Fundamental disconnects

Michael Ignatieff tries to draw a line between adversaries and enemies.

In his speech, Mr. Ignatieff bore down on the high price paid when politicians treat each other as enemies rather than adversaries. When you think of your opponent across the aisle as an adversary, “you reject arguments, not persons; question premises, not identities; interrogate interests, not loyalties,” Mr. Ignatieff said.

But when politicians look upon each other as enemies, “legislatures replace relevance with pure partisanship. Party discipline rules supreme, fraternization is frowned upon, negotiation and compromise are rarely practised, and debate within the chamber becomes as venomously personal as it is politically meaningless.”

I always have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that something has changed in the way politicians treat each other: that they used to treat each other in a slightly more honourable way. When was this?

Meanwhile, Glen Pearson argues the disconnect is between partisans and non-partisans.

The majority of people who I see everyday are growing increasingly hesitant to say which party they support, if in fact they do support one, because of the rabid rhetoric and practice that increasingly characterizes modern political parties. Most Canadians no longer place themselves somewhere along the political spectrum and are increasingly rejecting the dubious aims of modern hyper-partisanship. It has become extreme enough that we can pick up on Andrew’s observation by adding that Canadians are now split by who is inside and who is outside.

There’s something to this, I think. However politics was practiced in the past, for good and bad, there does seem to have been a greater connection felt between the public and the politics. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying the public is turned off by negativity, but I think you could make a case that the gap between the public and the practice of politics is growing.

If I had to pick the primary problem in Ottawa right now, I wouldn’t nominate partisanship or political combat, but the sort of rote, mind-deadening partisanship that is regularly on display. Beyond the practical fixes that need to be made—QP reform, empowering the legislature, improved access to information and open data—the greatest threat to our discourse is the talking point.




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Fundamental disconnects

  1. What I get from that snippet of Mr. Ignatieff’s speech is that it is plain uninteresting and, frankly speaking, boring (that is not necessarily a synonym for ‘uninteresting’). It’s too late to bring back the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules and the politicians are gonna keep divvying things up among themselves anyway.

  2. Why does Prime Minister’s Questions in Westminster always look so dignified? Why does Westminster always seem to ‘work’? Is it the lack of ‘gotcha’ questions? Is it the accents? Thoughts?

    • In a word “tradition!” [ like Topol...you know...if i were a rich man...]

      Seriously, i don’t think they have a better class of person going into politics necessarily. I have no idea why, but Canada has never placed the same value on say the role of the intellectual in public life as Britain has.[ notable exceptions in the 70/80s...Richler, Atwood, Purdy, Layton...although they were not particularly political] Still today the keep on churning out these extraordinary people like Hitchens and co., We have arguably only once chosen a genuine intellectual to our highest office – even then he was half pit bull. It is debateble which he is more revered for?
      Why? Is it our youth, our provincialism, vestiges of our colonial mentality? Who knows? It is interesting to see the Australians for instance seem to be on the same road. We seem to like our federal leaders to be rugged – men with the bark on the outside.[ in Harper's case there appears to be nothing but bark all the way through]

      • Agreed. It’s like so many things in Canada where we adopted half a loaf — in some cases, that’s a good thing, but in this case it wasn’t. In the case of parliament, we adopted the British system in terms of structure, but at the human level we went for American-style populism and republicanism in terms of what we look for in our MPs. It’s the old “anyone can grow up to be PM” thing, which has as an assumption that that’s a good thing. Well, it is and it isn’t . . . note that we (through our media) tend to glorify MPs like Chuck Cadman, who was a fine fellow and all, but certainly no accomplished intellectual. It was all about Cadman’s credentials as a regular-folks guy, an ordinary Joe etc. etc.
        The Brits still have this idea of the MP as aristocrat-intellectual. Look at Roy Jenkins writing a phone-book thick biography of Churchill, Michael Foot writing serious tomes, etc.

        • Good point about the hybrid nature of our system. Has its good and bad points clearly.
          Hmmm, i’m a it of a half and half guy myself, having grown up in the far inferior British class system. So, i’m happy to see the Cadmans, even the odd Pat Martin represented…but i do like to see a streak of genuine intellectual accomplishment in our Parliamentarians now and again. It’s not that we don’t have them, but i wonder if many can even make it through the nomination process. Still, it’s the latent anti – intellectualism that grates on me – the anti elitism we may have imported from the US is a fine improvement on the original model.

    • I think British accents just make everything sound better.

      More seriously, I’d suggest there’s a different culture around PMQs: the expectations are different, the judgments are harsher, the attention is greater. Parliament is also far more prominent in Britain as a public forum where ministers are expected to be held accountable.

      • IOWs they still respect the institution of parliament?

  3. Seriously, Aaron? You don’t see the rote, mind-deadening partisanship regularly on display to be a SYMPTOM of the party partisanship and political combat?

    • It’s a symptom, yes. What I mean is: I’m not sure there was ever a time when politicians did not say terrible things about each other. And I think we wander off into unhelpful territory when we start fretting about whether politicians are any meaner now than they have been. (Everybody needs to be nicer is not really a useful proposal.)

      I think we need to deal with tangible, practical things that can be done to make things better: empowering the individual MP, empowering the legislature, opening up government and data to greater and wider scrutiny, changing the way the press covers politics and so on.

      • Oh, fine, I know looking back at what was said 100 years ago–both by politicians in the House of Commons and by newspapers–it was such over the top nonsense that reading it now is funny. What I can’t see as funny in 100 years is politicians repeating talking points whether the question had anything to do with the subject matter covered in the talking point or not, absolute robotic memorization to the point where several ministers speak verbatim throughout the country, etc. We need to change the system. We can and must assert our power as voting citizens to remind our political parties that they are to work for us, not we work for them.

      • Things got pretty rough between Dief and Mike P. Truth squads, Diefenbuck, and lots I’ve forgotten. Then there was Stanfield’s football which certainly told us something about the new age of media politics.

  4. “I always have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that
    something has changed in the way politicians treat each other: that they
    used to treat each other in a slightly more honourable way. When was
    this?”

    I think you’re missing an important distinction. Sure there was partisanship in the past – lots of it, some of it truly personal and vicious. But in the main it was a “consequence” of our politics – not an overt choice. It seems to me that the Harperites in particular have made a consicious choice to play on this natural aspect of politics, use it as a weapon. They truly believe in some weird way that partially managed or controlled partisan chaos gives them an edge; so far it looks like they’re right. And thus the tp isn’t going anywhere soon.

    Harper has hit on a new kind of politics[ or an old one] that enables them to marry up the mind- deading psychological effects of rote communication with today’s unparalleled gains in modern coms and data manipulation. The end result of this i truly believe[ and it may not come under Harper] is a form of institutional political control without all the messy stuff the old style dictators had to resort to. Think about it : the apparent efficiencies of pseudo fascism without all the blood and gore!

    • In the absence of OB I will respond in sarcasy tone that all evil, all viciousness, all nasty partisanship, all pseudo fascism, and of course all blood and gore, began with Harper and his band of Conservatives.

      Keep in mind that sarcasm is used in response in order to help you understand how others view your feeble comment.

      • Huh! Where did i say it all began with them? I specifically mentioned the real possibility that it might not go away at all with a regime change. Try to follow. Just because something is absent from a comment doesn’t mean any assumption on your part to the contrary is in any way valid. That’s basic logic.No amount of sarcasm can refute that.

        Perhaps this all started with Trudeau and the centralizaton of power in an un elected PMO? But that wouldn’t change the fact that opportunity and technological advance hasn’t created an incentive for this PM to seize the initiative and advantages of uber- partisanship for him and his party.

        I’ll keep in mind the fact that you feel confused about the distinction between other[you] and others, plural. I find It’s a common error amongst the conbot mentality.

        • You`re right about the fact that I sometimes am confused by what you`re trying to say—but now it appears that even you do not understand what you have just wrote.

          It is very clear in your comment that you blame Harper for an adversarial approach to politics, and when I sarcastically challenge you on that. you back off and blame it on Trudeau.
          Please try to be more consistent.

          • Sorry, logically connected thought process isn’t your bag is it? Nor comprehension. Points for intentionally misconstruing though, many conbots seem to have that one down pat by now. If you had bothered to retain anything i have said elsewhere you’d know i’ve made that point about Trudeau many times before. It is hardly an original insight and certainly didn’t start with me.

  5. I can’t wait for the book Ignatieff must be writing on his years in Ottawa.

  6. Iggy is a whiny bitch and should be ignored. Iggy spent thirty years abroad, thinking of himself as anything but Canadian while ridiculing flag, and then comes back to his benighted homeland to lead us out of darkness and Iggy wonders why his public life didn’t go as well as he wished.

    Our pols are incredibly milquetoast, QP is a gongshow but MPs otherwise get along with one another just fine. MPs don’t treat each other as enemies, I am sure individual MPs dislike other MPs, but overall our MPs get along remarkably well.

    Political parties demand allegiance, while electorate expect MPs to represent our interests much more then they do now. Partisans are increasing shrill because more and more of us are turned off and partisans need to get our attention. Society is moving away from political parties to do their own things to make societal change but parties live on, like parasites, only attractive to no-marks.

    • In amongst your usual half informed bilge i have to wonder just what MI did or said to “ridiculing the flag?”
      Hmmm, by your logic all your absentee years should rule you out from even commenting here, no?

      • Flag looks like beer label, which I thought was clever comment and made me laugh, but not smart thing for potential PM to say.

        Iggy is being melodramatic about his Canadian status, no one questioned his right to be a Canadian, people just questioned his fitness to be PM.

        • I thought you might go there. Do you happen to remember a post here on AW’s blog, clearly pointing it that was a particularly moronic bit of contextual thievery from the Ignatieff’s article? It wasn’t even cleverly done.

  7. I think politicians did treat other differently,or perhaps better put, they treated their jobs differently. Today, MPs are pawns to the leadership to a point that didn’t exist previously. This has made politics more vociferously partisan and has to lead to treating opponents as ‘the enemy team’.

    All of this is linked to your second point, Aaron. The things you outline – access to information, open data, need to empower legislature – are not in the best interests of the political party, even if they are in the best interests (or should be) of the individual MP.

    I think the most important means to deal with this issue isn’t necessarily the empowerment of the legislature (critical, but ultimately a paper tiger if the MP themselves aren’t willing to be empowered) but rather reform of political parties that removes the leader signing off on nominations and shifts control back to the local riding association.

    I also think this is linked to how politics is covered. I have a ton of appreciation for your work Aaron, and know your ‘Maverick Watch’ post titles are tongue in cheek, but they illustrate an important point about how the media covers ‘dissent’ (such as it is) within political parties.

    Take the Woodworth motion for instance. Much of the talk afterword dealt with whether Keneny was sending a signal of leadership aspirations to the base. Now, maybe Jason Kenney will run for the leader someday, but the notion there was some deeper meaning to a deeply religious man like Kenney voting to study the lack of an abortion law was a bit of a stretch. If the media narrative is that dissent is bad, then there’s even less incentive (if there was any in the first place) for political parties to loosen the reigns on their MPs.

    As I noted, all the rule changes in the world won’t impact anything unless MPs are willing to be empowered, and for that to happen they need to feel beholden to the folks back in the riding rather than to the leader’s office – which would hopefully address the issue of the disconnect between politics and the public.

    While politics has always been partisan, it’s gotten more entrenched over time. Today, for instance, you wouldn’t see a party revolt like we saw by the PC backbench during the debate over Official Bilingualism. The last real one we saw was probably the CA revolt against Day in 2001, and even that was more leadership driven than over specific policies.

    In sum, I think the two points you outline are connected, and probably cannot be separated. The more entrenched partisanship has made “the group win” the most important part of politics, and the more the other side is treated like the ‘enemy’ rather than the opponent.

    • A quibble…

      “If the media narrative is that dissent is bad, then there’s even less incentive (if there was any in the first place) for political parties to loosen the reigns on their MPs.”

      I don’t get the sense that media narrative is that dissent is ‘bad.’ It’s friggin’ RARE. Things that are rare/unusual get coverage (and I generally think it’s positive coverage, too). I know I don’t feel too negatively toward any MP who bucks against his/her party as a matter of principle, even if I don’t happen to share his/her principles. I love it when MPs get, uh, mavericky.

      • Fair point. Certainly the coverage of such events is ratcheted up given the rarity of said dissent. That being said, much of it spoken of in context of whether there’s ‘dissent’ within the party (under the assumption that such dissent is a negative thing for a party).

  8. I do think the second half of AW’s post raises some interesting issues and valid points. RE: the talking point, I think he’s on to something. Fact is, 30 years ago, a partisan “talking point” was basically communicated by a politician or party to a conventional media outlet — or a very limited number of such outlets — and that was pretty much it, as far as dissemination and spread of said talking point. Politicians gave them to conventional old media to disseminate to the masses, period.
    But now, political talking points are like a combination of cancer cell and superbug virus. They are communicated and recommunicated ad nauseam, in a repetitious cycle that makes your head spin. They go from political party or politician immediately to multiple websites (both “official”, “semi-official” and entirely independent (though usually sympathetic)), plus media outlets, but then are also re-communicated over and over again by partisans, operatives, sympathizers, etc. And note the complete recycle, when a conventional media outlet will report on what a bunch of partisan hacks are jabbering about on the internet. Or on one of those political shout-shows on TV. Then you’ve got a guy like Rush Limbaugh, who simultaneously has a website full of right-wing talking points, and then has a radio show where he spews out the same content. His radio show will echo and riff off his website, and vice-versa.
    Thus partisan talking points are cycled and recycled, so we see so much more of this kind of bastardized communication and thought. George Orwell would truly be horrified by this, because although he was arguably the best ever at deconstructing this sort of mindless doublespeak, he did not imagine how modern technology would see it disseminated exponentially like it is in politics today.

    • That is essentially what i was saying below. Admittedly i could be way off base in saying it will eventually lead to loss of real democratic norms; and whether it is on Harper’s watch or not seems irrelevant to some extent, as the temptation to keep on keeping on, whether it be CPC or not, is likely high. I’m even wiling to modify my view that it is so much of a moral question[ as with my perception of Harper's lack of them] as much as an inevitable turn of events given the opportunities presented by new technology – it really could be as easily a weapon in the hands of the left or even a resurgent liberal party. That’s obvious, it is already happening with Obama. It should worry us all regardless of political stripe.It’s the elevation of rank stupidity to art form.
      No doubt from a CPC pov it is seen as a legit way to communicate directly with core voters, and just sour grapes on the part of opponents. They’re both right and terribly wrong. Morally i suppose it is just a question of do they do it in full knowledge or not?

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