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Raymond J. de Souza: O'Toole's departing gift was a call for inspiration to trump anger in Canadian politics

National Post logo National Post 2022-02-06 Father Raymond J. de Souza
Erin O'Toole delivers a speech on Twitter after being voted out as Conservative leader. © Provided by National Post Erin O'Toole delivers a speech on Twitter after being voted out as Conservative leader.

On his way out the door, former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole delivered a video address that was smart, magnanimous and remarkably cheerful given the circumstances. It did him credit that he spoke without rancour or resentment.

“What Canadians deserve from a Conservative party is balance, ideas and inspiration,” O’Toole said. “Conservatism is about a vision of the country that makes us exceptional. It feeds the soul. It causes us to aspire to be better for our country, for our communities, for our families and neighbours, and for our role as a leader on the world stage. But it is just dreaming, without the lever of power that comes with inspiring the country and earning the trust of its people.”

That was a giant word salad, light on the dressing, but there was this crouton of truth: politics ought to be inspiring. The sad reality is that it seldom is.

O’Toole’s fatal failing was that he did not inspire. To those whose policies he embraced, he was ingratiating; to those whose policies he abandoned, he was infuriating. To all, he seemed insincere. Eventually, he gave up on inspiration altogether and began insulting his own caucus.

Yet he was right that politics ought to inspire. A political platform is not a philosophical thesis and a political campaign is not a graduate seminar. Electoral politics is about engaging the public’s passions, as well as appealing to reason and judgment. There are two dominant ways to engage the passions of the public: inspiration and hope, on one hand, or anger and fear on the other.

In his last days, O’Toole made the case explicitly that the alternative to his way was the path of anger. And the path of anger leads to defeat.

That is not true; at least not always. The path of anger and fear can be politically potent. Certainly, Canadian progressives have for generations whipped up fears — occasionally real, but mostly conjured — against their political opponents. O’Toole himself experienced that in last year’s election campaign.

Indeed, long before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau abandoned his “sunny ways” for the politics of denunciation — anyone opposed to him is guilty of bigotry — the Liberal party long employed fear as a near-default campaign mode. Whether it was Pierre Trudeau against Robert Stanfield — “Zap! You’re frozen!” — or Paul Martin against Stephen Harper — nice “hidden agenda” you have there — the politics of anger and fear are quite at home in Canada.

O’Toole knows this: he campaigned for Conservative leader vowing to “take back Canada,” which is a not-too-subtle way to channel anger against those who have supposedly taken it away.

The trucker convoy brought anger to the streets of the capital. It also brought a reaction that perversely delighted in excoriating the truckers with angry condemnation.

Consider that the estimable Andrew Coyne, one of Canada’s finest political commentators for more than a quarter century, argued that while O’Toole did not deserve to be fired, the Tories should instead expel from their caucus “Pierre Poilievre, Candice Bergen and Andrew Scheer” for the sin of allying “themselves with the pseudo-Trumpian grift known as the ‘trucker’ convoy.”

That’s the former leader, the now interim leader and a potential future leader — all part of the “extremist” wing. Coyne sounded uncharacteristically angry, but then anger is contagious.

Very contagious. The twin political phenomena of the last two American presidential cycles were Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. They were usually fascinating — if sometimes in a rubber-necking car accident sort of way — and occasionally entertaining.

Theirs was the politics of grievance, the stoking of fears, the fomenting of anger, righteous and manufactured. And it was a powerful politics. They both changed their parties more than the rhetorical uplift of Barack Obama’s hope and change, or George W. Bush’s evocation of compassionate conservatism.

Abroad, the politics of anger, fear, grievance and resentment are powerful, from the Philippines to Russia, from Brazil to India. At home, angry politics has been a staple in Quebec and Alberta for more than 50 years. And not only there. Recall Premier Danny Williams refusing to fly the Canadian flag in Newfoundland?

Politics that inspires is more than desirable; it is a good in itself and makes statecraft into something like soulcraft. But it is difficult, and like all difficult things, it is rare. O’Toole was right to call for inspiration. That spirit, though, is elusive.

National Post

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