Mud vs. Common Ground

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Below is my London Free Press piece from April 11, 2015 on the real costs of bad politics.

CALL IT THE “MEAN SEASON,” AND IT’S ABOUT to descend upon us in the run-up to the next federal election, scheduled for Oct. 19.

While Easter might have instilled hope for a better humanity, the months leading up to the next federal contest for political dominance will inevitably resurrect negative campaigning in ways that continue to turn an increasing number of Canadians away from politics.

Hyper-partisanship reaches its apex at the national level and its potential for destructiveness is worrying to a growing number of political observers.

Respected pollster and political writer Bruce Anderson has been troubled enough by what he is witnessing at the federal level that he has been speaking out. Writing recently in the Globe and Mail, Anderson put it simply: “In this election, is it too much to ask our politicians to inspire us?”

Well, as long as the spiteful attacks continue, the simple answer is “no.”

Ross Perot was a third-party U. S. presidential candidate 20 years ago. The experience left him with one clear thought: “War has rules, mud wrestling has rules, but politics has no rules.” He was speaking about election fever and its penchant for crossing the line on human decency and respectability.

We are told repeatedly that attack ads work and there’s truth in that. But for the majority of Canadians such assaults on the senses have the perverse effect of turning them off politics and voting.

Anderson took issue with the way things are going, especially once he viewed the debate on Canada’s mission to Iraq. “No matter what party is in office, I wish a Canadian Prime Minister wouldn’t stand up in the House of Commons and say the things Stephen Harper chose to say to opposition leaders.” Anderson wrote.

In a world weary of global wars, must we also deal with conflict on a domestic political level?

It’s something Bill Clinton recently labeled the “one remaining bigotry” ­— the penchant for politics to succeed in getting people to label one another instead of discovering the common ground they share. It was a powerful reminder that the light at the end of the tunnel is going out as long as this brandishing of labels continues.

There is no sign at all that things are getting better, and it isn’t just about some belligerent MPs.

“It’s cultural,” political observer Andrew Coyne noted recently. “It’s a shared culture of obsequiousness, cynicism and gall, a collective readiness to set aside the ordinary restraints on human behavior. Shamelessness may have reached new heights . . . and it afflicts our politics generally. MPs have had several opportunities to reform various aspects of Parliament in recent years, and in every case declined.”

And what of the rest of us? Recent research by Samara Canada discovered that 4 in 10 Canadians said they hadn’t had a single political conversation in the past 12 months. Some 62% felt the politicians want only their vote, not their ideas. Samara concluded: “Canadians are withdrawing from the democratic system, because they see politics as irrelevant.”

Yet Samara didn’t stop there, adding: “There is proof that many citizens do care about their communities and their country and are willing to give their time or resources accordingly. But this activity is often at a distance from politics.”

There are two clear calls here.

The first is obvious: politicians and their parties have to begin finding the common ground instead of slinging the mud they find beneath their feet and their calling. It remains difficult to name politics as a noble position when those occupying such roles continue to prove otherwise. Any party that puts more emphasis in attack ads than attacking climate change, child poverty, homelessness, the plight of cities and small business, or unemployment is hardly worth the ballot their brand is printed upon.

Second, citizens can’t just throw their hands up in disgust and walk away from politics. It is all we really have to alter our fate. Yet we have done so, in increasing numbers, blaming politicians instead of challenging them, disengaging instead of claiming a better world for their children. If we accept the “mean season” about to descend on us, then perhaps we deserve what we get — politician and citizen alike.

In the next column I’ll explore a generation that could, by their very difference in outlook, alter the course of politics and the country — the Millennials.