Shared Community is Failing: Blame Populism

populismGlobal news has a new commentary: With populism on the rise, are we losing our shared community? I’d argue that rather than populism being the cause of the loss of societal cohesion in Canada, it’s a symptom of it.

The “elites and government have lost touch with the common person” is an emerging refrain worldwide to explain recent “disruptive” events.

It is emerging because there is truth in it.

You hear it in the U.K. to explain the Brexit results, in the U.S. to explain the rise of Donald Trump, and in Ontario with the recent election of Doug Ford. You hear it across Canada as the federal government and some provincial and municipal governments launch public consultations on a wide range of issues in an attempt to better understand and connect with average Canadians.

Consulting the populace is a good idea. One might even say it’s populist.

And there is evidence to show that average Canadians agree that elites are out of touch. Seventy-one per cent say that the economy is rigged for the rich and 64 per cent say that their governments don’t really represent “people like me.”

And there’s evidence–plenty–that they’re right.

But the notion that power brokers have lost touch is really a top-down perspective on the issues we are facing.

What? 71% of the people saying that the system is rigged and the government doesn’t represent them is “top down”? What dark orifice was this claim pulled from? Is this some kind of mass mind control conspiracy theory?

What happens if we look at the disconnects across society from a bottom-up perspective? Could the root of emerging challenges be that the public is losing touch with themselves? Could it be that our society is splintering?

71% seems like a pretty large splinter.

If you look up the definition of “society” in the Merriam Webster dictionary or the Oxford dictionary both note that societies require shared laws, traditions, values and organizations. What is key here is the “sharing” — the notion of having social cohesion and agreement around our customs, values, traditions, organizations and laws. This sharing leads to order and a common sense of purpose. It knits people together in a community far more than geographic proximity. With eight in 10 Canadians saying they will feel closer affinity to their online community than their geographic community in the next 10 years, the notion of a shared purpose at the geographic level becomes even more important.

I agree 100%. I also think that what those shared values are is as important as having them.

So, what is the state of “social cohesion” in Canada today? Not great. Only about one-third of Canadians believe that their outlook on life, opinions on important issues, etc. are the same as other Canadians generally or others in their community. These have declined significantly over the last two years (since 2016).

Social cohesion has declined under a government run by a man who holds a fractious, identity driven political ideology.

And, what is the state of “empathy” in Canada? Also, not stellar. While three-quarters of Canadians believe that government has a responsibility to take care of the less fortunate, only half say that they personally have such a responsibility. So what does this mean?

People don’t have a responsibility to take care of the less fortunate. Because they have given the state authority to take wealth and redistribute it, some believe that they don’t need to do anything themselves. Others, angry at how the government wastes the taxes it takes, turn away from giving because they have been forced to ‘give’ so much already. The welfare state is the enemy of true charity.

At a societal level, without some widespread degree of perceived commonality with fellow citizens (“we are all in this together”), can Canadian society evolve and thrive? Without some widespread personal commitment to helping the less fortunate, how can a truly “caring society,” be sustained.

Society can and will evolve. The best way for the government to allow it to thrive is to get out of the way. Cut regulation, throw out inter-provincial trade barriers, eliminate government monopolies, and negotiate with the Americans to remove trade barriers. The market will take care of the rest. If the government was vastly reduced and taxes decreased, there would be fewer people who were truly less fortunate, and hopefully, people would become more charitable.

At a practical level, governments in Canada have always had to stick handle around competing interests in policy development and implementation. But can governments govern for “all the people” if people don’t see the existence of an “all the people?” We also know that people vote in large part out of a sense of responsibility to their community. If we lose that sense of shared responsibility because we care less about our communities, will fewer and fewer Canadians vote?

If voting makes no difference, fewer people will vote. That’s why a true populist, who does the bidding of the voters who elected them and delivers on their promises, is appealing.

What about the volunteer and charitable giving sector? If a sense of personal empathy continues to wane, there is little doubt that Canadians will be less inclined to give of themselves to help others.

Why is personal empathy waning? As I said above, I believe the welfare state traps people in a state of scarcity. The decline of the church has led to hedonism and narcissism in a large part of the population. Those who retain Christian principles are unlikely to give to charities that support such people; they will give to their fellow believers.

What might this mean for companies and brands? Many companies anchor their social responsibility programs around the communities they are in; even more companies tout their Canadian credentials as a key selling point for their products and services. If our sense of a common purpose or what it means to be Canadian continues to decline it will be much more difficult for brands to position themselves as Canadian or as a part of the community.

I agree. A business has to be local before I feel any affiliation with it. As soon as it becomes a large corporation, it has to compete on price or service to me. I would rather shop at my local Safeway than drive to the big box Real Canadian Superstore in the next town over.

There will likely be events that draw us together as Canadians. The quest for Olympic Gold in men’s and women’s hockey or a simmering trade dispute with our southern neighbours, for example.

Nope. I couldn’t care less about the Olympic games, and my only thoughts on the trade dispute is that Chrystia Freeland needs to get a trade agreement done.

These immediate issues will be the focus of us our regular discourse. However, there are more foundational currents that are flowing among Canadians, some of the currents may be pulling us in different directions and if the currents change in an undesirable direction, then the flow of Canadian society will also change.

What does this even mean?

Given the advances in technology and the growth and penetration of social media in our lives, this decline in social cohesion may have already moved beyond the tipping point. Even if it hasn’t, whose job is it to keep us knitted together? Is it the role of the elites who we all feel have lost touch or will individuals see a need for a shared community and swing the pendulum back? And if we do decide to shift the flow of those foundational Canadian currents in which direction do we want them to go?

The elites can’t save us; the days when the people could be controlled are over. Social media has exposed the emperor’s nakedness. Politicians and the media can be fact checked in real time. Vast amounts of information are available to anyone who takes an interest. We had better work hard to make sure social media and technology give us better social cohesion.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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