The Politics of Division

As of today there are 14 days left until Canadians take to the polls on May 2nd to elect its next federal parliament. The campaign has had its share of excitement by political standards. From Michael Ignatieff’s “Rise Up” speech to Jack Layton’s ‘hashtag fail’ and the Vote Mobs making waves across University campuses the campaign has provided some surprises. However, to this point the major parties have been unable to articulate a comprehensive and cohesive plan for Canada’s future. Instead of constructing campaign narratives of unity, the parties have spent the majority of their time developing and promoting targeted messages aimed at exploiting the divisions in the Canadian electorate. As a result, the current election cycle has done more to magnify the things that make Canadians different than it has to address any of the substantive issues facing the country. An unfortunate byproduct of this kind of targeted politicking is the limiting of discussion to issues that affect the largest groups of people. Some might see this as a validation of the majority, but in reality its impact is inherently negative for Canadian democracy.

By sectioning off the electorate into conquerable voting blocks political parties are able to avoid addressing the issues that cut across the politically defined cultural, ideological and demographic groups. Politicians appear to be uncomfortable with addressing these issues because they know that each voting block will splinter in reaction to movement on these items. As a result, political parties play it safe by only addressing the issues that allow them to keep the voting blocks intact. Each party has an interest in doing this because it means that potentially volatile political issues do not have to be dealt with. Instead, they adopt an incremental approach to politics that sees big problems go largely unaddressed and big ideas muzzled. The ideas big enough to solve the problems facing Canadian society often never see the light of day because they are deemed to controversial or electorally risky.

In addition, this election has seen the political parties avoid seriously discussing the concerns of groups that do not carry a significant amount of electoral sway. The youth vote has received symbolic attention from the major parties in the form of post-secondary education plans but the overwhelming sense is that this block will not vote anyway. Hopefully this thinking will be proven wrong on May 2nd, but it is too early to say whether videos like Pat Searle’s “Vote Day” or Rick Mercer’s Rant will actually inspire Canadian youth to vote. The only way that this group will ever be taken seriously is if it goes out and votes in the next election.

The lack of attention paid to the opinions of young voters relies upon the underlying assumption that they will not exercise the right to vote. The political parties understand that this group holds electoral potential but for the time being are willing to take a chance on it not showing up. The situation is entirely different for other groups across Canada. Take the First Nations demographic. Some of the most significant human rights issues in Canada are those that feature the government’s approach to First Nations communities. However, not a single party has shown any interest in having a substantive debate on how these issues should be addressed. They understand that the average Canadian is not going to cast his or her vote based on a plan for First Nations communities and therefore feel comfortable leaving it out of the campaign entirely. The First Nations voter base is not numerically large and holds little electoral influence. As a result, the parties seem to only offer small token gestures of support. This doesn’t sound like the Canada that stands up for its diversity and for the rights of those who need it. Instead, it sounds like a country that is afraid to address the things that make it uncomfortable.

The question we must ask ourselves is why the electorate allows this strategy of targeted campaigning to continue to exist. It would be unfair to blame the political parties and the politicians for this phenomenon.There are good people running for federal office who have admirable goals for Canada’s future, but they find themselves forced into the system for the purpose of getting elected. Can we really blame them for this? Many candidates have strong passions for public service and have a desire to influence change in Canada and the world. If faced with a choice between committing the sin of running a populist election campaign and the prospect of losing the opportunity to change the country for the better would any of us really do anything different than what our politicians are doing? I for one believe that there are good politicians out there like London-North Centre MP Glen Pearson who has, in my view, gone into the ‘system’ with the intention of changing it. If you haven’t had the opportunity to read Glen’s blog I suggest that you take a moment to scan a few of his entries. No matter what your political affiliation, reading what Glen has to say will remind you that politicians are human and have the same frustrations and dreams as the average citizen. It seems to me that the fault for the current state of politics lies at the feet of the electorate and the selfish desire to have our individual problems targeted quickly. This approach often comes at the expense of a comprehensive national strategy. If we were to demand that politicians solve not only our problems, but the underlying societal issues that have led to them, we could change the way that political campaigns unfold. It appears to me that society’s need for immediate solutions often results in band-aids that do not address the real problems in our communities.

In summation, I think that it is important for all of us to go out and vote on May 2nd and to vote for the candidate who has articulated the most coherent vision for Canada’s future. This however is only the start of our democratic responsibility. If we want to truly change the way that politics is done in our country we are going to need to spend the next session of parliament resisting the urge to be wooed by partisan pandering. We need to demand comprehensive solutions to the root causes of the individual issues that we discover on a day to day basis and consider the broad scope of what our local problems represent on a national scale.

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