Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Women’s Caucus meeting for the Liberal Party of Canada. The meeting was held in Prince Edward Island. The incomparable Member of Parliament Carolyn Bennett chaired the meeting. She is a family-doctor-turned-politician and she works tirelessly to support women in politics. I came home from the meeting feeling inspired and educated. One of my treasures was a new list of great “Carolyn Bennett quotes”. Of all the smart things she said during those meetings, one of her statements has particularly preoccupied me. In the context of contemporary Canadian politics, she said: “Cynicism is the biggest barrier to democracy today.”
Imagine that. Canadian democracy – the envy of countless countries around the world – may not be threatened by rebellion or protests or even by the rise of the plutocracy as much as it is threatened by a creeping sentiment of cynicism that pervades our population.
What is cynicism? The Merriam-Webster dictionary says that a cynic is: “contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives; based on or reflecting a belief that human conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest.”
I think Carolyn Bennett has made an accurate diagnosis. When it comes to politics and politicians, many Canadians are cynics. This distrust is reflected in a continual decline in voter turnout at election time. Canadians question the motivations of political leaders. They question whether the average person has any hope of changing the political system. As a result, they stop paying attention to political decisions that are made.
Left unchecked, there is a poor prognosis for Canadian democracy. We will continue the downward spiral with less citizen engagement, less-accountable representatives and less control over our collective future. If the diagnosis of what ails us is cynicism, what’s the antidote? Here are some of my thoughts.
1. Recognize what’s at stake
As I have become more engaged in Canadian politics, I have noticed that first-generation Canadians are often very eager to participate in public discourse. My hypothesis is that people who were not born in a highly democratic country are less inclined to take democracy for granted. Joni Mitchell said: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” I hope we don’t have to wait until genuine democracy is gone before we realize what is at stake. If Canadians fail to pay attention and fail to participate in the political process, we may find some day that we barely recognize the country that was founded on peace, justice and fair participation.
2. Support politicians who communicate well
Political leaders need to participate in two-way communication in order to combat cynicism. They need to listen respectfully to all Canadians to be sure they understand what ordinary citizens are dealing with every day. Then they need to communicate back to the people that they serve in a way that is honest and transparent. Today I had the privilege of participating in a lovely event in Markham where Justin Trudeau visited St Dimitrija Solunski Macedonian Church. He was attentive, engaging and genuinely interested in connecting with ordinary Canadians. I can tell you that no one left that event feeling cynical. On the contrary, they were inspired.
3. Challenge one another to pay attention and engage
Most Canadians want to be involved citizens. I had a meeting at my home last evening with people who want to participate in the political process. They were energized and motivated by the idea that they could have a voice in the future of their country. We have a responsibility to spur one another on to be more engaged citizens. If you are looking for tools to enable such a goal, you may want to have a look at www.samaracanada.com. According to its website, “Samara is an independent charitable organization that works to improve citizen engagement with democracy through innovative research and education.” I highly recommend having a look at their materials.
All Canadians have the capacity to envision a better and brighter future for our country. We need to be enabled to work together to make it a reality. What’s the three-step antidote to cynicism?
- Believe that democracy matters.
- Speak up and listen up.
- Rally your fellow-citizens and be part of the solution.