Skip to Main Content

What's Happened to Politics?

About The Book

Poised to capitalize on renewed political interest following the federal election, the trade paperback edition of What’s Happened to Politics? is sure to be necessary reading for every concerned Canadian citizen.

Segmented electorates. Political leaders avoiding debate and dialogue in favour of an endless repetition of sound bites and vanity videos with little substance. Billions of dollars spent on lobbying. It’s clear that Canadian politics is in a sorry state. Through increasingly low voter turnouts and a general lack of engagement in the political process, Canadians have shown that they are dissatisfied and fed up with present-day politics.

At a time when Canadians across the political spectrum are frustrated with political gamesmanship, it is more important than ever to find ways to re-engage with our communities, our leaders, and our political institutions. In Bob Rae, Canadians hear the voice of reason they need, and in What’s Happened to Politics?, they finally get an definitive account of the problems plaguing their national politics. Touching on everything from polling to issues of social justice to the way in which political parties package their candidates, Rae identifies the shortcomings of the current Canadian political framework, and what we, as citizens, can do to remedy that. With remarkable insight and startling accuracy, Rae envisions a political forum where citizens are inspired to participate, instead of feeling disenfranchised.

Timely, filled with real-world examples, and told from the point of view of an experienced statesman, What’s Happened to Politics? is necessary reading for all Canadians, regardless of their political affiliation. Erudite, engaged, and keenly attuned to the frustrations expressed by Canadians across the political spectrum, Rae shows why he is the leading voice on Canadian politics.


What exactly has gone wrong with politics? We need to be precise about the diagnosis before we can identify the remedies. That there is a widespread disillusionment with politics is undoubtedly true. There is a universal tendency to hearken back to a golden age of politics and public policy, to see through a gauzy lens to some time when men and women deliberated solemnly on the issues of the day, unsullied by the lure of lobbyists or the odour of self-interest. Such a time never existed. Politics has never been that way. No time has been free from the golden age of bullshit and the inevitable push and pull of who gets what, when, where, and how. But something has happened in our current time to create an aura of phony salesmanship that is even more pungent than the whiff of other times. What is it exactly?

I am not a social scientist, a philosopher, or a seer, but rather a mere mortal who has spent most of his life in politics, public service, the law, and education. I see no contradiction between a life of action and one of reflection, and I have tried to remain curious about the human condition. I do not see politics as inherently corrupt or evil—in fact, quite the opposite. I see it as a necessary endeavour, the deterioration of which troubles me not just because I do not like to see an important part of my life reviled, but because an improvement in the quality of public discourse is a good thing in itself. We are all somehow cheapened when politics and public life go sour.

The challenges we face are not just political. They involve broader issues in our society. Nor are the challenges confined to Canada. In fact, we can’t understand them unless we realize that they have a lot to do with how the world is changing. The solutions do not lie just in our own country, then, nor are they entirely in our own hands. And that’s where frustration, a sense of powerlessness, sets in.

It has much to do with what is happening to Canada and many other countries both economically and culturally. The most positive underlying force in any society is trust, something that is born of common understandings about how things will work out and how people will behave and treat one another. But as one of my colleagues observed during a cabinet meeting in Ontario two decades ago, “The water buffalo look at each other very differently when there’s no water.” When the bonds of trust among citizens are weakened, anything can happen, and this is part of what is at work today in societies both rich and poor. If inequalities are created that have no basis in values or understandings that are widely and deeply shared, resentment replaces trust as the operating force. That resentment grows and feeds on itself. Our politicians and political establishment must uphold and protect the people and institutions so integral to this trust, or they risk losing it permanently.

Before exploring the role of widening economic inequalities in eroding trust, let’s start by putting some things in perspective. Canadians are lucky people—our collective standard of living is high, the country is beautiful, life is not terrible for most of us. We are a peaceable kingdom, people feel generally secure, and when questioned about how they’re feeling, most Canadians express satisfaction with their lives and their prospects. We are not in the middle of a deep economic depression, though there are problems in some parts of the country. And yet something is missing; something nags at us saying things could be better.

At the end of the Second World War seventy years ago, Canadians were finally experiencing full employment, and with the return of peace came a period of sustained growth that was marked by a steady increase in the standard of living of average families. The provinces came into their own as education surpassed transportation as the key area of social investment. Quebec had its Quiet Revolution, and this had its parallels in every part of the country, with the evolution of social programs like the Canada Pension Plan, the introduction of universal health care, and the extension of the role of provinces and cities. It was a hopeful time for Canadians. They saw a great future for their children. They had faith in their leaders.

In 1967, Canada celebrated its centennial year by welcoming the world to Montreal at an exposition that showed what an innovative and remarkable country we were. Few of us who remember that experience will forget it—the sense of pride and excitement we felt was tangible.

Ironically, what we didn’t realize at the time was that this was in fact a turning point. It all came down to money. Though our federal government had a balanced budget in 1969, it would not see another one until 1998. Both government spending and taxes increased, but unemployment edged up higher through the 1970s and 1980s. By 1990, with the rise in interest rates and the adjustments brought about by the free trade agreement with the United States, Canada’s largest province, Ontario, faced its most severe economic crunch since the Great Depression.

The challenges of those years really forced Canadians across the political spectrum to come to terms with what had been a national problem twenty-five years in the making. From the early 1970s onwards, all governments, of all stripes, had increased taxes and by and large got away with it because steady inflation concealed the increases. Simply put, when you got a wage increase on January 1, it would hide the underlying tax increase. This changed when high interest rates and a collapsed economy drove inflation out.

When tax increases resulted in lower paycheques, the understandable reaction soon followed. I can well remember a meeting in an auto workers hall in 1991 when I was told, “I voted to tax the rich, but I didn’t think you meant me.” As a skilled worker in an auto plant, the speaker would have been making a good income, but that didn’t produce a strong desire to share it with the government.

The healthier growth that re-emerged in the mid-1990s was good news, as was the decision to use that growth and higher revenues to get budgets back into balance and even pay off some debt with the surpluses that followed. Things were going so well that some commentators even gloated that the business cycle and economic crises were a thing of the past. But several mini jolts (like the collapse of the dot-com bubble in 2000) and one big mess (the implosion of Wall Street and the financial crisis of 2008 and onwards) should surely have disabused anyone of this idea. Since then, the world economy has returned to a semblance of order, but the underlying unease Canadians still feel should remind us all of two things—the fragility of recoveries and the interconnectedness of the world economy. Look at how Alberta’s economy suddenly shifted from one that outperformed much of the world to one that is struggling with the impact of drastically lower resource prices. The people in Canada’s most oil-rich province now have to adapt to the realities of a global economy that is affected by a number of forces outside of their control. And the political changes we have seen in the last few months are a reflection of those underlying challenges.

The moral origin of the financial crisis of 2008 was, undoubtedly, a greed that knew no limits. Dodgy mortgages bled their way into the world financial system and blew any sense of stability to smithereens. There was no secure ground anywhere, and the crisis flew from the financial sector to all others and from one country to the next. Those countries with more stable banking systems and healthier public account balances held on better than others, but no one was exempt from the impact, and no one would be immune from another outbreak. Following the financial crisis, personal, corporate, and government debts shot back up after declining for fifteen years, and they are now at a point where another blow similar to the one we experienced in 2008–09 would be, quite simply, devastating.

Underpinning all of this upheaval is the age-old question, “How do these changes affect the condition of the people?” The turmoil of the last two decades has revealed the extent to which the forces we sum up in the easy word “globalization” have in fact benefitted those who already control the wealth, the now infamous 1 percent, just as the kleptocracy in Russia and the elite in China have skimmed the cream off the extraordinary riches to be had when a state-owned and -controlled economy suddenly does a 180-degree turn and sells off assets to the bidders with the best connections. Even when some economists tell us that things are going well, with lower unemployment and taxes under control, the general population is not comforted. There is a new label for those whose lives go from paycheque to paycheque—“precarious workers.” The answers and explanations that supposed experts and leaders provide are inconsistent and insufficient. No wonder Canadians feel distrustful and alarmed. No wonder they feel powerless.

Given this unstable economic landscape and the need to reaffirm our social bonds, one would think that there is both an opportunity and a need for politicians to more readily engage a citizenry that is better informed and more accessible than ever before. There is a chance to move past the slogans and the election speeches to engage in meaningful and lasting discourse, dialogue, and debate. But instead, we are greeted with just the opposite. Anyone watching politics in North America and around the world knows that today, parties are instead focused on running permanent campaigns. Politics has become a full-time business in which incessant campaigning trumps real governance.

The speed at which politics takes place is only multiplied by the impact of digital communication and social media. This is widely recognized, and it is not entirely novel—even going back to the French Revolution, one finds popular songs, cartoons, and flyers that proclaimed Marie Antoinette’s alleged excesses both sexual and personal. But in today’s world, with the Twittersphere and the Internet dispensing information more broadly, the lid of respectability is off. Gossip and rumour are grist to the mill, patience is a vice, and while the laws of libel are there for a few hardy (and well-off) souls, they hardly act as much prevention. As a result, the level of public discourse has fallen off badly.

A recent book by Sasha Issenberg, The Victory Lab, brilliantly describes how big data has been mobilized in an attempt to ensure political success, accurately making the point that a good part of what is going on in these permanent campaigns is an exercise in “creating the electorate.” The question of who votes is as important as how they vote. President Obama’s success in 2008 was all about creating a bigger, younger electorate, because Democrats knew that if they could succeed in doing this, they would be far more likely to win. The Obama campaign successfully employed a combination of volunteer recruitment and enthusiasm, and it paid enormous attention to analytics and systems. It was also an effort bankrolled by unprecedented fund-raising. The 2010 midterm election, however, was a setback for Obama, largely because a discouraged and disheartened electorate stayed away from the polls. In the campaign for the second term, the Obama team realized that unless they grew the electorate back, they would lose the election. Sasha Issenberg describes in detail the analytical effort, and the money, involved in helping to achieve that goal. Savour the language of the new politics from this revealing book:

A July EIP [experiment-informed program] designed to test Obama’s messages aimed particularly at women found that those between 20 and 40 support scores showed the greatest response to his arguments about women’s health and equal-pay measures. Their low support index meant that other indicators of their partisanship pointed strongly to likely Republican attitudes: here was one thing (probably the only thing) that could pull them to Obama. As a result, when Obama unveiled a track of his direct-mail program addressing only women’s issues, it wasn’t to shore up interest among core parts of the Democratic coalition, but to reach over for conservatives who were uniquely cross-pressured on gender concerns.

Today, the electorate is sliced, diced, dissected, and divided to an extent unimaginable even fifteen years ago. All parties are segmenting the electorate and are adopting the tactics of companies selling a packaged product. Consultants share the same enthusiasm for branding a leader or a party as they do for a bar of soap. Occasionally a leader or issue will mobilize the public, but when confronted with the challenge of governing (as President Obama certainly was by the financial crisis he had to meet head-on), often his actions are not able to match the eloquence of his words. Obama had to make difficult choices, and the right-wing media onslaught did not let up for a single minute. Voters started to see him as indecisive. The trouble with pursuing politics as a business is that it has helped to create a cynical, fractured electorate that doesn’t know whom to trust or what to do.

Compounding this is the way in which messaging has become narrow and repetitive, with every activity of the candidate a rote repeat of prepackaged, whitewashed slogans. Defining the opposition in as vicious and dogmatic a way as possible is now more than half the game. The other half is repeat, repeat, repeat the message that has been crafted as your brand. In Parliament, Question Period is now a cycle of sound bites that have usually been written by someone else. Televised debates are rarely real exchanges but rather ships firing volleys at one another amid efforts to get the message out. Meaningful questions are replaced with cynical lectures and prescribed messaging. And until the right questions are posed, satisfactory answers will be in short supply. No wonder Canadians are disenchanted with what they perceive as manufactured debate and stage-managed performances in the House.

The full title of Sasha Issenberg’s book is The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, and therein lies a premise that is problematic. What is missing is that leadership and political engagement are as much an art as a science. They have to do with good organization as much as inspiring serious efforts that bring about change. Pollsters and campaign advisors are in the business of making money, and part of the way they sell their wares is by telling us that they are wizards, that they have access to a secret science. There is no magic, no black box, and no secret science, but the more we think there is, the more we give up our rights and responsibilities to demand more from the political process.

Young voters, in particular, should be the ones shouting loudest for political institutions and representatives that genuinely reflect what they want and need. The steep decline in election participation among younger voters points to a gnawing distrust and disaffection, which will tend to spread more widely as the habits learned at an early age persist through time. If there is no positive memory of the first time voting or becoming politically active in some way, the apathy can only spread.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that driving turnout down, “depressing the vote,” is just what conservative parties want. An older, richer demographic votes; a poorer, younger electorate does not. A couple of solutions have been bandied about: compulsory voting and easier voting. Compulsory voting would have a hard time taking hold in any country with a rights-based written constitution. It’s hard to see how the freely made decision not to vote could be made subject to a penalty. The Australian example is not really relevant—that decision to levy fines on people for staying home was made some time ago, and in a very different political culture.

A combination of lowering the voting age and making it much easier to vote might have more impact on turnout. Part of the answer might be to lower the voting age to sixteen and start basic civic education in primary school. Allowing people to vote at home digitally would make sense as well. It is hard to see how a population that can do its banking on a cell phone should be told that it is too complicated and insecure to vote in the same way.

There is a deeper reason for the disengagement of younger voters, and that is the overhang of the baby boom generation and the issues that preoccupy this very powerful group of voters. If hospital waiting lists and pensions, to give just two examples, are issues dominating the landscape, and problems affecting younger people, such as education costs, housing, and help to families, are given short shrift, it should come as no surprise that these same under-thirties ask themselves, “What’s in it for me?” In turn, the dismal turnout rates of precarious voters in marginal jobs makes parties feel even more strongly that there’s little point in appealing to those who have turned off.

As more and more voters turn away from the election process, it is worth considering how politicians reach out to this increasingly distant electorate, namely through polls. Pollsters today speak with nostalgia about a time when the response rate to their questions was well above 80 percent. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Gallup organization did door-to-door surveys, and in time, as landline phones became universal, moved to phone surveys that were more or less reliable. Those days are gone, and as a result the polling business itself is in something of a crisis.

It would be an exaggeration to say that polling today is in completely speculative territory. But the inability to get reliable answers to questions should surely make us pause. Not that the pollsters themselves will admit that anything is really wrong. The political parties, who poll regularly and who thereby claim more vocally that they know where they stand in relation to popular opinion, are in constant contact with the public and with their supporters, raising money and waging propaganda campaigns in yet another aspect of the permanent campaign.

But the published polls are often all over the map, and pollsters rarely say what their response rate is, let alone clearly indicate their techniques in response to the disappearing voices at the end of the line. Some use the Internet as a way of connecting, others establish panels in an effort to achieve a representative sample, and still others insist that by adding cell phones and a larger sample they are able to assess opinion very well, thank you. It is a business as notorious as politics itself for backbiting and running down the opposition, as new entries into an already crowded field are derided for their techniques, their samples, their questions, and, above all, their reliability.

And just as the process of polling has changed, the political parties themselves have transformed the way they do business as they seek to mobilize their base and achieve success in response to what the polls tell them.

In the early 1960s, the New Democratic Party pioneered the door-to-door canvass, returning to the same home three or four times in order to identify a reliable pool of voters to be pulled on Election Day. For the NDP, identifying and pulling was essential, because as a third party it was harder for them to rely on a wave of general support to get people elected. Other parties with larger volunteer bases soon borrowed this technique.

Today, we live in a different world. Canadian pollsters are reluctant to admit that response rates on the phone are way down, that the landline is no longer universal, that people aren’t at home, and that finding a reliable statistical base is in fact notoriously difficult and hard to measure. Experienced political canvassers in all parties will also tell you that volunteers are not as numerous, that people are either not at home or don’t answer the door, and that it is more difficult to get the IDs that are the key to a successful Election Day organization. Parties no longer have the same direct response from or interaction with the voters they seek to reach. The result is a more impersonal approach that emphasizes the breadth of a party’s reach over the depth of its conversation. The Conservatives’ machine under the leadership of Stephen Harper relies heavily on robocalling and building a base of reliably identifiable supporters, and their strategy has now been imitated by the other parties.

A growing group of citizens—and a majority of those under thirty—don’t vote, almost as a matter of principle. The number of “don’t know, don’t care” subscribers is on the rise, and the length of time that many are taking to come to judgment is growing as well. Political parties are trying to figure out how to mobilize and tap into these sentiments à la Obama and realizing how tough a challenge it really is given the lack of dependable information at their disposal.

At the same time that they try to connect with the broadest base of voters possible, political parties seek to refine their message into a digestible form that can be efficiently delivered and easily consumed. Like other governments before him, Mr. Harper’s has made use of such government advertising to promote programs and ideas closely associated with his leadership. There has been a systematic effort to make the Conservative brand the Canada brand. Soon after being elected in 2006, the Conservatives insisted that all government announcements should refer not to the “government of Canada” but to “the Harper government.” Wordsmithing and advertising have become centralized, closely linking parties’ announcements to a reinforcement of their ideology. Ministerial speeches, answers in Question Period, running commentary on the political shows—the list goes on: every contact point with the public has been usurped as an opportunity to deliver the message of the day, week, month, or year. Nothing is left to chance, or indeed to spontaneity. The permanent campaign means repetitive and relentless bombardment. And if truth is the first casualty in war it certainly is in politics as well.

One writer in the last century more than any other understood the universe we are now living in. We even use his name to describe this universe—“Orwellian.” This is a world where things are not as they appear to be, where words are used to hide, twist, and pervert but never to describe, where propaganda triumphs and truth is left on the slaughterhouse floor. Orwell loved language, and he understood more clearly than almost any of his contemporaries that the control of language, and of collective memory, is the key weapon of the totalitarian state.

In a talk at Carleton University given in 2013, the noted pollster, broadcaster, and writer Allan Gregg, much of whose professional life has been spent advising Conservative governments both federally and provincially, connected the dots between the universe Orwell was describing in 1984 and the state of current politics. The late Christopher Hitchens, coming from a different political perspective, wrote one of his last books on Orwell’s legacy, pointing out with his usual panache that on the great issues of his time—and ours—Orwell was not only right but painfully accurate.

Orwell’s word for the ruling method of analysis of Big Brother’s regime was “doublethink”—“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies.” As both Gregg and Hitchens point out, there’s a lot of doublethink going on out there, and it’s more ideologically driven than we might realize.

Take something like the decision to end the long-form census in 2010. There was a time when the question of how to handle the census would have been a concern removed from politics. All parties and governments accepted the objectives of reliable data, minimizing intrusiveness and coercion, and ensuring privacy. Public servants rightly pride themselves on their objectivity. And so they should—they serve the people.

The issue at hand is not just about the long-form census. It’s about the assault on Canada’s best political traditions and an assault on reason itself. Once, in a debate on the criminal justice system and the growing evidence that putting more people behind bars was not going to be effective in deterring crime, a minister of justice famously said, “We don’t need evidence, we know what’s right and what’s wrong.”

There are two erroneous assumptions here: The first is the belief that the truth has nothing to do with science and reason but instead is simply a matter of faith. The second is that the way to get things done is to centralize power and then use that power to control the message, destroy the opposition, and achieve the desired legislative result.

This is an attack on common sense, but it is also more than that. It leads to a dangerous transformation in democratic and constitutional institutions themselves. It is important to rise above demonology and understand how we have reached this point and how deeply ingrained this dismissal of reason is in modern politics, elections, and the management of government. It will take a remarkably determined effort to change course, for the transformation is far more systemic than most Canadians now realize. A simple change in government will not be enough, because the parties that succeed will have learned to mimic at least some of their predecessor’s style.

Lack of reliable engagement with the electorate and the flight of good judgment are of consequence not just for incumbents, challengers, and their handlers, but for voters as well. If the facts, opinions, and data to which politicians respond are spotty or unrepresentative, what can be done to ensure that voters’ voices are heard and politicians’ platforms are honest and clear? With an increased availability of information comes the responsibility to use it properly. Political parties must employ the right tools—targeted digital communication, efficient volunteer bodies, reliable data sourcing—to renew and refresh their engagement with people of all ages. Politicians must make a shift away from speaking to Canadians and instead look to once again speak with them.

The content of the exchange between citizens and their elected representatives is important in and of itself, but so too is the quality of that exchange. The methods we use to convince people can either cheapen or ennoble public life. In her remarkable novel on the exercise of power in the world of Henry VIII’s court, Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel writes, “What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”

A study of propaganda in the First World War was aptly called The First Casualty, referring to the idea that truth is the first thing discarded by all sides as they attempt to move opinion in the name of a cause.

Just as that war unleashed an unprecedented level of death and violence, so too it involved the almost total mobilization of the public and the wholesale manipulation of the popular press to create negative stereotypes of the enemy and to drive public opinion into a frenzy of support for the war effort.

Each medium of communication in every era—newspapers, movies, radio, television, and now social media—has its own particular method of persuasion. And at every point, political propaganda has borrowed heavily from commercial techniques. Mass advertising dates back a couple of hundred years, but political campaigns and management have never been strangers to the world of money. They have always understood the power of an image.

The famous Sir John A. Macdonald telegram to the Canadian Pacific Railway—“Send another ten thousand”—was hardly the first act of corruption in the history of modern Canada, and it won’t be the last. Macdonald was the inventor of the political picnic in Canada, massive events attended by thousands of people. He made unabashed use of his image as the Grand Old Man of the country to tug on the heartstrings of Canadians as he headed into his final campaign.

His approach resonated with his contemporaries. Like Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier was his own image maker. They were both actors, but their acting did not conceal their substance, it magnified it. They kept themselves aloof, a bit apart, but they were not sheltered by handlers to the point where they could not be reached by ordinary people. Their authenticity and the truth in their messages resonated all the more for that.

How different political life seems today. Political leaders are coiffed, dressed, managed, scripted, controlled, and presented to the public not so much as real people but as packaged products. The character and courage of the past is desperately needed today. We should not merely gaze wistfully at the best of our political ancestors, seeing them as anachronistic models of a lost era. Rather, we must hold them up as an example of the power to be found in genuine connection between citizen and public servant.

The media presenting the politicians are every bit as synthetic and packaged as the people and causes they are trying to analyze. Whether through newspapers, television, radio, blogs, Twitter, or Facebook, there is no room for accident or spontaneity, for market share is as fiercely contested as political support. And at the root of it is money—the money to be made by advertising, consulting, advising, and persuading. In Canada, we have managed to keep our politics a multimillion-dollar business, but in the United States it is a multibillion-dollar affair. The American Supreme Court has opined that political advertising is an extension of free speech, and so any efforts to limit spending and contributions have been largely unsuccessful. This American model of modern democracy is being spread by armies of consultants and advisors who now turn up on the doorsteps of countries throughout the world. The Selling of the President by Joe McGinniss, which described the American presidential campaign of 1968, now has its parallels in the selling of whatever leader or party comes to mind. Money, as much as principle, dictates whether you can run for high office.

Money talks most, of course, in election time. When he was president of the National Citizens Coalition, Stephen Harper did his level best to challenge Canada’s electoral laws, with their limits on party spending and advertising, and he did succeed in one respect. In the view of the Supreme Court of Canada, so-called third party spending could not be completely restricted because of the Charter’s strictures on freedom of speech. But the central foundation of Canadian election law—that spending by parties both nationally and in each constituency should be limited—has stayed intact.

However, Canada’s laws are silent about spending between elections, and so permanent fund-raising by Conservatives has led to devastatingly effective and ongoing negative advertising. They understood long before either the Liberals or the NDP the need to expand membership, connect members to the party by repeated requests for money and support related to particular issues, and use that money effectively every day, year in and year out. Gentlemanly knocks on the doors of the largest banks, companies, and unions just before election time are a thing of the past. Today, we have to live with a steady diet of attack ads day and night, long before an election campaign is officially launched.

Mr. Harper’s second move was to turn off the support tap from the government for all political parties. When Jean Chrétien made his own changes to election funding laws just before his retirement, he limited the amounts individuals and others could give but allowed for public support of parties through subsidies based on vote totals for each party. Realizing his competitive advantage with a broader membership base and a new culture of fund-raising and giving, Mr. Harper tapered off the government subsidy, forcing the other parties to enter the brave new world of the permanent campaign.

All of this has distorted our perspective of the political process. Though much focus is given to the spending and running of campaigns, we should not be fooled by what has been aptly called “electoral symbolism” to conclude that voting and elections is all that democracy is about.

Politics is not just about who wins what election. The mobilization that occurs in elections for one party or candidate or another is only a small piece of the puzzle of understanding how the current political process impacts the individual citizen. What happens after and between elections tells us far more about democracy than voting, pure and simple.

Frequently, pundits will talk about “an emerging consensus” on a range of issues, which is then presented as an established fact. But this fails to explain how what was once a prevailing opinion can dramatically change and how the pushing and prodding of interest groups and powerful leadership that persists over time can in fact alter the framework of respectability. Ideas do not appear out of thin air, nor do the choices that are made about which agendas to put in front of a parliament or a city council. An analysis of power relations would tell us more than which lobbyists and interest groups seem to have the most influence on decision makers. It would go further and explain how some proposals never even get discussed, let alone modified, while others become the focus of controversy. On a televised debate, what is left unsaid can be just as important—sometimes more so—than what is discussed. Who sets the agenda, and on whose behalf, is as important an issue in politics as who votes and who stays home. That this reality is studied less than endless polling or the personalities of leaders is itself a commentary on where we are today.

When we ask ourselves what’s happened to politics, it is important to remember how some issues come to the fore while others never make it to the table. In a time of economic, political, and social uncertainty, Canadians must ask themselves if the messages being marketed to them reflect what they need to know or just what their elected representatives are willing to tell them. Politics is not simply a game for politicians in which citizens observe from the sidelines. The waging of permanent campaigns, with their rote messaging and endless spending, means that we are all more impacted by and tied into the political process than ever before. But how do we observe and engage with what is an increasingly opaque institution? By looking past the packaging of their politicians to examine the content of the product, Canadians can stake a renewed claim in this changing political landscape and spur those who are supposed to work on their behalf from simply acting into something approaching authenticity.

About The Author

Photograph © Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail

Bob Rae was elected eleven times to the House of Commons and the Ontario legislature between 1978 and 2013. He was Ontario’s 21st Premier from 1990 to 1995, and served as interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada from 2011 to 2013. He is working now as a lawyer, negotiator, mediator, and arbitrator, with a particular focus on first nations, aboriginal, and governance issues. He also teaches at the University of Toronto School of Governance and Public Policy, and is a widely respected writer and commentator.

An author of four books and many studies and reports, Bob Rae is a Privy Councillor, an Officer of the Order of Canada, a member of the Order of Ontario, and has numerous awards and honorary degrees from institutions in Canada and around the world. Bob is married to Arlene Perly Rae, a writer and speaker, and they have three children. They live in Toronto.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 25, 2015)
  • Length: 176 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501118050

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

"[A] useful and important new demonstrates [Rae's] deep knowledge of the major public-policy challenges of our time and a coherent philosophical approach."

– Globe and Mail

“In What’s Happened to Politics?, Rae raises a key question that all Canadians need to contemplate. Part history, part memoir, and part manifesto, it is important for anyone who cares about Canada and how it’s governed.”

– Alison Loat, co-founder of Samara Canada

What’s Happened to Politics? aspires to open a conversation with Canadians on the state of our politics and government. It is a call to action to change the focus from rhetoric and spin to political decision-making based on shared values, ideas, and character. This book also focuses on the urgent need to reconcile the relationship between Aboriginal people and other Canadians and underscores the historic imbalance in the relationship, how it came about, and the way forward in terms that all Canadians can understand.”

– Phil Fontaine, President, Ishkonigan Consulting and Mediation Inc. & three-time National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations

"This is an excellent book. It’s solidly rooted in experience... but very much focused on the future. It’s a highly personal political-intellectual memoir, but one that’s not at all self-indulgent. "

– Roland Paris, Director of the Centre for International Policy Studies

Awards and Honors

  • Toronto Heritage Award Finalist

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

  • Author Photo (jpg): Bob Rae
    Photograph © Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail
    (0.1 MB)

    Any use of an author photo must include its respective photo credit