The Sunday Edition

Liberals around the world are struggling to define themselves: Michael's essay

"Because our governors seemed confused about everything from Brexit to wall-building to pipelines that went nowhere, the confusion was passed on to the citizenry like utility bills. If 2018 looked like an explosion in a banana factory, 2019 is on course for an equally dreary sequel," writes Michael Enright.
Justin Trudeau will face an election on October 21, 2019. (CBC)
Listen3:47

Looking back at the political wreckage of 2018, it is difficult to marshal a civil vocabulary to describe the wonderment of it all.

Across the planet, our earthly leaders traded in platitudes and puffery, talking without meaning, hearing without listening. Because our governors seemed confused about everything from Brexit to wall-building to pipelines that went nowhere, the confusion was passed on to the citizenry like utility bills.

If 2018 looked like an explosion in a banana factory, 2019 is on course for an equally dreary sequel.

Whatever else 2019 might bring, it is going to be a tough year for liberals -- capital L and small -- both here and in the Great Republic.

If our politicians can't figure out what they're doing, how can we manage to get through the morass?- Michael Enright

In Canada, the Liberal government faces a restive electorate in October, raising the possibility of a one-term prime ministership for Justin Trudeau.

In the United States, liberals in the Democratic Party have already begun the mad and moneyed scramble to find an acceptable presidential nominee for 2020.

It's likely that immigration will nag at the Liberals in Canada who must come up with a coherent policy that reforms the system, satisfying the left wing of the party without offending those who think the country lets in too many immigrants and asylum seekers.

In the USA, liberal Democrats have to be very careful in candidate selection. They need a nominee with enough broad appeal to satisfy their base and at the same time, capture independents and moderate Republicans -- assuming there are some left.

There was a time when we could easily tell the difference between liberals and conservatives. And for the most part we thought that they knew what they were doing.

For the most part conservatives tended to oppose rapid change. They liked the idea of preserving tradition, to keep things as they are. They were suspicious of any suggestion of a welfare state and big government.

As conservative godfather Ronald Reagan liked to say, "Government is not the solution. Government is the problem." 

Liberals, on the other hand, used to see big government as, in Professor Peter Fisher's marvellous phrase, "an insurance company with an army". Liberals believed there should be a social safety net below which no one should be allowed to fall.

Ersatz liberal Bill Clinton put paid to that idea in the mid-90s when he announced the era of big government was over.

Pierre Trudeau, left, visits President Ronald Reagan in Washington, in 1983 ... an era when liberals and conservatives were easier to differentiate. (Scott Stewart/Associated Press)

In Canada, Liberals are struggling to find the proper balance between what is good for the country and what's good for the provinces -- a Sisyphean task.

If you peruse the commentariat looking for enlightenment in all this, you will find that, yes indeedy, traditional liberals and their values are in crisis. Worldwide. Which must elate conservatives, right?

But wait. Dig deeper into current online punditry and you'll come across headlines like this: "Why Conservatives are in crisis."

Apparently there is enough crisis to go around for everybody.

Where does that leave the rest of us? If our politicians can't figure out what they're doing, how can we manage to get through the morass?

I'm beginning to think what Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman, who died last year, said about movie-making applies to current politics: "Nobody knows anything."