It’s become all too common and unfortunately has resulted not only in the fall of grace of numerous individuals but a corruption of the overall system. I’m talking about sport here, not politics, but the similarities are more than troubling.
It’s baseball today, cycling yesterday, weight lifting before that, preceded by baseball once more, and track and field. The demand for success is so pressing, the corporate ethos regarding profits so overriding, that the professional participant finds it increasingly difficult to excel. When pitcher Curt Shilling noted that, “Steroids is cheating, and winning without honor is not winning,” who could argue? Yet the reality is something completely different and competition has now been poisoned by medical enhancements. So, to compete at the highest levels, something must be added to the natural and developed abilities of individuals if success is to be achieved. This is not the rule, but it is no longer the exception.
We could just as easily be talking about politics. Hard-working, honest and decent people enter the political domain for the best of reasons only to discover that unless you can learn to over-perform in demonizing opponents then you can’t excel. Skills of debate,rhetoric, statesmanship, intelligence, diplomacy, compromise, and intuitiveness are increasingly subjugated to partisanship. As with the corruption of sports, attendance suffers, trust is broken, promises remain unfulfilled, and the young lose the benefit of excellent role models. Increasingly citizens are looking for political aspirants willing to campaign against polarization, not for it. Nevertheless it remains a difficult thing to make an issue of polarization and extreme partisanship when so many are practicing it.
Let’s be clear: partisan leanings have been with us from the beginning and have allowed for healthy debate, refining of positions, and a range of choices offered to the voter. It has been the necessary ingredient for some of our finest moments in Canadian democracy. Firmly held positions by political parties form much of the identity of our nation’s history.
That’s not what we’re talking about here. We now have in our politics a killer gene – a foreign entity who greatest task is not to destroy the opponents positions but the opponents themselves. Extreme ideologues in all parties rigorously seek to grab hold of the political agenda, believing that only a permanent campaign can in the end prevail – partisanship on steroids. Sadly, politicians themselves feel they must adopt the practices and rhetoric of the polarizers not only to win, but to matter. The best way ahead is not to inform the electorate but to divide it,
Tragically in some cases, the press has played along, understanding that political battles are far more interesting than compromise or even cooperation. Canada has its own politically slanted media from across the spectrum that thrives on polarization. In so many dimensions the media tries to have it both ways. They editorialize about the “gotcha” nature of modern politics and how it demeans the public space but then invite the very champions of polarization on their various shows. Then, when the inevitable debate descends into a kind of spectacle, media personalities tsk, tsk in a kind of mocking attitude. For the media it has become an addiction increasingly manipulated by the polarizing experts of politics. Deny it they might, but there are few citizens who follow politics (and some who don’t) who haven’t recognized or commented on the trend.
It is partly for this reason that many have welcomed the increase of women in the political process, recently typified in the choice of Kathleen Wynne as premier delegate in Ontario. It definitely makes for some interesting prospects. For instance, should the PM decide to hold a First Ministers’ summit one is intrigued by the thought of one of the true Alpha Males of the political process attempting to override the desires of six female premiers bent on turning negotiations into a more compromising art. To be sure, there are possibilities for change but not if female representatives take on the dominant partisanship of their male predecessors. Should the polarizing system claim a new generation of women representatives then hope will vanish and trust will be tarnished.
Increasingly, citizens wish to vote for the best qualified man or woman, but the reality is that such individuals are often not candidates. Decent people still wish to enter politics but opt against it because the polarizers in all parties have claimed the low ground and the electoral operations of parties. Such individuals (and increasingly groups and firms) profess no desire to end the carnage as long as their influence and money are enhanced through political war.
I have occasionally been urged to lighten up a bit on the hyper-partisanship issue because it is now the modus operandi of the Canadian political landscape and I should just learn to accept it. We mustn’t be cowered. Without the rooting out of the polarizers there will be no chance for political renewal – merely disillusioning attempts at reform. This should become the great unifying cause of all political parties – to put honest debate before blind ideology, policy above the party hacks, and democracy ahead of demagoguery.
If it remains true that bad politicians and their parties are elected by good citizens who do not vote then our democracy remains condemned to irrelevance. It’s time to get back to a respectful partisanship that puts our communities ahead of political war.