Drifting toward the black and white: polarization in Canadian politics

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth
– Marcus Aurelius

Some years ago I was dating a woman from the States and, while George Bush was president (his first term), we visited some of her relatives in Minnesota. I’ve always been interested in politics, even before I became involved personally, so I was happy to engage when our conversation took a bit of a political turn. I’m not sure how it came up but the contention one of the relatives raised that has stuck with me is this: all Canadians (or anyone from anywhere for that matter) want to be Americans. According to this gentleman’s view, the rest of the world is consumed with envy. Given the chance, anyone would abandon the land of his/her birth in favour of a place in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

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Absurd you say? Certainly I thought that but it didn’t take me long to realize that I would be wasting my time if I tried to develop any kind of argument to the contrary. For this guy, the world’s desire to be American was a matter of faith. If I didn’t think his observation applied to me, I was simply deluding myself. Somewhere deep inside, there was an inner American seeking the light.

This encounter was just one highlight of a time where I came to realize in a profound way how difficult it was becoming to have a political discussion in the U.S. Considering that this couldn’t have been any more than 13 or 14 years ago, it’s hard for me to believe that the radical polarization of politics in the U.S. is so young. And yet, as I say, this was just part of my developing understanding at the time that politics was not something that you wanted to bring up unless you were sure of the company you were keeping.

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Flip forward to 2015. A general dismay is expressed over the early success of Donald Trump’s candidacy in the Republican presidential primary campaign. The pundits roll out any number of explanations for his popularity and, in general, dismiss his long-term prospects. While they may be right, I can’t help thinking he would appeal to my then-girlfriend’s relative. Trump’s xenophobic brand of American triumphalism is rooted in the idea that everyone is jealous of America and, since not everyone can BE American, those wannabes will spend their time, spitefully, trying to undermine the country.

To a rational person, Trump’s viewpoint seems absurd (I hope!) but, at the same time, I can’t help thinking it is a logical outcome for the divisive and extreme polarization that has become the hallmark of so much of politics in the United States. I’ve mentioned in this blog before that one of my guilty pleasures when I’m traveling in the States is listening to talk radio of the Rush Limbaugh variety. I am endlessly fascinated by how bizarrely extreme the rhetoric of the Limbaugh crowd really is. They all despise Barack Obama but it is the way in which they despise him that intrigues me. It isn’t simply that his policies are bad or his leadership ineffective; he is “destroying” America, “tearing up” the constitution, etc. Trump’s and other’s buying into the birther nonsense regarding Obama’s origins was just one especially laughable (disturbingly so) manifestation of trends that have been building for some time. As Canadians, (correct me if I’m wrong), we tend to look askance at the politics of our southern neighbor and are thankful that we aren’t like that.

polar 3 Note the stylized flag

And that is the point of my musings today. How different are we? On Saturday I visited the Fredericton market and did my best to avoid the “Anyone but Harper” table where proponents are trying to mobilize an anti-Harper vote to ensure that vote splitting doesn’t allow a Conservative candidate to ride the middle to victory. On Sunday, I ran into a friend of mine campaigning for the NDP who gave me a hug while saying something about hugging a Conservative (I pointed out I am NOT a Conservative but a Progressive Conservative, a distinction that is quite readily dismissed by friends of mine who are in the anti-Harper camp). I know for a fact that conversations I might have with any number of friends come to a screeching halt as soon as I indicate that I am not ready to participate in the wholesale condemnation of Harper and the federal Conservative Party that has come to be taken as a given by those who are supporting “anyone but”.

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When I started writing this blog (if you were wondering where I’ve been, I took the summer off), I tried to make clear that my motivation was to defeat the oversimplification that I believe is endemic in politics, education and virtually every facet of common public discourse. As Canadians, we like to believe that we are distinctly different from Americans in any number of ways. Sadly, when it comes to politics, we are drifting more and more toward the American model.

And let’s be clear: the federal Conservative party has had a large role to play in creating that “us vs them” approach, an approach that demands the demonization of opponents at the expense of reasoned policy debate. At the same time, those who would otherwise oppose such oversimplification are drawn into the fray. People who are generally thoughtful and open to nuanced consideration line up to sign the “anyone but Harper” petition or pledge, as though that represents a reasonable (and reasoned) choice. Demonization through ads, pronouncements, social media and any other means becomes the order of the day for ALL parties, whether constituted political parties or specific groups pursuing an agenda.

It makes me sad. As a Canadian, I have long felt that we have managed to avoid many of the worst excesses of our southern neighbours. I contend that even as those who support the “anyone but Harper” movement claim that they are acting in the best interests of Canadian democracy, they are, in fact, ensuring that we will continue our slide into the starkly oversimplified polarization that we so readily condemn when we look at the U.S.A. And that, more than anything, would be a dreadful stain on the very democracy we all claim that we hope to protect.

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