Sean O’Casey noted a few years back: “Politics – I don’t know why, but they seem to have a tendency to separate us, to keep us from one another, while nature is always and ever making efforts to bring us together.”
Citizens recognize this reality and, to a point, permit this kind of tension in the public space because people often hold to different opinions and a free flow of ideas hopefully brings us better solutions. But citizens have been patient long enough with the new kind of politics that seeks to divide, conquer, and eventually subjugate. They now reject it. In the place of progress, they are forced to make do with polarization and paralysis in government. Under such a construct, the term “partisan” has become a bad word. That’s too bad really, for Nelson Mandela was a partisan and Agnes Mcphail, this country’s first female MP, was a partisan. So were Lester Pearson, Tommy Douglas, John A. MacDonald, and Jack Layton.
The political order has botched things so badly that anyone from the political world with a strong opinion is often avoided by the public. Again, that’s a shame, because policy matters and people who believe in solutions and put them out there matter.
In a world where more and more citizens are opting out, the fate of our modern democracy might very well depend on, of all people, the partisans. This sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but at a time where public policy is failing and politics itself has been hollowed out from the centre, it is going to take citizen investment to get things right, not those who have checked out or who maintain a frustrating form of sterile neutrality.
But it will take a new kind of partisan, and not necessarily the NDP, Liberal, Conservative or Green variety. There will be those who are rightfully bent out of shape about what is happening to our communities, or who worry about joblessness or the environment. There will be mental health advocates and affordable housing champions, voices for small business and innovation, and a growing chorus concerning the fate of the middle class. Not all of these, perhaps even most, will opt to press their case through established political parties. They will speak to whoever will listen, but they might not take out a membership or attend a convention. The established parties need to learn from this and open up their policy processes to these broader voices, seasoned experts, and those with lived experience.
Make no mistake, such voices are partisan, and powerful in their own right. Partisanship isn’t just about politics but also the public space, and for too long we have attempted to force these two together. Thanks to political dysfunction, a different way of working with the non-political partisans will have to be discovered.
Yet partisans beware. What we don’t need are those people rabid in their points of view, who can’t listen respectfully to others, or concede a point when required. We don’t need to bring over the madness of the political extremists to our public venues. Average citizens who haven’t signed on to any party are free to stand for their conscience, whereas their political counterparts must adhere to the party line. Let’s not ruin it by taking the worst of politics and applying it to the best of our communities and our public conversations.
Let’s not be partisans first and citizens second; nor even the other way around. Let’s be community first and permit the rest to fall into its proper place. If our divisions are hurting those places where we live, then let’s beat our weapons into plowshares. If our politics is dividing the public space, let’s put aside our partisanship for progress. If my opinion matters so much that I just won’t accept any other point of view, then I can become my community’s worst nightmare – a zealot with no respect. We need to assess policy on its merits instead of reverse-engineering our arguments in a manner that can’t introduce any enlightenment because we are just too angry in our points of view.
We need to keep in mind that politics and politicians are only a small part of our body politic. By far, the much larger and more vital component of that body is … us. Should we permit ourselves to be manipulated into ideological positions that are irreconcilable with those of others, then we have just succeeded in replicating the worst of politics all over again.
Make no mistake about it: I am a partisan. I believe in equity and that the poor have a place among us. I believe my wife is my full and equal partner and I am fierce in defending her right to lead our family when it is required. I will fight against homelessness and for the right of small entrepreneurs to establish their businesses in my community. I want to leave my kids a sustainable world and I greatly desire that other nations find peace and equality. I will fight for my city to be organic and not autocratic.
This list, like your own, could go on and on. Those of us who care for our country are partisans whether we like it or not. The secret is to display that kind of partisanship that puts community first. Who knows, in the process we actually might rescue the political order from itself:)