It set us back for a minute. The email message had come in from someone in the riding that I used to represent as an MP and who was a member of another political party. The words were harsh, claiming that I had blogged about my health difficulties because I was merely playing for sympathy for when I ran to be MP again. We were stunned. I know the man, though not well. He’s a good citizen and caring family man. He would have understood the difficulties we were facing, but that didn’t matter. What was vital was that he get to me in a vulnerable moment. It wasn’t the devil that made him do it; it was politics.
This is the portion of politics we all dislike, save for the fanatics. It takes good and decent people and attempts to persuade them that those not holding to their persuasion have basically become the enemy. The enemy of whom? The community? Other citizens? The welfare of the country? No, just the foe of other political parties. It cheapens us, and, by extension, soils our collective life as well.
Even as America was in its founding years, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, “there are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.” Such is the state of partisan politics in any age. But in the last while, politics in Canada is no longer about cooperation to establish a progressive state, but rather a blood-soaked arena, where hopefully the “enemy” is bludgeoned beyond recognition, unable to rise again and offer a sustained threat. We have the last two decades of federal politics to thank for that. Everything became about the domination of the PMO and not about deliberation in the people’s Parliament.
Jane and I recently spent some time with a senior Ontario civil servant who got his start in the Bill Davis years in Ontario. He’s managed through every stripe of government but had to acknowledge that provincially across the country partisanship has become so pronounced that dedicated and cooperative civil management is now almost impossible. That’s what bad politics does. He referred to the change as the “Americanization of the Canadian civic structure,” and there’s hardly anyone to deny it – except, of course, the über partisans themselves.
It’s time to admit that modern politics has the potential to make suckers of us all. Increasingly there are only two options: get out of it altogether, or get into it and leave your open mind behind. Those choosing the former abdicate their responsibility on the basis of disillusionment; those opting for the latter also forego their true obligations on the basis of contempt. Either way, politics loses. Those who permit themselves to be brushed with only a certain colour – blue, red, orange or green – inevitably see the public world through similar coloured glasses. As Frank Herbert reminded an audience in profound fashion: “Absolute power does not corrupt absolutely; absolute power attracts the corruptible.”
There it is – another way politics changes people, by subtly closing their minds in their desire for power. There is no Liberal, Conservative, Green or NDP answer to the problems now dangerously confronting our collective condition. We were fools to ever think so. Each of these parties represent leanings across the spectrum of those Canadians who voted. By using violent or disrespectful means to dominate, we lose that plurality. By cooperating together, despite our differences, to bring in an inclusive governance model, we stand a far better chance of legitimizing the path ahead and the decisions made to get there.
There is nothing wrong with being from a political party; the error is in believing that this is the only way to be. By denouncing or ridiculing the other parties, we do the same to those citizens who hold honest opinions in this regard by extension. As Harry Truman once put it:
“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
We are closer to this reality than at any time in our history. The colour of the party now matters more that the conviction of our principles. The partisanship of our opinions presently counts for more than the pursuit of our collective opportunities. The denunciation of our foes has taken prominence over our dedication to our future.
If you are an average Canadian desirous of working within the political system to bring about change, the partisanship of the present order will insist on you changing to the party’s confines if you are ever to find your place. As our Ontario senior bureaucrat friend, mentioned above, reminded us: “Even civic administrations are now all about whose side you are on.” Places like Toronto and London remind us that this is true.
There was a time when it was maintained that parties were necessary in order to fight for certain ideals. Those days might well have passed, as parties now spend their time fighting one another. There are countless members within each party that detest this condition and seek compromise, but until voters re-enter the political arena and reward those who seek compromise over conflict, these dedicated politicians shall forever remain trapped behind the barriers of partisanship and their own futility.