The following is my recent Huffington Post piece on the use of negative ads and their unintended consequences.
It was the cause of significant debate during my sojourn in Parliament: do we respond in kind to the Conservative attacks ads? The professionals within the Liberal Party were keen to do so, claiming, with some merit, that since the Conservatives had taken to the American-style of “slam, slam all the time,” that all Canadian parties would eventually have to travel down that road. Not being a professional, I was against it, feeling that it would erode the Canadian construct of civility.
Something happens when you get into politics that I have yet to fully comprehend. You run the danger of becoming less human, more primordial. Worse, you grow detached, little realizing that how you utilize power could well have devastating effects.
Consider the rather comedic retort offered by the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Secretary Dean Del Mastro concerning accusations about financial irregularities during one of his election campaigns: “I’m not an average person on the street.” I understand he has been flummoxed lately, but in that brief phrase he inadvertently pointed to so much that’s wrong with politics these days. He is just an average guy. Being elected means you become a servant of the public interest, not its master. This same man who day after day hammered opposition members in the House for years in a crude and denouncing manner is now understanding what it feels like when others, including the media, decide, with some justification, that you’re the target.
This is where negative politics gets us – isolated politicians, derision for the electorate and the media, the use of the bludgeoning hammer over the incisive scalpel, the ascendancy of the party over the constituency, corporations over citizens. This isn’t some football contest, where illegal antics on the field make little difference in the stands. This constant derision of one party against another in the halls of Parliament or in the media undermines the confidence and civility of the entire country. Those losing faith in the political operations of the nation often check out of their citizen responsibilities just out of disillusionment. Behind every partisan attack these days lay problems unmet, challenges unfaced, and promises unkept. People are in more severe trouble every year through poverty, unemployment or poor health while policymakers take aims at one another instead of the vital causes of such growing epidemics.
Strange to say, America’s very first president, George Washington, foresaw this day. Speaking to an audience during his final days as the leader of the nation, he concluded:
“However political parties may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
There it is in a nutshell: short, simple, and ultimately damning. By promoting their own harshly worded negative ads against the Prime Minister before an election, the main opposition NDP party has informed Stephen Harper that his negative tools are not his alone for deploying. Within the political bubble it all carries a certain rationale. But the effect on the country as a whole will have debilitating results – as ever. When all of our federal parties reach the stage where they feel the only way they can defeat an oppressive foe is by adopting his tactics it is a sign that we are a nation in decline. Only citizens can stop it, but they have been turned off in sufficient numbers by the partisan displays that they can no longer respond in sufficient enough strength to save themselves and the future for their children.
We are rapidly coming to the outcome Charles de Gaulle reached during World War Two: “I have come to the conclusion that politics are too serious a matter to be left to politicians.” Perhaps. But if not them, who? Us? At the moment, we hardly seem ready for the responsibility.