Jen Gerson: An embarrassing display

We're heading into a generational crisis. Our leaders are not prepared.

One of the most moving scenes in any work of popular history was put to pen by Barbara Tuchman in her seminal work The Guns of August. In it, she recorded in lucid detail the funeral of Edward the VII, which took place in May of 1910. The monarchies of Europe and Asia had paraded noble representatives dressed in high pomp to publicly pay their respects. It must have been a breathtaking display of beauty, luxury, and frivolity in service to the arts of power and authority. Within a few short years, most of those monarchies would be swept by revolution into historical footnote while the world burned in the First World War. 

It was only with the benefit of many years' hindsight that Tuchman would recognize this scene for what it was: the death of the old world, and the beginning of the new. 

I was reminded of that scene during the televised address Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave to the nation shortly after reconvening parliament for a throne speech. 

Except for a few mentions of COVID-19, the speech was indistinguishable from the platform promises he gave when he was first elected to power five years ago. Apparently the answer to an unprecedented global health crisis and economic collapse is — identical to the answers the Liberals proposed before the global health crisis and the economic collapse. How convenient! The two big-ticket items were pharmacare and a national childcare program; the latter I’d advocate, but neither is new.

Canada is facing a high probability of a second wave of COVID-19, which threatens another round of lockdowns we frankly cannot afford. Our economy sits in a state of high precarity; job losses are historic, gains in female workplace participation might be set back generations. Our deficit spending has been declared "unsustainable" by the Parliamentary Budget Office. 

Meanwhile, in America, we face the real probability of a succession crisis in a few short weeks. Here, Atlantic writer Barton Gellman explains that: "Trump’s state and national legal teams are already laying the groundwork for post-election maneuvers that would circumvent the results of the vote count in battleground states." If the election is even close, there is a good chance that the incumbent president will go full Banana Republic. 

As Canada piddled away its attention, Trump would not commit to a peaceful transition of power. 

If it comes to it, the election will be decided by the court. Now, with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; the court’s current balance of five conservatives to three liberals could become a completely lopsided 6-3 with a hastily appointed conservative replacement — a replacement who, whatever their merits, will be seen to many in the electorate as a hypocritical and even illegitimate justice. See where we're going here?

The probability of America devolving into a state of civil unrest in the coming months is not zero, and it's getting higher. 

What are the implications for Canada if our largest trading partner is courting the title of "failed state"? What are the implications for the global economic recovery if the world's largest reserve currency is being printed in a disasterhouse? Heck, our best-case scenario is that Joe Biden takes control of an America that is probably in a deep economic recession. 

Anyone who claims to know the answer to these questions is lying. We know nothing about how any of this is going to play out. To play with a cliché, we are snorting cocaine while dancing on the edge of the volcano and chatting a mile a minute about the shiny lava. Oo, closer, closer, pretty lava.

And Justin Trudeau just gave an embarrassingly amateurish 8th-grade address to an uncertain nation to, uh, tell us to wear a mask. And to lecture us all about the importance of diversity and inclusion, I guess. On top of a 7,000-word throne speech that promised to tax dastardly “web giants” and spearhead an “intersectional” recovery. Because that was really what the Canadian public needed at this moment: to ensure that our very-serious prime minister was on top of the latest jargon churned out of the left-wing of the American culture wars.  

If you didn’t know that parliament was prorogued just as its committees were convening damaging hearings into the WE charity scandal, you’d wonder what the point of this exercise was.

Let's be blunt here: the Western world has enjoyed 70-odd years of peace, prosperity and progress unlike anything any society has recorded in human history. (Although not everyone has felt the benefit of this progress equally.) As a result, politics often hasn’t mattered. This is especially true in Canada. We debate whether the tax rate should be a point lower or a point higher; whether we should take on a billion in deficit or two; if this program should be cut, or that one expanded; whether we should give public sector workers a two-per-cent raise, or a three. Wealth has largely insulated us from the consequences of bad monetary policy — it's convinced us that we can print infinite amounts of money to weasel out of the latest crisis. Why not? It’s always worked before.

The material distinctions between the Conservatives, the Liberals, and the NDP once they are actually elected are marginal. A few unlucky souls always get caught in the crosshairs of bad policy or budget cuts — but for the country as a whole? We fight so hard and so bitterly to hide the truth that most of us will admit, if only in select company: the stakes are low.

Canadian politics is water polo. It’s an elitist sport. The kind of thing that attracts debate club frenemies at Queen's and McGill because they thought they could use power to push a few pet policy options forward, and put a few more letters in front, or behind, their names.

The result has been a political class that is intellectually weak and complacent — and utterly unprepared for a real crisis. It draws from an echelon that is insulated from the economic and mortal threats that Canadians are now facing en masse.

We've all made a good game of complaining about how awful 2020 has been. Consider this possibility (and it's still just a possibility): 2020 isn't going to be the year we all look back on with grim nostalgia as the Worst Year Ever. This might be the year when the bad really got started; when history reasserted itself. I’m not in a state of total despair about this possibility, but nor am I now ruling it out. Politics — leadership —matters again.

And to meet this moment, we've allowed ourselves to be governed by sweet summer children, with a charmed prime minister who has decorated himself in rhetorical frivolities for the funeral of the beautiful old world.