Civility in Politics

Original Photo Courtesy Toronto Sun, Aug 10, 2019


Yes, I know it’s rather an oxymoron, but nevertheless; even by the standards of modern elections, the latest campaign was a low point.

A friend of mine was out door-to-door with her candidate, and she was amazed at the level of rudeness they were subjected to. That was bad enough, but, after all, it’s just politics, right? Of more interest was the fact that the rudeness increased as the campaign progressed.

Where Does This Trend Come From?

Well, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, we have to look no further than the leadership debate, where one candidate stood in front of a nation-wide TV audience and called another a series of names out of a cheap melodrama.  You know the type:

“You, sir, are a liar and a cad.” Then the glove across the face, choice of weapons, and ten paces at sunrise.

Not that using extreme sanction against the Lead Conservative would have solved anything. His triumphant smirk at the camera afterward tells us that a large section of his party has mixed rude behaviour up with strength of character, a common misunderstanding among teenagers and right wing political supporters. We only have to go a few kilometres south to see an extreme example.

It’s strange, watching history repeat itself. The last Conservative leader lost an election by appealing to his 31% base (in politer terms, it might be noted), hoping a split between the Liberals and NDP would give him a free slide to victory. Needless to say, it didn’t work that time or this.

Two Attitudes

There are two ways to approach an election. The first derives from the history of democracy as a more polite way of doing battle. It is unfortunate that so many of the terms around elections come straight from warfare. You “fight” a “campaign” and “win” so you can “rule.” There are still a lot of people who consider an election a power struggle, and the winners get to do what they like to the country for four years after that. Anything goes, including demonizing the opposition, which works especially well for many voters. Hence the slugfest we just witnessed.

Then there is the election as job interview. If politicians considered themselves as putting their best feet forward for a job, they would concentrate on their good points and their usefulness to the electorate, and be careful about the kind of behaviour that shows them to be unfit for higher office. This sort of person considers that all politicians have the good of the country in mind, and while they may not agree on methods, they can agree on a shared motivation. Thus they tend to treat each other with respect, both in private and in public, and this civility is modelled to the electorate. This is good for the country in general, and the tone of election rhetoric in specific.

How About Proportional Representation?

According to those with experience in the format, politicians who have the “second prize” seats in mind are more careful about seeming to be good politicians. They treat all voters as potential supporters, and thus they mind their manners. In a very Canadian way, they are careful not to offend anyone.

PR might actually be good for the Conservatives. Playing only to your base is a fatal error in that system, and it might force them to treat other people a bit better and expand their platform into more meaningful areas of government. They might even consider what the rest of Canada is thinking, picking up some of those second prize seats the PR system doles out. Note that under PR, the Conservatives would have had a higher seat count this time, as well. Worth a thought, Mr. Scheer, when you’re finished fighting the battle to keep your leadership position.





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