Can’t we all just get along?

The political machine triumphs because it is a united minority acting against a divided majority.
-Will Durant

Believe it or not, politics is not my favourite subject to write about. I much prefer education, having spent almost half of my life teaching and many additional years as a student myself. In fact, I’m back to school even now (more on that in another blog maybe). But politics dominates my thinking these days, without question. Part of that can be ascribed to my personal involvement as a city councilor and then, MLA, but I have always been interested.

Comments that have struck me recently as we approach our impending election day concern the particular horror represented by the “Harper government”. As is common in Canada, the government and its leader tend to become inseparable if they prove to have any longevity at all. In Stephen Harper’s case, though, that commingling of identity seems virtually absolute.

In my most recent blog, I reflected on what I see as Canada’s drifting toward the polarization so many decry in the U.S. and the demonization of Harper (please suggest another word if that one seems inaccurate) is just one facet of that. The three major parties go to great lengths to find the “defining moment”, the “one bad thing” that can be used to characterize an opponent. Harper’s latest gaffe is the “old-stock Canadian” comment. Trudeau has been pilloried for his remarks about the “budget balancing itself” and Mulcair’s stumbles over balanced budgets and tax hikes, while lacking that defining phrase, are a constant theme for the other parties’ leaders.

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Some years ago (15 to be exact), when I was writing a regular column for the Telegraph-Journal (Saint John’s local paper), I reflected on the cynicism that I felt was taking hold in the U.S. surrounding elections. Time, of course, has only made the matter worse for our neighbour. Here is an excerpt:

There have been columns and analyses and polls and forums and I don’t know what, almost beyond numbering, all trying to get to the heart of what Gore and Bush, respectively, stand for. Little wonder: in the potentially ruinous maelstrom of competing lobby groups, special interests and political correctness neither the Vice-President nor the Governor can really dare to have a great deal to say about much of anything lest they offend anyone.

The part that I find most amazing in all of this is that the commentators and other pundits seem to think that this is not only inevitable but is, in fact, simply the “way it is.” Especially when referring to the recently concluded series of presidential debates, analysts nod sagely and remark on how well or poorly candidates have avoided, on this latest occasion, the “one mistake,” the wrong word or glance or position on an issue that might alienate the voting public.

Has it really come to this? Can the one mistake be so thoroughly devastating to a candidate’s chances? More importantly, what does this brand of analysis say about American’s expectations of their politicians? Commentators seem more interested in whether or not the particular candidate’s mask has been kept in place than they are in any substantial contribution to public debate made (or not made) in the course of the evening. Americans see validated repeatedly the notion that character is constructed. The challenge is to try and see the man behind the mask in order to determine if he even remotely resembles the persona that has been created for him.

I chose to revisit this old column of mine in order to illustrate, hopefully, in another way, our slide toward extremism. Contrary to what some might think, I am not here trying to support any particular party or view. As a Canadian, I am concerned that we are, to my mind, drifting closer and closer to the American reality where opposing political views can barely exist in the same room. While we may not be there quite yet, my recent experience suggests we are not that far away.

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To put it another way, I encourage one and all to vote for the candidate or party you find most appealing. But, as you do so, please realize that you are voting for a construct. As the incumbent, Stephen Harper garners the most attention for the things he says that confirm either his flaws or his strengths (depending on your view of the man and his party). As the challengers, both Mulcair and Trudeau have far less baggage to account for but they are as much constructed by handlers as Harper.

As things stand now, the outcome on Oct. 19 seems most likely to be a three-way tie. Should that be the case, what will that teach us about those who would lead our country? Will anyone be willing to compromise? Is minority government possible when parties spend their time demonizing and vilifying opponents? Another reflection from 15 years ago: “Elections allow politicians the opportunity to convince us that beneath their desire to maintain power there is a legitimate dedication to public service.” Because of my personal experience, I know that those who pursue political office commonly do so with the intention of doing good. A minority situation just might offer the voters of Canada a chance to be reminded of that. It might even remind the politicians themselves.


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