Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Lessons From Election 2011

A big thank you to the politicians and people of Ontario. You knocked on doors, hammered in lawn signs, answered a hundred calls from pollsters, and called talk radio to air your opinions about foreigners, perverts, and cross-dressing six-year-olds. Then you voted.

Thanks to all your efforts, we can now draw some conclusions.
Dalton McGuinty is a Colossus of Canadian Politics. Yes, really. The last Ontario premier to win three successive majorities was Leslie Frost in 1959 so McGuinty's two majorities and Thursday night's near-majority are good enough to qualify him for colossus status. Still, keep things in perspective. The greatest colossus in the whole history of the Dominion is Mackenzie King, an odd little man who met Hitler in 1937 and thought he was a swell guy. Being a colossus in Canadian politics is a little like being a giant in Lilliput. Bland Still Works Dalton McGuinty may be a collosus but he's no visionary. Oh, I know. Pundits increasingly talk as if he is. So does McGuinty. But the only substance to support that view is McGuinty's green energy plan, which is the sort of visionary thinking one gleans from the pages of Thomas Friedman if one is the sort of person who thinks Thomas Friedman is a visionary. Dalton McGuinty is a manager, a tweaker of systems, a modifier of status quos, an incremental incrementalist. Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, it's likely the main reason McGuinty won: There is a widespread sense that we're doing relatively well and the premier is an experienced fellow who won't screw things up too badly. That's a boring pitch, yes. But effective. It was central to the Liberal campaign. Not coincidentally, it was also the central pitch of the federal Conservative campaign. This is one of the most basic, and endearing, aspects of Canadian politics: You can be the accountant who bores other accountants at the accountants' convention but still win office repeatedly if voters think you're reasonably competent. To paraphrase Bill Davis, bland still works. The Centre Is Holding Watching the excitable people to the south of us, it's natural to fear political polarization. But in this election the parties were, as usual, clustered around the centre. Same in the Manitoba election this week. Same in the federal election last May. The centre is holding. So far. The Canadian Tea Party Has Been Cancelled Speaking of polarization, and the lack thereof, remember all the talk after Rob Ford became mayor of Toronto in 2010? Right-wing populism was on the rise, the pundits said. It was the big new thing. A Canadian Tea Party was coming. Then Stephen Harper was re-elected on a platform that put him considerably to the left of Barack Obama and the voters of Ontario re-elected a man who would be called a Bolshevik by American Tea Partiers, if American Tea Partiers knew what a Bolshevik is. Tricorne hats are not making a comeback in Canada any time soon. It Is Possible To Be Too Scuzzy After staking out the centre on big issues, Tim Hudak needed something to distinguish his party. So he turned to wedge politics. Foreign students taking scholarships from good Canadian kids. Putting prisoners on chain gangs Alabama-style. That sort of thing. It was supposed to be explosive stuff but it went off like damp firecrackers. So when the Liberals vaguely promised to support the hiring of recent immigrants, Hudak got very excited. Foreigner workers! Taking our jobs! With our money! The Liberal proposal was actually narrowly targeted and the "foreign workers" in question were, in fact, Canadian citizens. But Hudak was determined to make this one pop, facts be damned. The debacle reached its peak of absurdity when a Globe and Mail reporter asked Hudak why he kept describing the beneficiaries of the program as "foreign workers" and Hudak responded by denying that he had called called them "foreign workers" and then went on to call them "foreign workers." The reporter then noted that Hudak had just called them what he denied having called them. Had Hudak responded with a two-finger eye-poke, it would have been a superb Three Stooges routine. This was precisely the moment when the polls turned against Hudak. And it only got worse from there. Perverts living next door. Gay stuff in the schools. Chain gangs, again. Hudak tried one after another but none of it detonated as expected. And Hudak looked like a teenager who was not only a punk but a loser. Conclusion: Politicians can get away with a lot in an election campaign but there may be a level of sleazy manipulation up with which the public will not put. Which is nice. An Election Is No Time to Discuss Serious Issues Last week, I caught a speech by legendary Financial Times journalist Martin Wolf, who said the world's central bankers are "absolutely terrified." That was unsettling. To cheer up, I read the party platforms, each of which assumes solid economic growth far into the future. The leaders know better. But each of them had a happy story they wanted to tell - about balanced budgets, tax cuts, or more services - and so they tacitly agreed to keep reality out of the campaign. The election was, in other words, a debate within a fairy tale. It's over now. And reality will soon make its presence felt.