A Guide to Understanding Polls

Photo by Trending Twitter Topics from 10.10.2019, Creative Commons

I’ve had a difficult relationship with polls for most of my journalistic career. This reached its apex (or nadir if you look at it that way) years ago when I wrote a column encouraging people to lie to pollsters.

Lying, I argued, would skew the polls and force politicians to make decisions based upon their instincts and their actual principles. I was deluged with angry emails from pollsters at various companies who denounced my attempts to convince people to lie as being “anti-democratic.”

Well, I’m not sure it was anti-democratic, but over the years I have come around to understanding the reason why politicians and others use polls. We live in a big, complex society. If you’re running for national office (or even for a local office that covers a large area) it’s almost impossible for you to speak to every one of your constituents about their concerns.

In this case, polling can provide you with a guide to how the public views particular issues or how they perceive a politician’s efforts to solve important problems or champion important initiatives.

There’s one problem.

People don’t understand polls. People don’t know how they work, how they are taken, who’s doing the polling, how you determine if you can trust a poll or not and how much a particular poll is worth versus another poll.

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to speak or listen to some of the best minds on polling in Canada and United States. Based on the things that they told me and what I have heard them say, I offer this guide to helping people better understand polls and the roles they play in our democracies.

1) One poll is a snapshot, not a movie

The idea for writing this guide came to me when a friend messaged me on Facebook about a new CNN poll that showed Biden in trouble in battleground states. A devoted Democrat, he was worried that this signaled trouble ahead for the Biden campaign.

Maybe. Maybe not. One poll is a snapshot. Never totally believe what one poll alone tells you. There are so many different conditions that can affect the results of one poll that it’s only a snapshot of a particular moment in a political campaign. This is true whether in Canada or the United States.

What you want to do is look at polling averages – the aggregate of several polls over a period. For instance, I pointed out to my friend that if you look at the average of a number of polls taken in battleground states over the past few months, Biden actually had a lead of 3 to 5 points in many of them. If future polls continue to show trouble for Biden in battleground states, then he should worry.

But one single poll basically means little in the long run.

2) National polls in the United States are useless

Well, maybe not useless, but they don’t mean much. The brains behind Democratic and Republican campaigns pay scant attention to national polls. They are much more interested in state polls. Since America basically elects a president based on the electoral college, a politician can be doing very well in national polls and still lose the election.

Take 2016. Final polls showed Hillary Clinton winning the national popular vote by 2% to 3%, which she did. But since the president of the United States is not elected on a popular vote but by the electoral college, she lost because she did not carry enough states.

It’s a bit different in Canada and Britain where a national poll can give you a better idea of how political parties are doing with public. In Canada you still need to pay attention to the vote in the Prairies versus the vote in Ontario, for instance, but you can trust a national poll more than you can a similar poll in the United States.

Again, that’s only one poll. If a lot of polls show that advantage, then you can take it to the bank.

There are also some important questions that you need to ask about each poll that you consider:

A) Who did the poll?

There are good polling organizations and there are bad polling organizations. It is unfortunate that too many media outlets when referring to recent polls don’t bother to tell you much about the organization that did a poll.

For instance, Ron Elway, the chief political correspondent at NPR, taught me that Quinnipiac was one of the best pollsters in the business especially in its coverage of states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Why? They’ve been doing it for a long time and so over the years have ironed out errors in their methods.

You can also put your trust in a Marist poll or Survey USA poll, organizations that have received consistently high marks for their lack of bias in polling and the way they conduct each poll. On the other hand, any poll that you see from TCJ Research or Strategic Vision treat with a huge grain of salt. These polls almost always skew as many as 2-4 points towards Republicans.

B) How many people did they poll?

Randomness is the key to good polling. Normally, to achieve a statistically good sample of the public you need to interview at least 1000 to 1200 participants. That gets harder and harder these days because fewer and fewer people are willing to take part in polls.

When pollsters interview fewer people, the results are harder to trust. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to the statistical error of the poll. For instance if a pollster only interviews 400 to 500 people about a candidate or an important question and the result has a high error rate of 5% or more that means if the poll was something like 49% in favor and 51% against the question, the real result could be anywhere from 54% in favor and 46% against to 44% in favor and 56% against. Those are dramatic differences.

(Note: A friend read this and added something I had forgotten about the margin of error. To quote Pew “A margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level means that if we fielded the same survey 100 times, we would expect the result to be within 3 percentage points of the true population value 95 of those times.”)

A poll with a relatively small number of participants can give you a hint about how people feel about a politician or a particular issue, you just shouldn’t bet your house on the result.

C) Who did they ask?

In a political poll, you want to know if the poll was done of registered voters or likely voters. You get a much truer picture of a campaign when you interview likely voters. These are people who are, as the phrase says, likely to vote in election. Since the United States has such a lousy turn out in elections (be they federal, state, or municipal) somebody can be registered to vote but that doesn’t mean they’re going to go to the polls.

Good pollsters have ways to determine the difference between a likely voter and a registered voter by asking them questions like: did they vote in the last election, have they ever written a letter or an email to their local media, have they ever participated in a campaign, do they know the location of their polling station, etc.

So a poll that says 54% of registered voters support Donald Trump versus a poll that says 54% of likely voters support Joe Biden would be good for Trump but great for Biden.

D) How was the question asked?

The way pollster asks a question will often determine the way the participant will answer it. Good pollsters ask the same question in several different ways to get at the participant’s real views.

Bad pollsters do what are called “push polls” where they ask questions in such a way that they’re pushing you to answer in a fashion that suits the politician or the organization behind the poll.

Politicians and big corporations are infamous for doing push polls in order to produce a result that they like and then spread it among the media, who too often don’t bother to ask how the poll was conducted or how the questions were asked.

E) How was the poll weighed?

Pollsters weigh polls to try to produce a truer result. For instance women and seniors tend to answer the phone more often, which can skew the sex and age ratio of the poll. So they weigh (or adjust) the poll to better match the actual sex and age demographics of the public. Or they might oversample a group to get a more representative result. Good pollsters will include this information in their methodology explanations included at the bottom of each poll.

F) What is the pollsters’ history of success or failure?

I refer you to Nate Silver’s Pollster Ratings where he and his team at fivethirtyeight.com regularly look at the history of each polling organization in terms of successful polling of particular issues, how many polls the pollster has conducted and how the polls are conducted (live, land-line phone, internet, cellphone).

This is a great help to determine the difference between a well-known pollster who has conducted many polls and a fly-by-night organization that pops up to produce polls that favor a particular candidate or issue. It helps to know the success rate of polling predictions because that gives you a better picture of how you should view the poll.

An organization that has a 90% success rate (like Survey USA) should be given greater credence then a poll from an organization that only has a 70% success rate (like Survey Monkey).

G) The shame factor

People do indeed lie to pollsters. This is particularly true in a poll that concerns an unpopular politician or an issue such as racism or misogyny. Or in an exit poll taken the day of an election. If the person being surveyed actually holds racist or misogynist views, they may lie to the pollster about their positions creating a false result.

Pres. Trump benefited from this factor in 2016 particularly after his “grab them by the pussy” remarks. At that time voting for Trump was not seen as a particularly popular thing to do, even though a lot of people wanted to do it. It was also a factor in exit polls. So when a pollster asked if they supported Trump, many people who did said no.

So what does all this tell us about polling? I would recommend you read Nate Silver’s book “The Signal and The Noise” which looks at how polling is done and how predictions made by pundits and politicians often bear no semblance to reality.

Polling may not be a great way to determine how we feel about politicians or controversial issues in, but it may be the best way that we have going forward.

A Tale of Two Countries

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides an update to the media on COVID-19 in BC. (Province of BC)

If an American wants to understand how leadership and unity make a difference in the fight against COVID-19, they do not need to look across the globe to countries like South Korea, New Zealand or Singapore. Instead, they should shift their gaze to the north of the border.

The American public has, by and large, truly done a magnificent job in the battle against this virus in the past few weeks. When medical experts first projected that COVID-19 could kill as many as 100,000 to 200,000 Americans it was based on an estimation that only 50% of Americans would observe social distancing. Instead, those same experts have been able to drastically lower the possible death count to around 60,000 because more than 90% of Americans have engaged in social distancing.

American media regularly cover the stories of the heroes of the COVID-19 battle – the doctors, the nurses, the truck drivers, the grocery store workers, the postal workers, the delivery people – who literally risk their lives to care for people or try to help the country maintain some semblance of normality.

The problem is at the top.

When you look at the differences between the way politicians in Canada and the United States have responded to the COVID-19 crisis, the differences could not be more jarring.

Let’s start with the leaders.

In the United States you have Donald Trump who relentlessly blames others for his poor response to the virus. He ignored repeated warnings. He has confused Americans with misinformation and a lack of leadership that was made plain in his statement that he takes “no responsibility” for his country’s chaotic and slapdash response to this emergency.

Trump has consistently sent out signals that he cares more about how COVID-19 will affect the stock market and his reelection than he does about the American people, and his actions and the actions of his closest advisors reinforce this belief. One only needs to read the extensive and thoroughly reported piece in Sunday’s N.Y. times to realize how badly this administration has handled the crisis.

Oh Canada

In Canada, meanwhile, there has been some valid criticism that perhaps Justin Trudeau’s government also reacted too slowly to the initial reports of the spread of COVID-19. The difference is, however, what happened afterwards.

While not the most popular politician in Canada’s history, and struggling with a minority government after the last election, Trudeau has largely been everything you want a leader to be. He has been a voice of reason and encouragement to the Canadian people.

For instance, read this speech about his government’s economic plan to help Canadians. While on the one hand it delivers information about this policy initiative, on the other hand the speech can only be described as stirring, particularly the ending where Trudeau refers to how the older generation of Canadians helped build Canada to be what it is today and that it is up to younger Canadians to protect them and that heritage.

It stands in stark contrast to Pres. Trump’s tweets about his favorable “ratings,” his jokes about “models” and his attempts to blame anyone and everyone about his administration’s problems with COVID-19.

There are other important differences between Canada and United States.

One is the cooperation in Canada between the federal government and the provincial governments. A recent column by Peter Loewen, professor of political science and at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at The University of Toronto, Taylor Owen, associate professor of public policy at McGill University, and Derek Ruths, associate professor of computer science at McGill University described it this way:

So far, Canadian political action around the COVID-19 pandemic has seen more cooperation between the federal and provincial governments than we have seen at any other point since 2015. Ministers are actively avoiding criticism of one another and are largely focused on the same goals. Indeed, much has been made of the camaraderie between Doug Ford [Conservative premier of Ontario] and Chrystia Freeland ( Liberal Deputy Prime Minister of Canada and federal minister of Intergovernmental Affairs], and it has overshadowed larger political concessions, like Ontario all but laying down arms in its political opposition to a carbon tax.

Public Health Officials the New Canadian Heroes

Another important difference is how Canadian politicians have deferred to the health experts and science. This is particularly seen in the role that Canada’s public health officers have played in the crisis. They have literally become rock stars.

Officials like British Columbia’s Dr. Bonnie Henry, Prince Edward Island’s Dr. Heather Morrison, Québec’s Dr. Horracio Arruda or the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Teresa Tam have been lauded by Canadians of all stripes for their clear, unambiguous daily briefings about COVID-19.

These public health officials have been free to give Canadians the straight goods – that means they are honest when things are bad and straightforward about what Canadians need to do in order to reduce the effects of COVID-19. They have earned the overwhelming support of Canadians.

Meanwhile, America’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been lauded by many, was recently forced to accept protection from the Health and Human Services department because of the many death threats against him. It also appears he had started telling a little too much truth for Trump.

Finally, Canadian politicians, regardless of their political affiliation, deserves to be applauded for their willingness to stand back and let the people who know what they’re talking about have the center stage. It’s also been encouraging to see how politicians have not attacked each other but have done their very best to work together in a time of crisis.

No one is naïve enough to believe that this will continue forever. But the fact that it is happening is important.

To some degree it reflects the differences between the philosophies of Canada and the United States. In Canada it’s “peace, order and good government” while in the United States it’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Most of the time, people will choose life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But in a moment when our ability to work together matters if we are going to defeat the menace of COVID-19, peace, order and good government might be the better choice.

Conservatives and “Socialism”

Most Americans have probably never heard of Tommy Douglas. He was never prime minister of Canada, a big hockey star or a well-known entertainer. A few Americans might know him as the grandfather of American action-star Keifer Sutherland.

Yet in 2004, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) did a national show on who was the greatest Canadian of them all, Tommy Douglas won.

And he was a democratic socialist.

Born in Scotland, his family immigrated to Canada when he was six. When Douglas was a child, he injured his right knee and doctors thought they would have to amputate his leg. His family was poor and couldn’t pay the medical bills. It was only because a famous surgeon said he would treat Douglas for free if medical students could observe, was his injury treated successfully.

The experience changed him forever. Years later, Douglas said: “I felt that no boy should have to depend either for his leg or his life upon the ability of his parents to raise enough money to bring a first-class surgeon to his bedside.”

Eventually he became a Baptist minister but was horrified by what was happening to people during the depression. He became an activist and got into politics – as a democratic socialist.

In 1935, he was elected to parliament as a member of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) the forerunner of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP). Eventually he switched to provincial politics and became the leader of the CCF in Saskatchewan. In 1944 he was elected premier and the head of the first democratic socialist government in North America.

He introduced a provincial bill of rights and was the first Canadian leader to call for a national bill of rights. (Which eventually happened in 1982 with the Charter of Right and Freedoms). He was the first politician in Canada to create a government-run utility that spread electricity into many rural areas of the province. And his party, which was re-elected five times, introduced the first program to offer free health care to all citizens of the province.

In 1961 he stepped down as premier and became the first leader of the newly formed NDP. Although never elected prime minister, he party held the balance of power during the terms of Lester Pearson who took many of Douglas’s ideas, like universal health care, and made them available to all Canadians.

For his many efforts to improve the life of all Canadians, Douglas was constantly dubbed a “communist’” or worse by the country’s conservative politicians and media pundits. It all became a joke to Douglas. There is a wonderful documentary showing Douglas debating a conservative, who is standing at the microphone using all the worse scare words he could think of to describe Douglas, while Douglas sits quietly sitting in the background, with a delightful smile on his face, looking over his notes, preparing to demolish this pompous idiot who had no idea of what he was talking about.

And speaking of pompous idiots with no idea of what they are talking about, that brings me to CPAC, the conservative gathering of Trumplodytes that happened this past weekend in DC. “Socialism” is their new bug-a-boo word designed to scare Americans into supporting their repressive, anti-democratic agenda.

Speaker after speaker ranted about “socialists” like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others who they say want to turn American into a Venzuela-like nightmare. They used almost the same words that the enemies of Tommy Douglas used back in the 30s and 40s to denounce him. That’s the thing about conservatives. Their lack of imagination means their vocabulary rarely differs from country to country, from era to era.

Here’s the thing about democratic socialism. The key word is democratic. Countries like Sweden or Norway use a combination of the best ideas of socialism (free health care, free or very cheap education, etc.) and strong market economies. The result is that they regularly record the highest standards of living in the world. The same for Canada, which led the OCED index of growth for many years.

And let’s not forget Germany, France, Denmark, Great Britain, Japan, Australia, Spain, Finland, Ireland, Belgium, New Zealand, Austria, Switzerland or the Netherlands – all countries that have achieved a balance of democratic socialism and capitalism.

Democratic socialism argues that there is an important place for the role of government along with private industry. I find it amusing that so many Americans conservatives denounce the horrors of democratic socialist programs, when so many count on two of them – medicare and social security.

Unbridled capitalism is a lovely system for the top 1%. The gap between rich and poor in this country continues to grow larger and larger. If people are afraid of a Venezuela happening here, that will be the cause not democratic socialism.

The far-right twist words and ideas beyond all recognition and try to shove them down people’s throats to scare them. (For instance, the other day a Republican state representative in Arizona compared mandatory vaccination for measles to “communism.”)

The day when democratic socialism and capitalism work side by side in America is not far away. And America will be a much better country for all its citizens as a result.

Musings, 12/10/18: “Don’t Insult My Country, Dotard”

French Government Slams Trump: Stop Interfering And ‘Leave Our Nation Be’

Having grown up Canadian, I remember very well the last time a French politician tried to interfere in the affairs of another country. I refer to, of course. the late French president Charles de Gaulle and his “Vive la Québec libre” comment made while visiting Québec in 1967. Lester Pearson’s Canadian government sort of told dear Charles to shut up and get out and he left the country.

More or less the same thing happened this past weekend, only it was France who was on the end of obnoxious comments, in this case tweets, by another world leader. That obnoxious world leader, of course, was Donald Trump. Trump, who hates not being the focus of every story no matter where it is happening in the world, decided to toss in his two cents worth about the protests by the yellow vests in France. Trump made the protests all about the Paris Accord on climate change and deluded himself into thinking that the crowds were chanting “We want Trump.” (This is only because this is what Donald Trump chants when he is alone by himself in the bathroom.)

And while some members of the French government politely told der Trump to back off, some people did not use diplomatic language at all. Joachim Son-Forget, a member of the French National Assembly, responded to Trump’s comments, by tweeting himself the unforgettable phrase that Trump was suffering from “cerebral incontinence.” (Ah, the French do have a way with words.) He followed this up by borrowing Kim Jong Un’s insult about Trump, “Don’t insult my country Dotard.”

The yellow vest protests have been extremely violent and widespread in a way that only protests in France can be. America had a similar protest over the way our government is being run. It was called the 2018 midterms.

Ontarians, we’re all living in a Dukes of Hazzard show now

I don’t think my American friends can truly appreciate what a brainless nincompoop Doug Ford is and what a mystery it is that he was elected premier of Ontario. The true reason was, of course, that the former Liberal government was so hated and despised by the average voter in Ontario they would’ve elected a blowup sex toy as the next premier. Doug Ford is not a blowup sex toy although he probably has the intelligence of one.

This is a great column by my friend and fellow Canadian Nieman Stephen Mayer that paints Ford with just the right brush. He not only acts like Boss Hogg and runs the government of Ontario like Boss Hogg ran Hazzard County, he looks like Boss Hogg. As Stephen points out in this column, it appears he’s installed his own version of Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane as the head of the Ontario Provincial Police.

I think the voters of Ontario must feel like they were on this wild bender, are slowly starting to sober up and asked themselves “Oh my God, what did we do?”.

Tumblr’s New ‘No Sex’ Rules Show The Problems Of FOSTA And EU Copyright Directive In One Easy Move

While the Boomer Generation and those over the age of 40 have been fascinated by the recent court filings by special counsel Robert Mueller concerning our dear president, younger people have only one topic on their mind – the decision by the popular social media network Tumblr to ban pornography from its site in the very near future. Tumblr, which is owned by Verizon through its purchase of Yahoo, made this decision because of a report of child pornography on Tumblr, which led to their app being pulled off of the Apple App Store. Tumblr reacted to these reports by immediately taking down these deeply offending images.

But Verizon, which has decided to surrender rather than fight for free speech, has decided to ban all “pornographic” images on Tumblr. They are using bots to hunt down these images. Which of course has led to complete chaos and the banning of anything that has a flesh tone (or in some cases is nothing at all to do with sex). Tumblr has been a safe space for many members of the LGBT community and some sex workers who used Tumblr to alert each other to the potential dangers of particular customers. But it’s the average user who is infuriated by Verizon’s move. In my own home, my children who are of the ages between 23 and 18 can talk of little else and how angry they are. They plan to leave Tumblr and I predict millions more will as well.

What lies behind this is a new law known as FOSTA (or SESTA) which was put into effect in April of this year. Before they became law, the Internet was ruled by the “safe harbor” provision of the 1996 Communications and Decency Act which basically protected Internet sites from third-party postings. FOSTA, which creates a runaround to the CDA, was enacted as a way to curb sex trafficking on sites like Backdoor (which has since gone out of business) but has done little to stop sex trafficking and only endangered free speech on the Internet. In fact recent statistics show that there are more sex trafficking posts available on the Internet only now they are located on sites which have no interest in cooperating with the police, which Backdoor did do.

This is yet another case of moralistic do-gooders using a sledgehammer to solve a problem that needed a thumbtack. Politicians who want to connect to the millennial generation need to pay attention to this issue. They need to study it and talk intelligently about it if they want to harvest the votes of young people.

Musings:12/09/18 – Say Hello to the New Boss, Same As the Old Boss

William Barr Is Jeff Sessions Without the Baggage

Just in case anyone thought that William Barr will bring a new approach to the Justice Department needs to remember that this is Donald Trump’s administration. Trump would not have chosen Barr, who’s been auditioning for the position for several months now, if he did not think that Barr would not only continue Jeff Sessions’ far-right approach to issues like police reform or criminal justice reform but also give him a man in the Department of Justice who he could count on to obstruct the Russia investigation as much as possible.

As this article in Slate explains, Barr is basically Jeff Sessions without the baggage. Perhaps not as racist, certainly as homophobic and who can certainly be counted on to continue Sessions’ battles against civil liberties and civil rights. Really not much of an upgrade.

Ex-Harper immigration minister calls out Scheer over ‘factually incorrect’ statements on UN migration pact

It really must be embarrassing for Canadian conservatives almost every time Andrew Scheer opens his mouth. Because every time he opens his mouth he seems to stick his foot in it. Scheer, who wants to pretend he is Canada’s Donald Trump (only without the money and the “big brain”) does share some of Trump’s greatest features: he doesn’t seem to care much about reading or actually learning the facts of the situation.

It’s pretty embarrassing when a member of your own party and former minister in the government of Stephen Harper (a group not known for being warmhearted towards any issue of immigration) basically tells you not only are you wrong but you are very wrong.

Watching Andrew Scheer’s performance from afar is like watching a car wreck unfold before your eyes. You really can’t do anything to stop it but it’s fascinating to watch.

Harvard’s Bipartisan Congressional Orientation Under Fire For Being Too Corporate

Boys, there’s a whole bunch of new sheriffs in town and they are not just going to go along to get along. If the Democratic Party thinks that the new progressive members elected in the 2018 midterms will just quietly lineup support the status quo, I think they are starting to realize that it ain’t gonna happen. The great danger is, of course, that this new progressive group within the Democratic caucus will become the “Freedom Party” of the left. Time will tell.

But it is obvious from the reaction to the overwhelmingly corporate nature of the orientation at Harvard, and its complete lack of any voices from labor or from any other progressive area, that these new voices are going to demand some changes and they are not going to do so quietly.

What’s happening in the Great White North, Monday, November 26

Since the name of this blog is My Two Countries I am going to try to write as much about my home and native land as I am about what is happening south of 49th parallel.

The red line crossed, Jamal Khashoggi’s life cannot be sacrificed for Canada’s economy

An opinion piece from the Globe and Mail that I strongly agree with. Germany has already halted sales of military weapons to Saudi Arabia. It’s time for Justin Trudeau to do the same. For someone who supposed to care so much about human rights, it is time for Trudeau to back up his words with some action. Mohammed bin Salmon is a murderer. I’m not naïve enough to think that Canada hasn’t done business with murderers before. But this murder was particularly egregious and sets a dangerous precedent. If MBS doesn’t learn that there are consequences to his temperamental fits of pique, other innocent people will die for nothing more than disagreeing with him.

Time to fish or cut bait, Mr. Trudeau.

GM to slash jobs and production, cancel some car models

Welcome to the 21st-century folks. And the death of the fossil-fueled car. This decision has numerous consequences for many people. On the one hand, there are the workers at the Oshawa plant and the many plants in the United States who will lose their jobs. But they are also the people who produce oil in Alberta or other places in the world. When one of the world’s largest automobile makers decides to close up several manufacturing plants in two countries because people aren’t buying fuel-powered cars like they used to, the canary in the coal mine is singing. An opera in fact. Bring on electric cars.

There has been a tendency among people to blame immigrants for “taking their jobs.” Immigrants aren’t the reason that people are losing their jobs. It’s technology. And it’s not going to stop happening.

“I talked to the president of GM last night. The first thing I said is, ‘What can we do? What do we have to do?'” Ontario Premier Doug Ford told reporters this morning. “And he said, ‘The ship has already left the dock.'”

When it comes to hazing, female athletes are just as vulnerable

I don’t like college sports. Particularly American college sports. Canadian college sports, on the other hand, tends to be far less oriented towards the almighty dollar than its US counterpart. That doesn’t make it any better in many ways. This report that two-thirds of all varsity athletes in Canada have been subject to hazing – and more women than men – is disappointing but not unexpected. I find the tribalism that goes along with being part of a college sports puzzling. I mean, who really cares? I sure as hell don’t.

Scientist refutes notion that gender identity is an ‘unscientific liberal ideology’

Okay, we all know that conservatives don’t believe in gender identity. They also don’t believe in climate change, a livable wage for workers and freedom of the press (if you listen to PC party leader and political screwball Andrew Scheer, who wants freedom of speech on college campuses – he says – but so much for the media). This is an interesting CBC interview with a prof from Queen’s University who has spent her career studying gender identity. This means that she knows of a hell of a lot more about the issue than conservative politicians.

Oh yeah, there was another thing I forgot to mention that conservatives don’t believe in: facts!

Stamps beat Redblacks 27-16 to win 2018 Grey Cup

When I was growing up as a kid in Ottawa many Saturdays about 300 other kids and I would crowd onto a bridge that overlooked the formally named Lansdowne Park and watch the old Russ Jackson-led Ottawa Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. To this day my brother, Jimmy, will not watch the NFL which he considers an inferior league to the CFL. Last night the latest edition of an Ottawa team, the strangely named Red Blacks, lost the Grey Cup to a team I am familiar with, the Calgary Stampeders. Oh well, maybe next year.

The Red Sox won the World Series – I don’t need anything else.

It can’t happen here, eh

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau [Photo by Alex Gulbord, Creative Commons]

by Tom Regan

When Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here, a semi-satirical novel about a dictator defeating FDR and taking over the United States, it was generally assumed that he was writing about what would happen if Louisiana politician Huey Long became president of the United States. Fortunately for the United States, and unfortunately for Mr. Long, it didn’t happen. Long was assassinated in 1936.

An American political novel from the 30s about the threat of democratically elected dictatorship may not seem relevant to Canada today. Many Canadians, particularly those in the middle and on the left, clearly think that the kind of right-wing, populist, anti-governmental wave that swept Donald Trump into power in the United States could never happen in a liberal and progressive country like Canada.

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but it certainly could.

Sobering evidence that this could indeed happen in the great White North was revealed yesterday. For the past 15 years, the international public relations firm Edelman has issued an international “trust index” that basically measures the amount of trust that citizens of a variety of countries have for institutions like the media, non-governmental organizations, business and the government. On Tuesday they released the latest information on Canada and what it showed was disturbing – that basically Canada is poised for the same kind of populist “eruption” that recently brought Donald Trump to power in the United States.

Edelman executives who released the report called its findings “dramatic” and said that the same kind of wave of ingredients that fueled populist uprisings in the United States and Britain are coalescing in Canada. Confidence in the government of Justin Trudeau for instance, has dropped dramatically. While some drop-off is to be anticipated after a year in government, it was much more than expected, from about 55% to 45%. Meanwhile, a staggering 80% of Canadians said they thought that the county’s “elites” were out of touch with ordinary citizens. Almost 2/3 said they didn’t have faith in the country’s leaders to effectively tackle the issues facing the nation. And 50% of Canadians said that they felt immigrants were damaging the country’s culture and economy.

On the one hand, it’s been quite the year in international politics and it would be foolish to assume that Canada would be totally passed over by the nativist wave that swept through the United States and much of Europe. On the surface a 45% approval rate is not disastrous for Trudeau. On the other hand, it would be sheer folly to ignore what this report demonstrates: That government is not connecting with ordinary Canadians, that the government is not doing its job in helping Canadians understand the benefits that immigrants bring to the country, and that the government has ignored the consequences of globalization on the lives of many of its citizens.

There is some evidence that Trudeau may understand what’s happening. His recent decision to skip the summit of world leaders in Davos and instead embark on a cross-country series of town hall meetings would seem to indicate that he senses the political peril of ignoring the common folk to hang out with global elites.

There is little doubt that Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch, however, sees the political opportunity of this populist moment. She has seized on the fact that many Canadians are unhappy with the status quo, and hopes to use that populist sentiment to capture the leadership of her party and ultimately 24 Sussex Dr.

Fortunately, Trudeau has at least two years before he has to call another federal general election. It is quite possible that the populist wave will ebb first. The tumultuous first few weeks of the Trump administration in the United States has already dampened the enthusiasm of many for that kind of government, including among a good number of those who voted in. But Donald Trump is an odd and unpredictable fish, and if you’re counting on his erratic behavior to make your argument for progressive policies, then you’re just throwing a Hail Mary pass and hoping for the best.

If Canada wants to avoid the same kind of populist eruption that’s happening in much of the rest of the world, there’s real, hard work to be done to repair the trust between Canadians and their government. And it needs to start right now. Slick, “sunny” PR opportunities are not going to change a thing.

Canada prepares for ‘war’ with US

By Tom Regan

Is Canada going to war with the United States? No, not really. But you might say that some elements of the Canadian government are being put on a political ‘wartime’ footing.

Montana/Canada USA Border boundary crossing north of Eureka on Highway 93. (Photo by Spend a Day Touring LLC, Creative Commons)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made some questionable decisions lately, including the sudden decision to drop the plan to change the way Canadians elect members of Parliament. While there are some good reasons for his decision to do so, his way of dealing with the matter shows that over a year into his term he still having some problems figuring out the right way to do things.
One of the things that he has figured out the right way to deal with, however, is the Canadian relationship with the United States. Canada’s relationship with the United States is, at the moment, the most important economic one it has. (Ask me which one is the most important 10 years from now and I might say China.) While that relationship has had its ups and downs, particularly over issues like softwood lumber and cultural issues, it has been dependable and stable for decades.

That was then. This is now.

And now comes in the form of Pres. Donald Trump, a man whose ideas on how to effectively govern the most powerful nation on the planet could be written down on the back of a matchbook cover. Perhaps the most accurate description to be seen so far of Mr. Trump’s governing style was put forward by former liberal staffer Warren Kinsella who described Mr. Trump as a “monkey with a machine gun.” Trump’s habit of tweeting out policy at 3 AM in the morning when he’s restless and bored means anyone dealing with his administration needs to be nimble and one step ahead of the game.

And this is where Canada has perhaps shown the way for other nations in how to deal with Mr. Trump by creating a “war room” in Mr. Trudeau’s riding office in Papineau Québec. The office, headed by liberal political veteran Brian Clow, is designed to help coordinate the Trudeau government’s response to Mr. Trump’s unpredictable whims and fancies. As described in The Hill, which covers government and political issues emanating from Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the office will seek to ensure “integrated outreach across government, so that any projects or talks already underway continue to be worked on.”

Perhaps the most accurate description to be seen so far of Mr. Trump’s governing style was put forward by former liberal staffer Warren Kinsella who described Mr. Trump as a “monkey with a machine gun.”

The genius in this idea is that it will prevent the Trudeau government from “fighting the last war” – in other words move it away from conducting negotiations and outreach in the bureaucratic ways that used to work in the past, but are quite irrelevant in the age of social media and Mr. Trump’s ‘in the moment’ bulldozer style of public policy. Making sure that all government departments are coordinated and singing from the same hymnbook in their dealings with the Trump administration is also key. If you want to see how chaotic mixed messages can be, take a look at what’s happening south of the border right now, where government departments are sometimes called upon to respond to initiatives they didn’t even know were happening.

Another smart thing the Trudeau government did is make former Lieut. Gen., now Liberal MP, Andrew Leslie (Orléans, Ont.), parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs minister, focused on Canada-U.S. relations. The Canadian-American military relationship is important one, and Mr. Leslie’s time working with the Americans, especially in Afghanistan, will serve him well. (There are already signs that the US military is not happy with Pres. Trump – witness the recent leak by three different officials at the Pentagon about how poorly planned the recent raid on Yemen was.) Considering the number of former military people now serving the Trump administration, having a solid relationship with them can only benefit Canada in the long run.

There will be pressure on Trudeau to not be too chummy with Trump, or face the kind of public backlash that greeted British Prime Minister Theresa Mays’ public relationship with The Donald. On the other hand, however, Trudeau cannot afford to be too standoffish or else he risks the wrath of a man known for his childish vengeful attacks on those he sees his opponents. Creating a war room to deal with the US and its new administration is one way of ensuring that Canada’s best interests will be looked after.