During the COVID-19 emergency, our governing institutions – including Parliament, cabinet, federalism and the public service – were more responsive than they typically are. As a result, public trust was high.

Once the pandemic hit in earnest, a new cabinet committee was formed to co-ordinate the federal government’s response. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit Act was passed in record time, despite what had become fractious relationships between political parties in a minority Parliament. Programs such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) were rolled out so that Canadians who lost income because of COVID-19 could stay afloat financially.

Interactions between federal ministers and provincial premiers were generally co-operative and cordial, regardless of partisan stripe, which made for a united front against COVID-19 across jurisdictions. That said, some premiers – Jason Kenney in Alberta, in particular – did come under fire for lifting restrictions too early.

Sadly, but perhaps predictably, the robust level of public trust observed at the beginning of the pandemic was not to last. Slightly more than three years after our first lockdown, we are engulfed in a toxic state of “winner-take-all” politics that is the very opposite of what democracy is supposed to be.

The health of democracy depends on civic participation, but some of our political actors are so focused on winning, and demonizing one another in the process, that they neglect their core responsibility as custodians of our governing institutions: to encourage citizens to engage so that democracy can thrive. Three things could help reverse that trend: changes to how political parties elect their leaders; electoral reform to replace the first-past-the-post system; and lowering the voting age to 16. All of these measures would help to energize an apathetic, orphaned, and suppressed electorate.

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The above-mentioned COVID-19 victories were based on institutional flexibility that was leveraged to deliver outcomes. But simultaneously, the pandemic period contributed to a hollowing out of democracy that was already in progress. Democratic checks and balances were temporarily truncated or shelved altogether. Social distancing and lockdowns – though necessary from a public health perspective – depleted social capital. Much of our time alone was spent online and Canadians’ exposure to, and engagement with, far-right content increased.

Distance from each other made us complacent about our individual responsibility to the commonweal. This is somewhat paradoxical because the high rate of compliance with COVID-19 public health measures indicated a desire to protect one’s neighbour and act in the public interest. But at the same time, countless surveys showed that the space between us grew during that time.

Hot rhetoric puts a chill on trust

There are some important lessons to be drawn from the COVID-19 period when thinking about how to bring our democratic deficit to balance.

First, when political rhetoric de-escalates, public trust in institutions goes up and we become more solutions-oriented.

Second, though “polarization” has become the buzzword of the decade, it is not entirely clear whether Canada as a society is truly becoming more polarized, which is defined as the division of society into two contrasting groups with virtually no chance of overlap. Polarization is the opposite of democracy, which depends on the existence of a common meeting place where shared values can be articulated and transmitted.

Third, regardless of whether there is increasing polarization, there is a palpable sense of discontent among many Canadians that is being harnessed and exploited by politicians in search of power. Even if Canadians aren’t becoming more extremist, some politicians are becoming extremist in their speech with the intent to use anger as a basis for building connections with voters. Some (not all) of the very people who are meant to be guardians of the system are willing to run it into the ground for their own selfish purposes.

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Doomed is a democracy where political actors place value on apathy and are disconnected from the people they claim to represent. Voter suppression has become an electoral strategy in modern political competition, one that can be more lucrative than voter mobilization. In a recent episode of the popular podcast The Curse of Politics, conservative strategist Kory Teneycke proclaimed that the Progressive Conservative machine got the popular vote down to a mere 43.5 per cent in the 2022 Ontario election, which returned Premier Doug Ford to power with an even-larger majority government. When low turnout is seen as a victory, it means that the ethos of democracy is lost and that elections cannot act as legitimate mechanisms of collective decision-making.

Parties become disconnected from values

Another institution in which the winner takes all is party leadership contests. For contenders, the name of the game is to sign up as many voting members as possible, regardless of their commitment to the party and its causes. Winning is more important than protecting the party from entryism. Members who signed up to vote for candidates who go on to lose can either get with the program of the new leader or get lost. The party is often rebranded in the new leader’s image with no attempt to rebuild through concessions to the supporters of other candidates who represent different aspects of the party’s value system. As a result, parties’ values are perpetually in flux and continuity between leaders is increasingly challenging.

It is both bizarre and sad that digital venues such as Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok fail to create safe spaces for the free exchange of ideas and the promotion of shared values through knowledge. Instead, these spaces too often facilitate echo chambers that contribute to driving us apart into self-affirming camps.

We are in dire need of institutional reforms that would counter our “winner-take-all” tendencies and ensure that people will keep playing, even if they lose.

Three ideas to improve democratic health

Here are a few ideas, all of which could be easily dismissed as long shots but which would help if taken seriously.

First, political parties could require that members be paid up for at least a year to be eligible to vote in leadership contests. This would also help prevent parties from being taken over by single-interest groups, fringe elements and extremist views.

Second, we need to have a serious conversation about electoral reform so that we can replace the current single-member plurality (read: single winner) system with a better, more inclusive one. Depending on what happens in the next election, New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh would be wise to include this as a condition of his support, if the Liberals win another minority government.

Finally, we need to lower the voting age to 16 so that we can unleash a new constituency of voters who are uniquely suited to consider the long-term implications of policy choices. This would force political parties to stop relying on voter suppression and instead to court new, curious voters who would hopefully talk to their parents, friends and extended family about why politics is important – thereby hopefully making voters out of them, too, if they weren’t already.

The only way to counter winner-take-all politics is to change the game so that winning is impossible without respect for other democratic principles.

This article is part of the Resilient Institutions: Learning from Canada’s COVID-19 Pandemic special feature series.

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Lori Turnbull
Dr. Lori Turnbull is the director of the school of public administration and an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

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