It’s Called Civil Society For a Reason

by Glen

This post can be viewed in its original National Newswatch format here.

Numerous insights have been written in recent years regarding the eroding effect of partisanship on the political estate, most recently in America. That’s too bad because it’s a red herring and frequently masks what is the real underlying cause of political dysfunction. The fact that individuals hold opinions often at odds with others and support parties of various convictions has been essential to both the spirited and fluid nature of democracy itself.

Others feel differently. Writing recently in Fusion, American commentator Hamilton Nolan went so far as to say that those who profess to be non-partisan are surely part of our present problem. The title of his article speaks for itself: “Bipartisanship Means I Don’t Understand What Politics Is.” Bipartisanship is all too often an excuse from preserving the status quo, he believes, and the refusal to address America’s deepest problems – violence, poverty, racism, elitism. He believes not everything can be solved by compromise, and he has a point. Yet he maintains that many of those who seek such compromise are “moral monsters” and that those who call for more civility in politics are, in reality, “obscene.”

It’s easy to understand where Nolan is coming from, even as we consider the Canadian context. Why is it, for example, that no matter who holds the reins of power in Ottawa child poverty remains stubbornly high, that efforts to battle climate change are hardly sufficient, that gender equality is slow to achieve, or that Canadians remain disillusioned between political promise and effective performance? These are valid queries and deserve deeper consideration.

But to say that they endure because of bipartisanship or civility is something of a stretch. Civility lies at the very essence of effective politics, and as long as it is practiced with a willingness to listen respectfully to other points of view democracy has a chance of moving forward. We call it “civil” society for a reason. Far from being tepid, civility lies at the heart of effective politics. It permits those of whatever persuasion to remain in the room long enough to seek solutions together. For hyper-partisans such a pursuit is useless; with minds rigidly made up long in advance, the very thought of finding common ground is anathema. Political wars are their bread and butter.

One of the problems in Nolan’s perspective is that in poll after poll, on both sides of the border, the large majority of citizens want their politicians to “dial down” the endless bickering and get on with running their country in a collaborative fashion. There’s a reason why there are increasing calls for more respect in politics, and since it comes from citizens themselves there is clearly relevance to it. They don’t mind the partisanship but reject its rabid extremes and, for all its talk, the lack of effectiveness.

In less than a week Canadians will be celebrating the country’s 150th birthday, but it’s about more than just partying. It’s about collectively acknowledging a century and a half of living together, despite every division imaginable – geography, regional distinctions, language, distance, ethnicity, race, and, yes, partisan persuasion. While other nations struggle to hold themselves together at these weak points, Canada somehow finds strength in them, despite the friction.

In a real way, we have proved that it is our civility, our respect for our differences, that has allowed us to not only endure but to prevail. Our problems are numerous, yet we aren’t frozen in place by them. In effect, it has been our respectful civility that has been the precondition for our survival as a nation. It hasn’t been about our divisions, but the process of how we deal with them has been the secret to whatever success we have achieved.

Canada has proved to be an enduring triumph among global nations and deep down we all know it. Around the world, Canada is known for the congeniality of its people. Our problems are massive in scale, but it is how we have gone about handling them together that attests to the genius of our collective co-habitation. We have placed the ability to be civil at the centre of our innovation and curiosity as a people. By standing up and demanding that our politicians and other leaders put aside meanness for fairness, we attest to our ability to endure instead of self-destructing.

The majority of us comprehend that we cannot solve our abiding problems with hateful rhetoric, opinionated destruction, or namby-pamby citizenship. Partisanship is essential to our future; blind partisanship will kill it. Civility is what allows us to talk about our differences. Political will is what helps us to overcome them. For all our problems, it is time to celebrate that we are still together.