“To be honest, I’ve just given up. It seems likely everything good-hearted people attempt in politics has to be wrapped up in some kind of coloured package, and the moment you select one such colour, the others are automatically against it. There’s no place for free thought anymore, or for me.”
These words uttered yesterday from a friend of mine adequately sum up where millions of Canadians are situated at the moment. By “colours” he meant, of course, the hues of the major political parties in this country. It appears as though partisanship has reached such a level that no one who is colour blind stands much of a chance of getting their voice heard in the political or public policy worlds. Hyper partisanship has become the new “cancer” of the public space – sapping the life out of debate and engagement as it metastasizes throughout the public realm.
James Shelley, a friend of mine, provided a pertinent definition of what we are talking about here the other day on Twitter: “Partisanship: knowing that the other party’s ideas are wrong … before knowing what their ideas are.” Experience bears this out. Politics has now reached the point where we are convinced that nothing good can come from those parties we oppose simply because, well, they’re not us.
People who believe in making their communities better places inevitably will turn to politics in order to embed their efforts within the policy of the public space. It makes sense. Politics is supposed to be about citizens taking part in their own future. We have now reached the point, however, where citizen activists are shunning the political arena simply because their minds are broader, their demeanour more respectful, than the party system permits. Politics once used to be about recruiting minds and spirits capable of entertaining all sort of facts and persuasions before landing on the best course of action for the future. Presently such individuals watch as small-mindedness, mendacity, and judgmental spirits tear down a political order that once occupied people who were better than that.
In my time in federal politics I looked on in increasing alarm as ignorance blew up a respectful parliamentary institution that had been established by gifted people, men and women, from all parties. One of my favourite quotes by Alfred Whitehead that guided me in Ottawa –“True courage is not the brutal force of vulgar heroes, but the firm resolve of virtue and reason” – seemed to find no correlating reality in the House of Commons. We had destroyed it.
Look at this picture. It’s your House – the People’s House. It exudes a sense of permanence, dignity, and respectfulness. But to see it in operation today is to be like a child from another era watching the circus for the first time – full of strange and wild animals, made all the more dangerous from the fact they didn’t look or act anything like them. Of course, there are great politicians in our parliaments or city councils, but they are becoming increasingly rare, their spirits emptied by the sheer lower levels of political engagement.
To make matters worse, the partisans can’t even spot their own hypocrisy. The defense of their position comes strictly from the fact that they have the position. It doesn’t have to be relevant or even intelligent; it doesn’t matter because they’re in and the others are out. They view this as validation when in fact they exist because citizens have abandoned them.
And how do citizens respond to this? They check out, shaking their heads as they move through the exit. Politics is in the state it is for three clear reasons. First, those who are elected refuse to become refined or more knowledgeable, but instead check their minds and constituents at the door as they enter the party tent. Second, capable people refuse to enter the political race to replace such individuals, not because their opponents can’t be bested but because the system itself seems hopeless to them. And finally, citizens who decry modern political practices refuse to get out to vote and make the changes required to elect those more respectful and effective at dealing with their issues. In their absence, minority votes often usher in the lesser lights once again – a vicious cycle and a democratic tragedy.
Politics is supposed to be for people. It’s supposed to be about finding a responsible public voice. Today it is more like a mug’s game, where good politicians are neglected by the system and citizens alike. Good people refuse to run for political office more out of frustration than a lack of caring for their communities. Such people don’t want to soil those better angels of their natures by submitting them to blind partisanship or the degradation of human dignity.
Citizens say they want a voice and there are those in our communities who could effectively serve in that function. But they don’t come forward because these are just words: people want a voice without voting for it. At present politics is war and that is why things move out to the extremes. The only way to win them back is to enter the fray and fight for a better way of being. The trouble is that citizens refuse to enter the arena, beat back the barbarians, and restore the public place to the “public’s” place. Like my friend mentioned above, they have declined the opportunity. Therein lies our conundrum.