All governments make mistakes. It’s an inextricable fact of human nature. However, in a democracy, people have the choice to not put up with it. They have the right, as citizens, to call out their elected officials for their incompetence or corruption. The important thing here is how they choose to criticize said government. Ideally, if you’re a member of an opposing party, you’d split your time evenly between trying to debate the incumbent(s) and furthering your own agenda. Yet sadly enough, these days it seems the preferred method is to derail any debate by pigeonholing all of your opponents into one ideological stereotype. Once that’s done, all you need to do is shout “liberal” or “conservative” and wait for fellow ideologues to add to the chorus. This kind of partisan orthodoxy is hardly a new phenomenon in politics, but has been far more pronounced in the last two years.
One of the more extreme cases of such demagogy occured in May of last year when then-President George Bush travelled to Israel to commemorate the country’s 60th birthday. In his speech in front of the Knesset, Bush launched what many in Washington interpreted as a thinly-veiled attack against Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, accusing them of “appeasing” Syria and Iran.
But extreme partisanship isn’t just restricted to Republicans. Just last year, as the recession was starting to take its toll on the U.S. economy, then–Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson was trying to get support for the bailout bill. At the time, Democrats controlled the House, and the bill was circling the drain. Desperate, Paulson knelt down before Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and literally begged her not to “blow up” the plan by withdrawing Democratic support from the bailout package. However, Pelosi was adamant in her decision not to partake in something drafted by Republicans.
Two months later, Obama won the presidential election and, oddly enough, became the chief proponent of the bailout. All of a sudden, Pelosi was promoting the bill in the House and Senate, and not surprisingly, the Republicans now derided it as a socialist giveaway, “socialist” having since become their buzzword for the Obama administration.
Next came the health care bill disaster. Though it started off with the usual opposition from the extreme right, it quickly turned into one of the most divisive issues in recent years. Sure, the GOP had some good points, but it wasn’t civil discourse that was shaping people’s opinions. It was all partisan mudslinging designed to convolute the debate and create a climate of confusion to mislead people. Most detractors had no idea what they were protesting against (some people held signs comparing Obama to Hitler), and supporters dismissed criticisms as “typical republicanism.” People on the outside, on the other hand, had no idea what was going on. This has become the norm in American politics.
Here in Canada, partisan politics are no less preposterous. Take Michael Ignatieff, a man who has been driving the Liberal Party into the ground ever since he took over leadership in late 2008. He chooses to stick to his self-defeating strategy of blaming the Conservative government for everything that goes wrong with Canada. It is excruciating to hear him launch one tirade after another against the Conservatives, as if he knows all the answers and they don’t. Never mind that Canada is faring much better than most other countries in the recession, especially the United States.
If Ignatieff invested half as much time furthering his own agenda and reaching out to Canadians as he did blaming the Conservatives, he might have been more successful than his predecessor, Stephane Dion. Instead, he remains an uncharismatic, uninspiring, out-of-touch leader who can’t promote himself or his party.
It’s tempting, then, to say that partisanship is bad for society. But far be it for me to say that I have no partisan leanings whatsoever. It would also be foolish to say that partisanship is altogether detrimental to a country. On the contrary, it keeps political discourse organized and it provides its members with a sense of belonging. However, putting on the ideological blindfold and toeing the party line no matter what is an absurd tactic. Not only is it divisive, but it also creates a hostile political environment in which people cannot reconcile their ideological differences.