Is this us? Are we Liberals akin to the “rough beast” Yeats is referring to? Likely we are. The great Irish poet and playwright lived to see the hopeful glories of the 19th century lost in the bloody trenches of the 20th. The hoped for era of progressive liberalism gave way to the deathly toll of fascism, communism, and ultimately the rather harsh realities of unbridled capitalism that brought on the Depression.
The brutal characteristics of that earlier time find their counterparts today, only in more refined clothing. In their search for the centre, Canadian Liberals find it’s not as black and white as it used to be. The socialists have cast much of their ideology aside and the hard-nosed Conservatives have slid towards the middle while securely moored in their penchant for profits and isolationism over public policy. These two realities crowding the middle lane are all about the pursuit of the sweet spot of power, while, for the moment at least, resisting the tension to pull them back to their more intensive ideological roots. But they are there nevertheless, leaving the Liberals crowded and unsure in a domain they once used to own in seeming perpetuity. To make matters worse, the average voter (if they do indeed vote) cares not a whit for such political machinations.
In other words, Liberals are experiencing difficulty finding the purchase point that will permit them to stake their claim and hold it against incursions from left and right. The phrase in the Yeats poem that struck me most – “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” – acutely describes the fix Liberals are in. They look one way only to discover that voters appear to lack interest in the great national accomplishments Canada is still capable of, and then they swing their gaze in the other direction only to find themselves confronted by an aggressive group desiring the strip any future federal governments of the tools and money required to build a national dream again.
Yet despite all this crowding to the centre, real or tactical, one irrefutable fact remains: Canadians in general are disengaged from politics regardless of political positioning. All the hullabaloo about increased engagement through social media or increased youth activity barely brought about an increased voter turnout or the kind of change the majority of citizens were hoping for in this recent election. So, something is still wrong; whichever point the various parties are situated on the compass, they are largely viewed as irrelevant. All the talk about gaining the centre will mean nothing unless the imagination of the Canadian people is recaptured.
Liberals themselves fit the “rough beast” classification. Their innocence is gone (as is the country’s), and, accosted on both sides, they nevertheless struggle towards new birth in a time when a kind of political blood lust floods the country. Liberals are hardly pretty at the moment, their divisions highlighted not merely by party struggles but because they had once been successful at drawing from all points on the political spectrum to enhance their appeal and this has populated the party with opinions and convictions.
As they “slouch” towards their own rebirth they have this one reality as their consolation: citizens yet await a party of relevance. And there is the incontrovertible fact that these same citizens comprehend politics as nothing more than a constant factional conflict designed to produce winners and leaving no place for serious public discussion by those who care less about who achieves power and more about defining common purposes and goals. And here is the key point of all. The decline of the political system’s legitimacy, in the eyes of citizens at least, is serious and fatally flawed. Reviving the party system, or one party’s role in it, fails to address this weakness.
Here is the best Liberal opportunity in perhaps a generation. Rather than pinning all our hopes and fortunes on party renewal, we could shift our emphasis to one of inclusiveness. A political movement with inclusive goals rather than a string of single issues will initially have trouble gaining visibility, raising more funds, and will possess fewer publicists as the special interest groups. But the road to Bethlehem, though painful at present, is the one sure path to political and public legitimacy. It’s the road less traveled and Liberals would be wise to take it.