Canada’s dog eat dog politics

It’s becoming hard to separate public debate from school yard arguments now that character assassination has largely replaced the traditional point counter-point form of discussing an issue.  Too often we are barraged with talking points and spokespeople who refuse to budge from the script.  Whether this is a product of the American broadcaster Fox News and similar outlets that present news from a political and ideological perspective is debatable, but it seems that the growth in cable news has paralleled the decline in respectful debate and voter participation. 

Not that long ago Canadians could feel they were exempt from the elbows-up politics that has become a defining feature of the way things are done in the United States – not anymore.   Canada too has become a wasteland of finger pointing backed up by research teams that find dirt to deflect criticism.  Consider the treatment of Neil Young and David Suzuki who have been roasted by pro-oil industry pundits.  These men have seen any uncomplimentary details of their lives that can be found spilled in public in order to discredit them and their opinions.

This is wrong for a number of reasons.  First, the approach entirely avoids addressing facts or claims as the debate moves away from the issue and onto the individual.  Second, it makes the assumption that only those who are without fault are eligible to participate in public discussions.  Third, and perhaps most dangerous, the fear of being subjected to a witch-hunt will scare many people away from public debate, which in turn reduces the strength of a democracy rooted in the principle of free speech.

Increasingly we are left to pronounce something right or wrong.  Consensus and compromise are made to seem as if they are never an option or, at best, as signs of weakness.  Is this the inevitable result of ‘sound bite’ politics where news formats force issues to be defined in the fewest words possible?  It certainly is hard to make longer arguments that are often required when asking a population to make big decisions. 

Does the decline in debate spell the end of nation building?  Canadians are lucky that public health care was debated before this era.  The experience of our American neighbours shows how incredibly difficult it is to implement broad policy initiatives when significant, well-funded interests continue to campaign against them. 

Environmentalists in Canada are being made to see the high price that comes with raising your voice.  We have come a long way from the proud country that led the charge in the race to understand and then address the causes of acid rain.  Now we have a government that leaps to the defence of industry and dismisses the concerns of its population if they differ from that agenda.    It’s no wonder that many people feel so distant from the political process; they were likely raised to show a little respect and hear someone out.