Modern democracies need to get their act together. I’m not talking about deficits, free trade, or national security. Much as we complain, and as much as these issues matter, they’re not what’s missing in modern discourse.
What modern liberal democracies need is societal storytelling. Grand narratives. Political heroism. Dreaming big, and dreaming together.
Around the time when Jean-François Lyotard declared the death of societal narratives, we saw governments and parties retreat from talking big ideas to talking about tweaking the system. I don’t thinking tweaking the system is wrong, and I believe that the death of societal storytelling partially stems from campaign vagary with little policy to support it. Multiculturalism is a nice platitude (and one I think worth pursuing), but can whitewash our failures to live up to it. So I don’t blame cynics for rolling their eyes when politicians talk about change, vision, or grandiose descriptions of Canadian or Albertan identity.
For all that cynicism, we still need a story which tells us what our province, country, and world means, what their role is in the great scheme of things, where we’re going, and how individuals participate in the narrative. French President Emmanuel Macron posited in an interview with Der Spiegal that so many young people were turning to ultranationalism or jihadism due to a lack of opportunity elsewhere for dreaming big, aspiring to more, and becoming political heroes. His cure for political malaise and gravitation to extremism was for liberal democracies to be amenable to grand ideas once again.
Take our home province. We’re currently facing challenges as well as opportunities related to the economy, healthcare, wage increases and access to market for Albertan oil. Albertan politicians understandably need to address these issues. But there’s a risk that in addressing them we forget to outline the big picture goals sufficient to provide Albertans with the passion, drive and unifying pull necessary to foster the great accomplishments needed in the 21st century. It’s not impossible to articulate that vision. Peter Lougheed’s “Now!” campaign centred around a platform for Albertan prosperity, greater pull in Confederation, and social progress. He grounded it in policies like provincial oversight over natural resources and the Heritage Fund. It’s arguably the foundation for Alberta’s unique rhetoric around our role in Canada, private business, and community focus.
We desperately need a 21st century equivalent and the accomplishments that come with it if we’re going to address the great challenges facing us. Climate change, refugee migrations and global economic volatility will impact our province, and we need to be prepared to hit back with political heroes, community leaders, scientists, farmers, frontline workers, volunteers, and others willing to make a difference. Many of those exist already, but we need more.
For all the flack we can give Prime Minister Trudeau over a plethora of issues, his coupling of Canadian multicultural and humanitarian narratives with bringing in Syrian refugees resulted in real action and volunteerism. It’s continued to spawn stories about families being reunited, businesses being started by settled refugees, and towns rallying around their newest neighbours. It isn’t enough, and we need more marriages between vision and policy.
If we don’t, we risk vacating the field to people with more nefarious stories to tell. If all theatres have to show is horror movies, then that’s all people will see, and there are plenty of people in Alberta, Canada and our neighbour to the south ready to share their horror stories with all their malicious prescriptions. That’s why Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” resonates with so many. Campaigns based around a candidate’s character or background won’t resonate with people looking to participate in a grand societal undertaking. Only democratic participation, with individual buy-in to creating something greater than ourselves can counteract pathos-driven campaigns of nostalgia and exceptionalism. Give people something to vote for, and they’ll choose that almost every time. Ground that choice in policy and results, and generations will run with it.
If you’re one of those shouting at the screen saying that it’s impossible for one party, person, or group to influence narratives past one election, I agree. Only the right combination of policies, characters, voter buy-in, time and place can build the kind of generational societal storytelling which survives four year terms. Only the right story can produce the movements, inventions, art, music, initiatives and people ready to address the challenges and opportunities facing us in the next 100 years.
So what does democracy’s vision for my province, country and planet look like? I’m not sure. I have ideas, but they can’t be mine alone.
I’m excited to find out, and hope you’ll be a part of it.