Outwardly, election night looked “normal”. The polls were pretty reliable, the pundits offered their usual platitudes, politicians appeared jubilant or contrite in front of the cameras depending on how voters had treated them. But while it looked mostly familiar, there were a few signs that things weren’t quite the same. There were the socially-distant-sparse party headquarters, devoid of both celebration or dismay. And then there are the lingering mail-in ballots, 61,255 votes cast by mail–56,835 more than 2016–largely cast in fear of COVID-19 upon which party fortunes still depend. It looked normal, but also slightly abnormal.
There has been an uneasy sense that I have felt throughout this campaign–that much of what we think of as “normal” politics are about to go the way of the dodo; that this might be our last “normal” election. And I don’t just mean the artifice and spectacle of elections, although as Monday night demonstrated, that “normal” may also be under threat. When we look back at the 2020 election, what we might best remember it for is the last gasp of conventional wisdom. A lot of what has been taken-for-granted political wisdom for the past 40 years is about to be severely tested and found wanting, even if a lot of political parties and pundits don’t quite realize it yet. We saw the first flashes of this during the election campaign, as media and politicians alike fretted about deficits and balanced budgets as if we were not in the midst of a global pandemic and worldwide economic depression. The old reflexes of deficit and debt hysteria still kicked in, even as we experience record levels of COVID-19 transmission in the province and other parts of the country consider new lockdown restrictions. Indeed, we had the rather absurd exercise of the Saskatchewan Party offering to balance the budget in four years based on financial estimates that no one should trust given the current conditions we are in. It was as if the urge to spout the conventional wisdom on debts and deficits overpowered even the unprecedented gravity of our current situation.
The most important change in conventional political wisdom that has yet to be fully appreciated is that the ‘lean state’ is gone. The pandemic has amply demonstrated the dangers of an under-funded, under-resourced state sector. Witness the disaster that is the United States to view the consequences of prioritizing tax breaks and spending cuts over state capacity. Yes, this pandemic will pass, but we are likely entering a new age of recurring pandemics. Greater human encroachment into wilderness, coupled with the stress of global heating on habitat integrity will only increase the potential for zoonotic spillover and the chance for new pandemics. These will not be once-in-a-lifetime occurrences, they could become as regular as the Olympics. Governments will have to ensure they have the capacity to successfully combat these emerging threats–not only through a robust public health sector, but also by providing the kinds of income and housing supports that allow for quarantine measures to work. The other nail in the coffin of the lean state is of course climate change. It will not only stretch state budgets through increased pandemics, but also through droughts, wildfires, heat emergencies and flooding. The future will be expensive and it’s not clear if politicians and pundits–or even electorates–have caught up with this reality yet. Deficits will become a common occurrence as governments deal with unprecedented and unanticipated crises that threaten the social cohesion of our societies. New sources of state revenue will be prioritized. Redundancies and excess capacity will be seen as vital safeguards, not “waste” to be cut. State interventions and rescues in the economy will be a commonplace. The real battle of the future will be for whom increased state intervention favours, not whether there will more intervention.
No doubt there is a sizeable constituency that just wants to return to the old “normal,” replaying the same arguments and bromides of the past. They may even be rewarded, as they were on election night. But sooner than we think, we may find that what we seemed so sure of in the past doesn’t have much of a future.
Simon Enoch is Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He holds a PhD in Communication & Culture from York/Ryerson University.