COMMENTARY: With populism on the rise, are we losing our shared community?

A man stands outside at the election night headquarters for Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford during the Ontario Provincial election night in Toronto, on Thursday June 7, 2018.
A man stands outside at the election night headquarters for Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford during the Ontario Provincial election night in Toronto, on Thursday June 7, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

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

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.”

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

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READ MORE: ANALYSIS: Is populism the new norm in Canada?

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.

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).

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?

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Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.

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.

READ MORE: COMMENTARY: Doug Ford tapped into Ontario’s overwhelming desire for change

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?

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.

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.

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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.

Watch: U.S.-Canada trade dispute

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.

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?

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Mike Colledge is president, Canada Ipsos Public Affairs. Chris Martyn is senior vice president.