Last week Andrew Coyne, a writer I have much respect for, posted a comment on Twitter that, despite its cogency, stayed with me like few other things he has written. It said simply: “The real political divide is not between right and left, but between partisans and the rest of us.” In that one brief statement, Andrew characteristically summed up what is our greatest prevailing problem in Canadian politics.
The lesson in this is profound and confirms my own experience from working in my community. The majority of people who I see everyday are growing increasingly hesitant to say which party they support, if in fact they do support one, because of the rabid rhetoric and practice that increasingly characterizes modern political parties. Most Canadians no longer place themselves somewhere along the political spectrum and are increasingly rejecting the dubious aims of modern hyper-partisanship. It has become extreme enough that we can pick up on Andrew’s observation by adding that Canadians are now split by who is inside and who is outside.
We are aware of the inside crowd – the heavy partisans, the hardliners, the party hacks, the blind belief sort. They now ensconce themselves at the centre of party power and move ever outward in phalanxes that seek to stir animosities in order to pry loose a few more voters. We’re even better acquainted with the outside crowd because they are us – pragmatic, capable of consensus, distracted, and dubious of any group that says it can fix complex and protracted problems by foisting simplistic policies upon us. We grow even more doubtful if they spend their time bashing the other guys while they’re at it.
Like some of you, I take a keen liking to history. Decades ago a debate raged among historians about whether you could actually codify the story of humanity or not. One group, like the partisans we spoke of above, felt the overwhelming need to make history fit within certain preconceived ideas. Arrayed against them were historians who believed that history was fickle because humans were complex in their intents and actions. Eventually it all came to be seen as the battle between the “systematizers” and the “humanists” (those interested in human nature). Since the 20th century ushered in more extreme change than any era that preceded it, classifying people into tight definitions eventually eluded even the most dedicated systematizer.
Leon Trotsky, who was lucky enough to write about history at the same time as he was making it, watched the debate and could only conclude, “History refracts itself through a natural selection of accidents.” Then he went on in a fashion that could just as easily be applied to the modern-day partisan: “The historian who puts his system first can hardly escape the heresy of preferring the facts which suit his system best. In so doing he misses the whole humanity of it.”
This is the world of modern politics. Each party possesses policies that are immovable and intractable. Their status becomes more about the ideology of their policies than about how best to meet the needs of the people facing overwhelming problems. In the parliaments of the people everything has become about the party. From that place emerges a view of life that seeks to constrain humanity within its tight little corners. Sadly for them, Canadians are humans, not policy options, and they are increasingly refusing to be stereotyped.
It’s not just about the left side or the right side, the inside our the outside; it’s also becoming about who’s onside or offside. Increasingly, partisans incapable of flexible thought are ending up on the wrong side of where Canadians intrinsically are situated. For average citizens organic practicality beats organized policy, passion beats partisanship, and authenticity beats authority. Political ideologues are beginning to understand this but feel it doesn’t matter so long as Canadians remain removed from the political process – that’s how cynical it has all become.
It’s time for us to start living our own history – the human, not the prefabricated, kind. And it’s time that we start envisioning what kind of communities we want and stop having them pre-determined or pre-ordered by others who rarely speak to us anyway. We have many choices as citizens, not just one. There are other possibilities for sacrifice and accountability than what we are presently offered.
This is our history we’re writing, not someone else’s. Leaders may worry about their legacy; we are concerned over our kids. Elites worry about highrises; we care about neighbourhoods, which may or may not include highrises. We’ll never get to write our own script, however, unless we pick up the pen and make our feelings felt. We have to show up, grow up, and shake things up if we want to write our own ending to this play. History isn’t just written by the winners; it’s also penned by the engagers.