Doorstep Postings: ‘Cringe’ is a word that explains many Canadian political campaigns

This cringe came from an actual Conservative Party of Canada attack ad.

An awkward situation developed at an intimate summer backyard fundraiser hosted by the Canadian Jewish Political Action Committee in midtown Toronto, some time in the 2010s. One of the guest speakers—a Member of Parliament who’d probably never been in a setting with this many Jews before—simply wouldn’t stop gushing about their love of Israel. 

I won’t reveal this MP’s riding, gender, or even their party (because it continues to happen across the spectrum). I didn’t question the sincerity of the politician’s professed love for the Jewish state. No one standing there could.

And besides, at least they were saying good things…

But it was perfectly clear—from the many sidelong glances, the fiddling with Blackberrys, the nervous twitches—that everyone in that backyard—except our poor besotted MP, of course—was united in their collective cringing.

Sometimes, we Canadians get down on ourselves when we lose a hockey championship, or when a business decides they’re going to headquarter elsewhere. Left-wingers worry that our progressive rhetoric doesn’t match our actions. Right-wingers fear free speech and individual liberties will become a thing of the past, Charter rights notwithstanding.

But the one thing that unites us Canadians, from coast to coast to coast—the one domain where we are the absolute, far-and-away global leader—is what the kids today call “cringe.”

We’re image-obsessed people who believe the whole world needs more of us and spend an inordinate amount of time being nice, polite, friendly, and helpful and hiding anything embarrassing with less-than-perfect results.

Accordingly, the Canadian political scene is steeped in cringe. It’s been with us ever since a hungover John A. Macdonald vomited in the House of Commons—then blamed it on the rantings of other elected members making him sick.

Turn on a feed of Canadian political proceedings, and you’ll see politicians reflexively muttering “shame” as someone reads a litany of government failings. Open social media, and you’ll watch the Extremely Online going to ever-ridiculous lengths to shame the other parties, or their supporters, thus creating a cringe feedback loop:

Cringe is not an altogether bad thing—it’s having a bit of a moment right now. It’s relatable. It’s open, it’s earnest, it’s well-meaning, it’s comedically unaware of itself… and, if it causes harm, it’s definitely unintentional.

Canadians will always point out how, in other countries, politics has turned into a conspiracy-theory-fuelled bloodsport, while up here an inexplicably ridiculous Conservative party ad comparing Trudeau to the bratty Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is the most offensive thing:

(The clip officially disappeared soon enough, due to a copyright complaint.)

Here’s the rather obvious downside of cringe, however: it turns people off from political participation rather than motivating them to get out and vote.

This is partly intentional. The Liberals know that implying Erin O’Toole is anti-choice and anti-vaccination will make CPC supporters less likely to show up at the polls. But they have to be careful not to overplay their hand and look like they are pushing these buttons, lest they become the source of cringe themselves:

If you’re constantly ringing the outrage alarm in an attempt to shame your opponents, it becomes harder and harder to genuinely connect with voters when true empathy is called for:

Look, half the time, voters don’t even know what they’re supposed to be cringing over!

And what do you do when the leaders have deplored until they can’t deplore any more—and the events continue?

Josh Lieblein can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Doorstep Postings.