Image via Wikimedia Commons.

According to a March Globe and Mail column by Andrew Coyne, the eras of prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien, from 1984 to 2003, “might be called the Age of Capacity, a time when governments took on big problems and fixed them.” He contrasted this to the “Age of Incapacity” in the subsequent Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau governments. Mulroney and Chrétien both faced tough issues, but they were both “great improvisers. They adapted to changing circumstances … Canada rolled up its sleeves and got things done.” By contrast, governments today “seem unable to get much of anything done.”

This is a strange comment coming just after Canada and the entire world faced a massive public health crisis in the global COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of this unprecedented challenge, the government of Canada improvised and adapted, “rolled up its sleeves and got things done”: lockdowns with emergency economic assistance, travel bans and mask mandates. When effective vaccines were developed, the Trudeau government administered a highly successful acquisition and rollout program across the country – so effective that Canada’s death rate from COVID was two and a half times less than that recorded by our American neighbours.

The first global pandemic (the “Spanish flu” of 1918–19) killed an estimated 50 million people. Yet historical memory of the pandemic faded so quickly that it had soon been almost universally forgotten. The lessons of COVID-19 for public policy and governance seem just as elusive as the vanishing memory of the first pandemic. Nowhere is this more evident than in the curious postpandemic decline of confidence in the state, in science and in our collective capacity to deal with existentially threatening issues.

Already it is difficult to recall the remarkable societal response, the wartime-like sense of collective action and sacrifice for the common good, as people negotiated the uncertain terrain of enforced isolation: organizing remote work; shifting from face-to-face human communication to communication via the internet; shopping masked while maintaining “social distancing”; improvising mass inoculation centres; eagerly watching televised briefings and instructions from public health officers; and so on. At the outset there was a pervasive sense of “being in this together”: of the need to trust our fellow citizens to do the right thing and to trust those in authority.

Remember the evenings when people went to their balconies and banged pots to indicate their gratitude for the heroic sacrifices of overworked health workers striving, at the risk of their own health, to save the lives of those stricken with the virus?

Well, that was then; this is now. Now means hostile demonstrations outside hospitals against health workers. Now means antivaxxers purveying virulent conspiracy theories of how “They” (Bill Gates, George Soros, who knows?) are using vaccines to poison our precious bodily fluids and control our minds. Now means thousands of these conspiracists in trucks descending on Ottawa in early 2022 to occupy the national capital as a “Freedom Convoy” waving incoherently insurrectionary “FUCK TRUDEAU” banners. The convoy counterposed a self-serving version of “freedom” without obligation to others against collective action redefined as socialist statism, until federal emergency powers had to be invoked for the first time since the October Crisis of 1970.

A small minority, out of touch with the majority of sane Canadians? Yes certainly, but in the spring of 2024 the Conservative Party, under a rabble-rousing populist leader who backed the Freedom Convoy and has pledged that under his direction there will never be vaccine mandates under any circumstances, is leading national polls by huge margins.

There is worse. Human-made climate change poses an even greater existential threat than pandemics – not just to people but to the earth itself. Like the pandemic threat, this had begun generating collective response on a global scale through state interventions in energy markets and energy production: regulations, controls and carbon pricing.

A centrepiece of Canada’s national climate plan has been a carbon tax, a policy device widely approved by economists and climate scientists as a particularly effective and cost-efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reframing the market to reflect the negative externality costs of fossil fuel consumption. The carbon tax was designed to be revenue-neutral, with rebates to individuals to offset the added costs of fuel. In 2023–24 it actually leaves most drivers better off, if they noticed. It seems that few have.

Instead, the rage farmer Pierre Poilievre is running a wildly successful “Axe the Tax” campaign, as if the carbon tax were the cause of inflation and unemployment and the stalled GDP. No matter that the evidence is thin to nonexistent on all these claims. Who needs evidence when you have ignorant populist anger fuelling your drive? Rebates? Fake news: they don’t exist. Perhaps the quarterly payments deposited in bank accounts just dropped from the skies – pennies (and dollars) from Heaven for the faithful.

If the Conservatives had an alternative climate action plan without carbon pricing that made even minimal sense, we might forgive the partisan demagoguery. But instead of an alternative they counterpose a black hole. Having disposed of the only two leaders who dared to propose carbon pricing as party policy, Erin O’Toole in Ottawa and Patrick Brown in Ontario, the Tories now offer only fatuous slogans. Poilievre, who talks only in slogans, says “Technology, not taxes.” Like the American red states of Texas and Florida, the Alberta petrostate, where a Conservative government is actually in office, is moving to actively discourage wind and solar alternatives. Instead, the Alberta government hypes the unproven technology of carbon capture and storage, a policy device that says burn all the fossil fuels you want but stuff the toxic emissions into holes in the ground for future generations to worry about. This is less a climate policy than a claim that you can avoid a climate policy.

Since 54 per cent of Conservative Party members in convention have endorsed the claim that human action has no effect on climate change, they appear to have become the party of climate change deniers. To be sure, Tory leaders do not openly espouse climate change denial, as such, but they are certainly climate change solution deniers.

Here is the link to the antivax nostrums with which the political right has become associated. Both climate solution denial and antivax ideology rest ultimately on a distrust, even dismissal, of science; a distrust of evidence-based expert advice as the basis for rational public policy; and a reconceptualization of the state not as an instrument for achieving the common goals of the community but as a malign force that can only impede the unrestricted freedom of people to do as they wish. This fits neatly into the Tory antitax mania.

Do Conservative leaders really disbelieve science and factual evidence that conflicts with their political ideology? One desperately hopes that this is not the case.

Stephen Harper in office rarely fell victim in practice to the trademark delusions of the conservative movements with which he was otherwise associated. His loonier followers were usually confined to positions on advisory boards where they could evangelize and cause mischief to no real policy effect. At the same time Harper shut out his more rabid backbenchers from any substantive role in legislation.

The recent experience of the Trump Republicans and the U.K. Tories in office is less reassuring. From Tory minister Michael Gove’s insistence that “we have heard quite enough from experts” to Boris Johnson’s pigheaded insistence on forcing the U.K. out of the European Union against all rational economic advice, British Conservatism has gone quite far down the rabbit hole of obscurantism and hocus pocus. Generally speaking, mainstream parties of the centre-right in the Western world have been either ceding ground to far-right populist parties or moving sharply rightward themselves. Distrust of science and experts and contempt for evidence-based policy are features of this new radicalized populist conservatism.

Even if Poilievre is not so dumb as to actually believe the wilder conspiracist ideas of his vocal backers, he does give sanction and licence to these ideas and causes by playing along with their advocates. His oft-repeated exhortation to “fire the gatekeepers” as his “answer” to the problems of inflation and the housing crisis really means: sack the experts. His paranoid attacks on the World Trade Organization encourage QAnon-type conspiracymongers. His steadfast support for the Freedom Convoy occupation of Ottawa betrayed a willingness to dispense with civility and trust in state institutions in favour of distrust and disruption.

While it is conservative populists who today are leading the charge into the dark, it is important to note that the roots of antiscientism are deeper and wider. Take the Manhattan Project during World War II that produced the atomic bomb. The American state deployed the cutting edge of the most advanced physics and the minds of the world’s most brilliant physicists to develop a weapon that offered a quantum leap forward in world-destroying technology. After the bomb incinerated between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet more destructive nuclear weapons, along with more extensive and sophisticated means of delivering death, were developed over the subsequent decades of the Cold War – all under the shroud of high state secrecy.

States used secrecy to deceive and con their publics – the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” that never was to justify the escalation of U.S. intervention in Vietnam; Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” that never existed to justify the invasion of Iraq. Is it any wonder that science in the secret service of the state generated distrust and suspicion as much as – or more than – the so-called “security” it offered through the “balance of terror” in an armed-to-the-teeth bipolar world? Is it any wonder that so many people now believe that the moon landing in 1969 was faked or that the Chinese state deliberately unleashed the COVID-19 virus from a lab in Wuhan?

Suspicion of science in the service of the state during the Cold War came not from the political right but from the left, as have more recent campaigns of mistrust such as the panic over GMOs (genetically modified organisms). A plant whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering techniques is no different from a plant that is selectively bred, which people have been doing for millennia. But now there are scare campaigns against “Frankenfoods,” monstrous artificial creations of science run amok that threaten your health and the health of the planet.

With this kind of suspicion of science running rampant on all sides, it is hardly surprising that the beneficial promise of Artificial Intelligence – immense in some fields like health and epidemiological research – has been quickly overtaken by a social panic over the existential threat AI allegedly poses to humanity itself.

As for the breakdown in trust in institutions and the turn from passive civil disobedience to coercive protest, the right-wing Freedom Convoy of 2022 had an immediate predecessor in the left-wing “Shut Down Canada” movement in early 2020 that blocked roads and railways across the country in solidarity with a group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposing the Coastal Gas Link pipeline in British Columbia. Like the Freedom Convoy, the protesters viewed their cause as so righteous that they vowed to cripple the Canadian economy to force acceptance of their demands. Fortuitously, the pandemic set in, and with it the protests vanished as everyone scrambled for safety. But a template had been set by the left that would be used to much greater effect by the right two years later.

Science proceeds by trial and error, testing hypotheses against the data; conclusions are always tentative and may be disproved by new evidence. Evidence-based public policy should proceed in much the same way. The structure of liberal democratic government, with its built-in checks and balances, is designed to facilitate the trial-and-error process. That’s why we have institutionalized opposition and regular elections and changes in government. But how much strain can the system take when a spirit of compromise, negotiation and trust in our fellow citizens – even those with whom we disagree – gives way to unreflective certainty and vindictive self-righteousness?

The right is not solely responsible for sowing the culture of suspicion and distrust. But it does seem intent on appearing as the agent of the dark side today.