricks" -- though that may very well be true -- but because they reveal a decaying Canadian political culture in which only the most narrowly self-interested slice of the public is still willing to, as sociologists used to say, "get political" outside of elections, and engage in the sort of activism and advocacy we once considered a perfectly humdrum element of democratic citizenship.
It shouldn't be nearly so easy to predict, in short, that someone engaged in protest as mild as waving a cardboard sign with a slogan on it is probably a paid operative of some powerful political machine. But in 2013 Canada, it unfortunately is.