On Partisanship

Large Obama Rally in Oregon

This has proven to be a hard post to write. A few months ago, I promised that I would write a lengthy post about the nature of partisanship, since that topic was all the range in the blogosphere at the time. I tried, but I found that my post was too personal, and criticized individuals too directly. In trying to explain why certain points of view were partisan, and what was wrong with those points of view, I came up with a post that I had to step away from, and carefully consider whether the ill feelings it would likely have engendered were worth it.

I don’t like to offend people, because I believe that most, if not all, are at heart decent human beings, even though we sometimes see the world in fundamentally different ways. And this is why we have politics. While human beings are, by nature, quite a social animal, we are still all individual souls. It is in our nature to be in our own mind about what needs doing and how to go about doing what needs doing. Put two individuals together and it is natural for the two to disagree about something. The big question, however, is: what happens next?

One of the most eye-opening moments during my university education came when my political science professor at the University of Waterloo, explained the reason why politics exists. In his book, Conflicting Political Ideas in Liberal Democracies, professor Thomas Qualter said the following:

“The need for politics arises from the conflict of human desires and from different understandings of the world. If everybody agreed, there would be no need for government or politics, for all would simply go ahead and do whatever it was they wanted to do. But this is not the situation around us. Even with the best will in the world we disagree not only about what should be done, but also about ways of doing those things. On any issue of consequence, people will honestly and sincerely hold different opinions. One should not expect to find, in any random gathering of people, a unanimous opinion on any issue: capital punishment, the right of public servants to strike, the sale of government owned corporations, the proper status of the French language in Ontario, the times and places where one should legally be able to buy beer, and so on. On none of those things are we agreed, and the people who disagree with our position are not necessarily, for that reason, fools or rogues.

“Commonly, we will find in practice that those who argue for forgetting about politics in the interests of the common good are really saying ‘I know what I think, and I don’t want to have to consider any one else’s opinion.’ On many local councils, school boards and club executives, you will hear it said, ‘Let’s keep politics out of this.’ This view reveals a profound misunderstanding of the nature of a democratic society, which in essence is based on the propriety of politics. Political activity to resolve conflict is at the foundation of our way of life, without which we would not be a democracy.”

Those words coupled with my Anglican “via midea” upbringing, brought me to the conclusion that almost everybody is right at least once a day, and almost nobody is right every day. So, I became a non-partisan. I believe (although I’ve not been able to live up to this belief all the time) that to keep democracy alive, ideas must be allowed to compete. Debate and dissent are critical to a healthy democracy. Unfortunately, I then joined the blogosphere.

The blogosphere, being a place where individuals can express and compare opinions without the risk of face-to-face disagreement continues to allow disagreements to be supercharged. The Canadian political blogosphere is no different. Despite the fact that, in early days, we started to forge a common identity spanning the political spectrum, where Liberals like Jason Cherniak could cooperate with Conservatives like Stephen Taylor or Bob Tarantino to help organize blogging get-togethers or debate shows, some of us have started to gather with like-minded individuals to form echo-chambers, where dissenting opinions are ridiculed and, worse, harassed. A lot of people have talked about the apparent lack of civility in the blogosphere. Some people simply do not respect each other — hate each other even — on the basis of the difference of their political beliefs. It has made ploughing through the Canadian political blogosphere tiring of late, and it has rendered productive debate within the blogosphere almost impossible.

And, worse, even when each side admits that there’s a problem, they tend to suggest that the other side is primarily at fault.

Sandy Crux recently lamented the degradation of civility in the blogosphere. It was her post that got me thinking about partisanship again, and gave me the opening I needed to write this post properly. I agree with a number of her points, including the following:

“…I am finding that “nasty” reaction across the entire political spectrum - if you don’t think as I/we/they do, you are …… fill in the blanks.

“In other words, that to be conservative makes people act a certain way is just as ridiculous as saying all liberals or progressives are tree hugging, soft on crime (wanting more basket ball courts) hippies who just want to be loved. In other words, no matter what your political preferences, lumping people into certain stereotypes is just not helpful.”

She’s right. I myself have seen several comments and posts impugning the integrity of “the left” using straw-man arguments. People are lumping their perceived opponents together, the better to skewer them, and when they do that, we know that they think, as in the example Professor Qualter gave, that ‘I know what I think, and I don’t want to have to consider any one else’s opinion.’ It is a profoundly undemocratic action.

Unfortunately, even while acknowledging the stereotype, Sandy herself falls into the pit of perpetuating it. Witness this follow-up comment to an “Eric” (not my father), who said “the vitriol right now is more present on the right side of the spectrum rather than the left.” (again, perpetuating the blanket stereotype):

Eric — I have to respectfully disagree. While I am in no way making excuses for anything other Blogging Tories write — remember, we are all individuals and quite independent of each other — I have found most in the mainstream media to be almost pathologically negative about anything “conservative,” small “c” or otherwise.

And, as far as Liblogs or Dippers, I rarely read what they write on their blogs but I do read their comments here or at Jack’s Newswatch, Blue Like You or at other BT bloggers such as Dr. Roy, Raphael, Steve Janke, Chucker Canuck or Stephen Taylor (to mention only a few).

As an aside, do you notice how Sandy has just admitted, but hasn’t acknowledged, that she has given herself a pretty skewed view of what Liberals and New Democrats think? This is important, because there’s one kind of person who makes arguments and defends them on his own blog, and there’s another kind of person who goes out to other blogs to criticize what others say. However polite most people in either camp are, you are still more likely to encounter someone attacking your point of view (and making you feel defensive) in the latter situation than you are of someone engaging in a discussion of their point of view, and bringing you into that discussion in constructive ways.

Sandy continues…

So, while “you started it first” may not be the answer, Bec is right. It did start with Harris. Not that Bob Rae’s gov’t had it easy either towards the end of their mandate. But, I was at the PC gov’ts swearing in on June 22, 1995. The Harris gov’t had just been elected two weeks earlier on June 8th. Yet, the legislature was surrounded with screaming protestors with signs that said “shame shame.” It was unprecedented.

Unprecedented for Canada maybe (though I have my doubts; witness the hatred and vitriol expressed for Rae, Mulroney and Trudeau), but Sandy is talking about a raucous protest as if it was something new and sinister when, just three months before, an extremely right wing individual named Timothy McVeigh disagreed so strongly with the direction his government was taking that he rented a Ryder truck, filled it with fertilizer and blasting caps, drove it to Oklahoma City and committed one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in American history. You might say that he was a disturbed individual, but his action was supported in the rhetoric emanating from a number of extremely right wing (but not entirely fringe) quarters.

Further, Sandy has neglected to mention or is unaware of the catalogue of eliminationist rhetoric from a number of noted conservatives, expressing a desire to shoot, maim or otherwise harass liberals into silence. Some of these commentators have talk shows with audiences in the millions. In my limited experience, while we are talking about a minority of people, left or right, who go off the deep end in the depth of their rhetoric, I do see more death threats or things close to death threats being issued in attack of liberals than I see being issued in attack of conservatives. Why doesn’t Sandy acknowledge this?

But maybe my own viewpoint is similarly skewed. When I wrote about this subject before, a self-described conservative commentator politely accused me of playing favourites, and in self reflection, I have to acknowledge there is a chance that he might be right. I don’t go looking for hateful rhetoric (and I hasten to say, I’ve found none among the progressive members of the Non-Partisan Alliance), but I am a lot more sensitive to it when I feel that I myself am the target of it. That could explain why conservatives like Sandy so shocked by liberal rhetoric against them when they ignore as bad or worse rhetoric flowing in the other direction. I also point out that, since 2006, the Conservatives have been in power in Canada, and since 2000, conservatives have been in the drivers’ seats of American politics as well. In appearance, at least, the conservatives are in charge, which means that in addition to the partisans out there who wish to attack anything conservative, non-partisan arrows are pointed in the same direction, because it’s from that direction the policies that we criticize largely come from.

I have found, when presenting myself as non-partisan and criticizing others for their partisanship, that others have tried to throw the partisan label back at me. Some have even argued that it is impossible to be non-partisan. When I mentioned off-hand that I was considering voting for the Green Party, one commentator on my blog replied “Aren’t you a member of the non-partisan alliance? You’re a (explitive) liar and should be exposed as one. Non-partisan? KISS MY (explitive) (explitive)!”. Others have said that we all have our biases, and it is silly to think that we can overcome them. Of course, when this is said, the person saying this seems to be acting as if to say “and my bias is right and your bias is wrong.”

But what’s happening here is a confusion between being non-partisan and being a-political. And while it is entirely possible — likely, even — that I am constrained by my own life experience and worldview when I post my political commentary, it is still possible to hold such a bias and still conclude that no party has a monopoly on the truth. Remember, I call myself a centrist, and for me the key criteria of being a centrist is to believe that no one party, person or political viewpoint is right all the time. The emphasis that seems to be forgotten when non-centrists criticize this viewpoint as arrogant is the caveat: “no one, not even yourself, has a monopoly on the truth.” As a centrist, I believe in a political, fiscal and social policies that picks the best policies from the political spectrum, ranging from democratic socialism all the way to libertarianism on a case by case basis. It is entirely possible to pick wrong, though I still like my chances better than picking from one brand of political thought all the time.

Partisans are often criticized for having a blinkered vision of reality, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Indeed, it can be argued that what partisans are really doing is looking at the bigger picture. Partisans like Sandy Crux or Jason Cherniak come to the table believing that, on the whole, the party they’ve chosen to align with has it right. They may not agree with everything their party leader says or does, but they believe firmly that, flaws aside, their party will put forward the right policy as they see it, more often than the wrong policy, and that is good for their picture of the country. Therefore, in their opinion, the best thing they could do for their country is to work their hardest to try and assure that their party holds power in the country. They may try to constructively criticize particular elements of party policy as it materializes (and preferably behind closed doors), but by and large they’re about hyping the positives and downplaying the negatives of their chosen brand. Take this to its logical extreme, and you start attacking other partisans as threats to your vision of the country.

The non-partisans, by comparison, focus on the minor details, because that’s where they see the potential for improvement. Because they are not married to the idea of supporting a particular party, they are more free to examine individual policies or political people or events and criticize things as they see fit. Some do this because they believe that each party is, overall, equally good or bad for the country. Others do this in the hopes of improving individual legislation or political behaviour as it manifests itself.

Either way, when a non-partisan and partisan meet, the argument wants to go in two different directions. The partisan frets, “whatever flaws are in Bill-XYZ or whatever problems there are with MP Smith’s behaviour pale in comparison to the fact that, by and large, my party has done much good for Canada, and you are wrong to threaten that balance.” Meanwhile, the non-partisan shouts, “no, you don’t understand: this particular policy is wrong, this particular politician is acting reprehensibly. This is what you need to correct in order to make things better!”

Dan Arnold, better known as Calgary Grit, is a rare blogger which straddles both camps. While he has chosen to remain a loyal supporter of the Liberal Party (while living in Alberta, no less), he is perfectly willing to acknowledge the validity of criticism of his party, or the strengths of his party’s political opponents in ways that Jason Cherniak and Warren Kinsella simply cannot. Warren used to be more free to criticize his own party, but now has settled himself in to defending and advancing the Liberal Party cause, at the invitation of leader Michael Ignatieff. As he advertised this to be the case when it happened, I feel we have little room to complain. It is interesting to see partisan Conservatives go after Kinsella, attacking him for his partisanship when engaging in partisan behaviour themselves, but again this is the big picture talking. One could easily call the partisans’ activities hypocritical, but I suspect the word to describe some non-partisan activity might be pedantic.

Pedantic or not, one element of being non-partisan, in my opinion, is a belief in the relative equality of the worth of each individual’s character when it comes to exercising their right to an opinion, even one that proves wrong. This belief in the equality of worth can be cynical (“voters are sheep” “politicians are crooks” “you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time”), or it can be optimistic (“you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”). I choose the optimistic path. I’m on good terms with Sandy. I’m on good terms with the Canadian Cynic. I respect Olaf of the Prairie Wrangler. I very much respect Jennie of Idealistic Pragmatist. I respect Warren Kinsella. I don’t always agree with these individuals. I’ve had some bitter fights with some of them in the past. But I can still treat them as human beings, share laughs with them as we talk on other subjects. We can still agree to disagree.

Sadly, for some partisans, this is not always the case. The other side is not just your opponent; it is your enemy. Witness this comment from Durward:

“I demonize Liberals because of the damage they have done to our country through their centralizing of power in Ottawa, their disregard or re-writing of our constitution and the social engineering that they pushed on us to achieve their socialist utopia (night-mare), not to mention the thefts of our money, forced unpopular laws, Divide and conquer mentality, CBC, lack of any realistic policy And the Bloc’s continued existence!

“They deserve to be demonized since some will vote to see this continue at any cost, what is the point in giving them respect and legitimacy? Respect is what is missing in Parliament but respect is earned not given, act in All of Canada’s interest rather than the party’s and respect will come.

“I’ve yet to see respect for Canadians anywhere in the Liberal party.

Such sentiments are easily found in the progressive blogosphere which mirror Durward’s own, except operating in the other direction. It is not an optimistic point of view, nor is it an accurate one, in my opinion. There are plenty of decent Conservatives out there just as there are decent Liberals and New Democrats, and Canadians everywhere have survived — thrived, even — despite the administrations of Bob Rae, Mike Harris, Jean Chretien, Stephen Harper, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney.

We have politics because we are people, and as people, it is our freedom to think as individuals that is our most cherished asset. It is something we all share, and it is something that is going to generate disagreement.

The key to restoring civility, improving the health of democratic debate, and even in my opinion lightening the darkness of your soul is to understand that most people everywhere are, in the end, little different from who you are, despite the differences in what you believe. A little perspective and, most importantly, a little patience, is what’s needed for you to come to that understanding, if not agreement.

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