Maybe we shouldn’t #DenounceHarper

Dan Gardner had a very good article about the irrational hatred people feel towards Stephen Harper. Harper did something Obama does regularly – spoke very highly of his hometown – and progressives attacked him for it. Gardner, exploring why, explains that Harper’s hyper-partisanship has been very polarizing and that these are the types of reactions he provokes from people. This is a common answer but he comes to an uncommon conclusion, that this is the “product of a broader phenomenon that will outlive the prime minister.” This is an interesting point, worth discussing if we want to reverse the political trend towards polarization and hyper-partisanship.We are fooling ourselves if we believe it will simply end with the end of the Harper Government.

When we discuss poisonous rhetoric in Canada it is often referred to as the “Americanization” of our politics. With this in mind, it bears reviewing the current situation in the United States. Obama’s opponents have questioned his citizenship, called him a socialist and a fascist, and generally made it as hard as possible for him to accomplish or implement any part of his agenda. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that the United States has become more polarized now than at any other time since the Civil War. How the political situation in the US has become so untenably partisan is a subject of great debate.

Looking back a little, to their 2004 election, Bush, with the help of Karl Rove, had developed a well-deserved reputation for taking cheap shots against his enemies and the campaign had managed to turn John Kerry’s honorable military service into a political liability. Bush’s enemies fought back; they insulted his intelligence, called him a fascist and worse, and used such memorable slogans as “No Blood for Oil!” Bush went on to win the election with more than 50% of the popular vote, gathering more votes for president than any candidate in history. Reviewing the election in retrospect, it is not unlikely that the refrain of “Not my president!” alienated the ever important undecideds who eventually decide elections.

That fighting partisanship with partisanship alienates voters is not the issue; in 2008, the anti-Bush sentiment was so high that the Republic party was thoroughly defeated. The issue is that all of that partisanship does not simply dissipate after an election. Every person who compared Bush to Hitler, every “George Bush doesn’t care about black people!”, every hyperbolic claim; these all helped feed the flames. The political culture had been thoroughly tainted and the partisanship was so strong it became self-sustaining. It is therefore disingenuous to blame everything on Karl Rove or George Bush or even Fox News. If progressives had really opposed this type of politics, they should have displayed the political courage to not respond in kind.

In Canada, we are approaching a similar situation. It is tempting to simply wring our hands and lament the state of political discourse; it’s easy and, generally, satisfying. But powerful as Stephen Harper may be, he cannot dictate our entire political conversation. In his article, Gardner mentions the influence of the echo chamber of social media and how it ratchets up the rhetoric. This hypothesis would seem to be borne out by a quick Twitter search of the hashtag #DenounceHarper, used to complain about Harper’s various misdeeds.

When we do something as simple as denounce Harper, by pointing to a decision of his we disagree with, I would argue this is the wrong approach. Gardner mentions the fact that Harper ignored the anniversary of the Charter and that progressives got upset. What he didn’t mention was what we could have done instead: talked more about why it was worth celebrating. It’s a minor example, of course, but if we’re going to try and learn from our American cousins and actually make an effort to reverse this trend, we each need to be honest about our own side’s culpability. Harper has turned up the rhetoric and progressives have responded in kind. While fighting fire with fire seems logical, one has to wonder if this approach is doing more harm than good to the progressive cause.

Some pundits have suggested that a country polarized between left and right would help the NDP, so they might have come to believe that it is advantageous for them to help that polarization along. Recently, we got a taste of what the next election might look like with the first of what promise to be many NDP attack ads. If the NDP believes that one attack ad should necessarily beget another, they should look to the mess Obama inherited. They might find they’re poisoning the chalice before they get their first sip.

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