I suspect that millenarianism surrounds us: not a radical or religious millenarianism, although these thrive in numerous trouble spots around the world, but a muted and diffuse strain. It is a mode of thinking in Western culture that wears disguises and creeps into political thought and speech and into our daily lives.

This muted millenarianism keeps many of us ticking, and is not a bad thing. It helps us through mundane, material and sometimes manifestly important moments in our families and careers. Such a moment could be a cosmically modest but nonetheless life-changing event such as buying a house or car or moving neighbourhoods. It could be as straightforwardly material as a promotion that will make all the difference, we think – perhaps rightly so – between where we are and the professional happiness and financial stability that we seek. Or it might be a cusp in our personal lives, a defining event such as a marriage or divorce that distinguishes the known, imperfect past and present from a possible, presumptively happier future.

So I paint a picture of a muted millenarianism. It is not a grand millenarianism that predicts an end to the familiar world and, after the last cataclysmic battle, a perfect peace. My millenarianism is a simpler, casual observation: many of us, individually and collectively, routinely allow ourselves to be driven by the sometimes correct notion that there is a hump to be got over, after which everything will get better.

Do you see yourself yet? You might not be an aggressive socialist or an Islamist or a harsh evangelist of the Christian right – these are clearly grand millenarian tendencies, and perhaps linked to the new millennium in the case of the Christian right. But perhaps you support Quebec nationalism. Or proportional representation. Or fundamental tax reform.

Let’s take them in turn.

Quebec nationalism, although now at a weak juncture, has always found its strongest support among the middle-class, vaguely left intelligentsia, and among rural residents, especially in the north and east of the province where income and education levels are low. While Quebecers are far better off, materially, than rural counterparts in southeast Asia or the Middle East, populations of relatively low socioeconomic status tend to be fertile ground for apocalyptic movements. The Quebec nationalist movement, while not apocalyptic, is millenarian in political or cultural terms.

Among the political and academic elite – more intertwined in Quebec, arguably, than elsewhere in North America – nationalism has been an avant-garde or politically enlightened stance, and especially attractive to young voters. However, the appeal of the movement has hinged on the notion that, absent the English oppressor or the cultural imperialism of English-speaking North America or, more coolly, a domineering centralist hand in Ottawa, political and personal fulfilment would be more readily achieved.

By implication, the political success of the nationalist movement has depended little on the economic, political or cultural arguments of the nationalists, whatever their merits. Instead, in elections, where the Quebec rural vote counts heavily, millenarian themes hold great sway. To be blunt: on this view, the electoral success of the nationalists has depended on convincing voters that, once over the particular political and legal hump of achieving sovereignty, then cultural freedom, family happiness and economic security (or getting that personal promotion) all fall into place. Any of these things might be true, if unlikely, but it is their millenarian appeal that draws in votes.

Consider next the champions of proportional representation – now commonly known as electoral reform – whether in Canada or other first-past-the-post jurisdictions. They allege or believe many things, such as that voters’ happiness is impaired if their ballots are “wasted” in voting for unsuccessful parties or for successful candidates whose success did not require their vote. To supporters, proportional representation offers more fairness by making political representation for small parties more likely or by putting more female or minority candidates into office or, more generally, by ensuring that the views of those whose votes were too few to elect a legislator in a particular region might nonetheless win legislative representation in proportion to their numbers across the entire electorate.

Viewed dispassionately, these hopes are unlikely to be realized. For instance, it is hard to imagine how quality of life could be improved significantly if more small parties were represented in Parliament, or how that would boost “fairness” in political life in an objectively measurable way. And an increase in representation for women and minorities would be possible only if parties happened to choose their electoral lists in a fashion that produced such a result (empirically speaking, they do not tend to do so under proportional representation any more frequently than under first-past-the-post).

Yet taken together, the hopes attached to proportional representation generate evangelical fervour among supporters, however implausible the individual claims. Group dynamics count for much in this arena. Millenarian impulses have repeatedly overtaken the “citizens’ assemblies” that governments have sometimes selected to vet ballot proposals. That this would happen is scarcely surprising: when individuals offer to serve on such bodies, when they give freely of their evenings and weekends to hear lectures and supplications on the evils and benefits of one or another electoral system, they inevitably form mental images of a better life after the reform. And to the extent that citizen-assemblers select themselves, they will be those with a predisposition to contemplate reform. As we saw recently in Ontario and British Columbia, it can be no surprise that the respective citizen assemblies overwhelmingly plumped for a new system. To opt for the status quo would have been to imply that their commitment to the process was a forlorn cause: far better for the soul, instead, to believe that political salvation is ready to hand, if only other voters could see it.

Now consider fundamental tax reform, another common cause that is vulnerable to millenarianism. Fundamental tax reformers’ salvation is economic. They believe that once the tax rate is flat and excessive progressivity is stamped out of the income tax system, or once a national sales tax has displaced the income tax entirely, or once the capital gains tax is lifted completely, then our individual economic fulfilment and thereafter personal happiness can finally be achieved. The appeal of the tax reform impulse has driven successful political movements, though not as many as has nationalism. Fundamental tax reform has been implemented in some jurisdictions, though not in as many as proportional representation.

A supporter and beneficiary of proportional representation recently said to me that after making the switch, the electorate found that the worst fears of the fiercest opponents were not realized – and neither were the fondest hopes of the earnest reformers. Could the same be said of fundamental tax reform? Perhaps: economists have wrestled to demonstrate the economic benefits of tax reform empirically, but with only small success.

It seems clear to me that millenarianism should be tamped down in policymaking. It clouds thinking and risks confusing hopes and dreams with likely outcomes. But we cannot eliminate it, nor should we to: hope and optimism give politics its energy and, without that, beneficial change cannot happen. Bernard Shaw claimed (I paraphrase) that the possibility of change depended on the existence of unreasonable people.

The way to harness millenarianism, in tax policy for example, is to focus on the merits of incremental gains. If changes to the tax system improve the ease with which human and financial resources flow to their best use, then our economic potential is indeed increased. And small increases in the potential for economic growth translate at the national level into very large dollar amounts. Small, permanent gains in growth equate to huge gains in broad social welfare – but they may not be readily visible to every family’s eye. That these gains might fail to transform the world is no reason for forgoing them.

Readers would be right to suspect that there is a warm spot in my heart for millenarianism in tax reform, a warm spot I do not have for nationalism or proportional representation. In the last two cases I do not see incremental gains offsetting the costs and risks of sweeping change. My stance is not a half-cheer for millenarianism, but rather a grudging admission that I am a cautious optimist. Sadly, this is a stance that seems unlikely to launch a political movement.