Up for civilized debate

Andrew Potter, who is a noted (and occasionally controversial) Canadian academic and journalist has written an article for the Ottawa Citizen that I think is required reading for everyone in and around politics. His thesis is that we, Canadians, are in danger of losing the (British parliamentary) tradition of moderation and will, possibly, descend into the intense, even insanely partisan American model of politics.

He begins by describing ““Political Manichaeism,” where political disagreements are not seen as reasonable disputes among fellow citizens, but instead “as pitting decent people with decent character against horrible people with horrible character.” Basically, it’s good versus evil, with each side defined less by what they actually care about, and more by what (and who) they despise,” in the word of an American observer of his own political scene.

There is a good discussion to be had,” Professor Potter says, “about why this is the case, a fascinating story to be told about how we got here. Does the steady march toward polarization go back to Reagan, or Nixon, or Kennedy? Is it the fault of Republicans, or of Democrats, or is the whole political system to blame? Is it third party financing, or maybe the media? And if it’s the media, is it Fox News, or CNN? Was it the FCC’s elimination of the Fairness Doctrine? Is it because of the decline of mainstream media, or is it the rise of the internet — and is that just tomayto/tomahto? Is social media the real culprit, or fake news? Is it adherence to “balance” in journalism that drives the appetite for partisan media, or is fair and balanced journalism a bulwark against it?” I tend to come down on the “blame the media,” especially television, side. Television was invented in the 1930s but it didn’t become pervasive until the 1950s … then it began, quickly and thoroughly, to replace the print journals which had the ‘luxury’ of taking time to consider, taking time to write and requiring time to read and consider. I well recall the famous Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 ~ it always seemed to me, and to many others, the Vice President Nixon won the debate, per se, but Senator Kennedy clearly won the television battle. It set a precedent which meant that, for ever after, in America, in Britain and in Canada, style would always trump substance.

Of course, today, in 2018 President Trump trumps everything and Andrew Potter says that “The election of Donald Trump as president in 2016 looked like the low-water mark of partisanship in America, and the description of American politics as “two troops of apes shrieking at one another across a great partisan divide” looks optimistic in retrospect.

But he warns that “what is more disturbing is how the situation has evolved up here in Canada. We’ve long flattered ourselves that our politics are more civil than it is in the U.S., maybe because there’s less money involved, or because the stakes are lower or the parliamentary system is better, or because our media are more concentrated, or just maybe because we’re all so much nicer … [but] … as anyone who has followed the recent debates in the #cdnpoli precinct of Twitter are well aware, Canadian politics is well down the same path as we’ve seen in America, perhaps irreversibly so. And what makes what is going on so unnerving is that it is not a case of anonymous trolls or party hardliners dragging the moderate middle to the rough edges. Instead, the steady march into the pit of vulgarity, meanness, stridency and unrelenting bad faith is being led by experienced members of parliament, high-level political staffers, and even cabinet ministers and their opposition shadows … [and] … There is nothing to gained by naming names or describing incidents or repeating verbatim exchanges — if you’re paying the slightest attention, you know what is going on. And arguing about who started it only underscores the problem: A line seems to have been crossed, where even the politicians and other actors who have seemed most committed to resisting the tug of good-versus-evil Manichaeism have decided to go all in on painting their opponents not as basically decent people with different views on things, but as horrible people with horrible character. And again: neither side is blameless in all imagesof this.” He’s absolutely correct. We, Canadians, have cheerfully and nastily followed the Americans down the877bac938a4430235c52a28832c60f03rabbit hole of blind, savage political partisanship. It isn’t just the Conservatives, but they are as guilty as are the Liberals and none of the Bloc, Greens or NDP are all that much (even any) better. In this case it is social media which makes it too easy for everyone from me to Donald J Trump to speak (or hit the enter key) before we think … contrary to the good advice given in a war 75 years ago.

But Andrew Potter cautions us not to blame the platforms (Twitter and YouTube and Facebook) because it is we, politicians, activists, commentators who use and very often misuse them for partisan purposes. We reap what we sow.

Professor Potter deals, at some length, with the nature of partisanship ~ stressing that it infects ALL political parties and movements and with the nature of political discourse and of our parliamentary system ~ those sections, alone, make his article a “must read.”

He concludes, after having discussed Bagehot’s views on parliamentary democracy that “As Bagehot saw, party government in a parliamentary system must be mild if it is to be possible at all. And our politics as it stands right now are undoubtedly milder than they are in the United States, though that is not saying much. And it probably has a lot to do with the fact that our political apparatus and partisan space is not completely divided into two opposing camps. It helps to have a multi-party system, and it helps to have a place like Quebec to mix things up … [but] … these are accidental virtues, and even if they serve as a bulwark against the good-versus-evil Manichaeism of Cass Sunstein’s America, it doesn’t mean our politics aren’t descending ever deeper into a style that we can call “performance partisanship.” If our representatives can’t see their way to helping themselves out of their partisan echo chambers, if they can’t put themselves in the other side’s shoes, if they can’t credibly interpret their opponents as rational people acting in good faith, then we will be not much better off than the Americans, defining ourselves not by what we believe in, but by who we despise.

Our Westminster model of responsible parliamentary democracy is more conducive to moderation than is the representative American model but it is not immune to the negative impacts of certain forms of populism. Not all populism is bad and some measure of partisanship is central to our democratic systems; the challenge is to keep both within certain bounds … bounds which were breached in the USA going all the way back to the Johnson vs Goldwater campaign in the USA in 1964. Now, with President Trump in power and online, there seem to be no bounds; decency and civility, even basic honesty have gone on extended vacations down in America. Our goal must be to stop and reverse that slide here in Canada. Professor Potter has opened the debate.

I will discuss other aspects of this ~ regarding being partisan without being a complete horse’s ass ~ over the next couple of days.

One thought on “Up for civilized debate”

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