Opinion

A Demographic Cure for Fact-Free Politics

How can reality-based voters counter increasingly truth-averse politicians? Here's one idea.

By Crawford Kilian 7 Oct 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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How can we make them hear facts? Politician photo via Shutterstock.

Visiting Surrey this week, NDP leader Tom Mulcair warned about a "demographic time bomb" about to go off in Canada.

His timing was perfect. That bomb started ticking circa 1945, when the North American baby boom got under way. Now we're close to detonation, and whatever our age, we don't have much time to brace ourselves.

One of the great advantages of being a baby boomer was having parents who'd endured the Great Depression and the Second World War. They were determined to give their kids everything they'd missed, and then some. So the mid-century decades saw the rise of the most educated and affluent generation in history. Nothing was too good for the boomers, and their tastes in music, fashion, politics, and drugs have dominated the world economy for the past 50 years.

Living in such a comfortable world, the boomers assumed it was the natural order, the way things are supposed to be. This led to the assumption that dreams must come true, because that's what dreams do.

And that, in turn, led to the presidency of George W. Bush and boomer-created, fact-free politics. This became very clear in 2004, after George W. Bush had taken the United States into war in Iraq. In a New York Times Magazine article, Ron Suskind quoted a Bush aide (probably Karl Rove):

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism.

He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

That open contempt for facts scandalized the reality-based community, but Bush's fantasy really did create the reality we now deal with, from the Islamic State to the refugee catastrophe in Europe.

Stephen Harper, a boomer who wanted Canada to follow Bush into Iraq, is the sorcerer's most successful apprentice, and has run Canada as an increasingly fact-free country. Scientists have been muzzled, environmental laws gutted, and civil servants either intimidated or (like former StatsCan head Munir Sheikh) forced into resigning. This has made it easier to invoke fantasy threats of child pornographers, violent crime, and terrorism lurking behind every niqab.

Canada's reality-based community has pointed this out repeatedly over the years, and with excellent documentation. Yet at least 30 per cent of Canadian voters, many of them aging boomers, still prefer Harper's fantasy politics. This is one fact the reality-based community seems reluctant to face.

Detached from reality

The willingness of Conservative Canadians to ignore facts reflects an unexpected hazard of being born a boomer. When you're earning a good, steady income, you can detach from reality and build a fantasy world that's much more congenial, where your personal fears and desires are like laws of nature.

In the United States, fantasy politics has given us Bush and now the present contenders for the Republican nomination for the presidency. Each of them has catered to the fantasies of American voters who simply don't care about facts (or even know them), and those voters form a formidable bloc. In Canada, a similar bloc has been the chief support of Stephen Harper; if we follow the American model, Harper's successors are likely to be far more extreme.

For reality-based Canadians, it's small consolation that their fantasy-driven fellow-citizens still make up a minority. We need some way to ensure that our country operates in the real world, regardless of which party happens to be in power.

We already have theoretical checks and balances in the parliamentary system plus the Supreme Court, but we've seen Parliament made irrelevant and even the Supreme Court questioned on ideological grounds. A new institution would help provide reality checks on fantasy -- and enable us to disarm Tom Mulcair's demographic bomb.

Such an institution might be an Agency for Canadian Demography. After all, government is about dealing with the changing needs of a changing and complex population. The Agency would include (among other services) Statistics Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Census Canada, and Elections Canada. It would provide regular reports on the age, education, housing, health and work of the Canadian people -- reports based on reliable scientific methods.

The Agency's board of directors would be chosen by the government of the day from a list of recommended candidates from Canada's senior academics -- not from friends of the government. Regular staff would be hired based on their peer-reviewed publications and ability to meet civil-service standards.

The Agency would be independently funded, so a hostile Parliament couldn't cut its budget, and its staff would be immune to intimidation. (That's why agencies like StatsCan would be removed from cabinet control.) In fact, staffers would be duty-bound to report any attempt to influence their findings, as well as failure of government departments to provide information when requested to. But governments could also commission the Agency to conduct special studies to provide reliable data on urgent problems.

Snapshots of a changing nation

At regular intervals the Agency would provide snapshots of Canada and its people, with some analysis of its findings: are more of us over 65 than under 15, as reported in September? How many students find work based on what they studied or trained for? Are vaccination levels adequate to prevent measles outbreaks? Is productivity rising enough to enable a smaller workforce to support growing numbers of seniors? These reports would available online, free to the taxpayers who funded them.

The findings would be peer-reviewed and open to criticism, but only on scientific and methodological grounds. The government of the day would be obliged to acknowledge the Agency's reports, but not to act on them. Of course, if it did not, opposition parties would happily attack it for ignoring reality.

The Agency would naturally be bitterly opposed by fantasy politicians and their supporters. They would portray it as an elitist conspiracy of egghead professors who want us to junk our big SUVs and and become vegetarians.

Evidence-based debate

Even realists might worry that such an agency would supplant Parliament itself, handing down technocratic decrees that MPs would have to rubber-stamp. But Agency reports would simply provide a solid foundation for policy, which could then be furiously debated before being passed or rejected -- or deferred until more and better evidence was available.

The Agency would also offer a strong political incentive to do the right thing: "We are following the Agency's recommendations to the letter," a government could boast, as it does now when responding to a Health Canada alert about contaminated food: Just following doctor's orders.

The government would of course continue to hire its own scientists for many purposes, but it would be far less inclined to silence them or suppress their findings; if it tried, the scientists could quit and appeal to the Agency to assess the quality of their work.

For the three out of 10 Canadians who ignored their education and want the world to confirm their fantasies, the Agency for Canadian Demography would be an agency of Sauron himself. For the seven out of 10 willing to accept a reality outside themselves, however, it would be a trustworthy guide.

And as the boomers age, reality will shred their fantasies. Whatever their wishful thinking, only good healthcare and a politics run on demographic reality will keep them going for very long.  [Tyee]

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