Doing politics differently, is that possible?

I seem to be feeling perpetually defeated these days, and politics isn’t helping.  Happy days are not here again, and there doesn’t seem to be any relief on the horizon.  If there is no trustworthy leadership and no one can find one good thing to say about anyone else, then where are we as a species?  I now understand what my dearly departed cousin Alan meant when he said to me, “Janie, they’re all bastards.”  I need to give the back story to this quote.  Alan and I didn’t share a common view on political direction; we did agree on the importance of getting it right for the majority of people – and doing so with integrity, we just didn’t necessarily agree on who had the better path to prosperity and equal opportunity.  That having been said, he worked hard for decades in support of his Party, based on his belief in an open democratic system that should work.  And after all that experience, this was his considered observation: “Janie, they’re all bastards.”  This particular conversation transpired when I was at my idealistic and naive “finest”, a few days after Obama’s first inauguration, high on hopes and dreams.  Sadly, that feeling didn’t last long.  And what Alan was trying to tell me wasn’t that all politicians are bastards (either literally or figuratively), but that politics is a nasty business and all politicians, regardless of whether their heart and soul is in the right place, will find him or herself at some point engaged in something nasty.  It’s just a nasty business.  I am sorry to say I now agree with him.

My question is: does it really have to be like this?  Unless I just haven’t been paying attention until recently, which I don’t think is the case, things are worse than ever.  I know that politics has never been a love-in between Parties, but there used to be some semblance of behind-the-scenes mutual respect and deal-making.  Now it has degraded to half-truths (or worse) from every side, delivered by slick advertising that’s produced by companies for whom ethics is not a known quantity.  Do any of us worry that the advertising companies are the ones laughing all the way to the bank?

In Canada, the degree to which vitriol, fear-mongering, and misinformation reign during campaigns (and now between campaigns; in fact, it never stops) is fairly recent.  The perceived wisdom is that it was “imported” from the U.S. by the people running Stephen Harper’s campaigns, although to be fair there were some classic negative ads before then, just not to this level. The idea was that attack ads work in the U.S., so let’s try them here.  Instead of importing some constructive U.S. successes, like companies spending more on innovation or hiring international students and retired people from around the country to work in the National Parks in the summer (all well-trained, excellent ambassadors of their countries and states), we had to import one of the nastiest, divisive and most shameful artifacts of recent politics, the attack ad.  How Canadian is that?  Until now, not very.  And why did Harper’s folks go down this road?  Because it works.  What does that say about us?  Nothing very good.  And attack ads are similar to other invasive species; once they’re here they seem to be impossible to get rid of.

In Canada, Justin Trudeau, the recent winner in the leadership campaign to try to take the Liberals back to the Promised Land, is building a war chest specifically to fight attack ads from the ruling Tories.  I might add that these attack ads against him started the very day that Trudeau was named the new leader.  There is no election looming and the Liberals are not even the Opposition Party, but the attack ads started.  To their credit, a certain segment of politicians are pushing the notion of doing politics differently, especially young ones.  Trudeau is part of this group, as is the new young opposition leader in my small province.  By this they mean bringing more respect and civility to public discourse and, who knows, maybe even in legislative bodies.  Doesn’t that sound divine?  People getting along, not hurling nasty comments and half-truths at each other, working together to make our countries better places.  Maybe it could even not always be about getting elected but about doing the right thing for the longer term.  Wouldn’t that be something?

Trudeau is promoting this “different” approach to politics, but he’s still planning for politics as usual by building coffers to combat negative attacks.  It’s called being realistic.  Our self-proclaimed national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, had an editorial two days after the attack ads against him started, castigating him for trying to take the high road, saying that the public wanted him to respond, it was his duty, it was part of politics.  Did they read that somewhere?  And in a surprise election result in British Columbia this past week, the media was blaming the NDP’s unexpected loss in large measure on their leader’s decision to run a positive campaign, leaving the incumbent leader to campaign in fight mode, not always being dead straight, and convincing people that she had what it takes to stay in power after all, even though she had been 20 points down in the polls.  I guess we don’t like “nice” so much after all.  They’re all bastards and that, apparently, is what we want.

As has become clear on both sides of the border, on this side of the pond at least, negative ads have no redeeming features, but, sadly, they seem to work.  The result is that much of the money being raised by political parties is going for nothing more than shameless advertising.  How do we convince ourselves to be engaged in the democratic process when what is in front of us is so unsavory?  What lessons do we draw from our current political reality?  I have no answers.  Alan was right … and my glass is not its usual half-full self.

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9 Responses to Doing politics differently, is that possible?

  1. jane tims says:

    Hi Jane. Your post brings back memories of my early thoughts about politics. It was 1968 and another Mr. Trudeau was a leader to inspire a young person (I was only 14). My Dad was interested in politics and encouraged me to watch the election and listen carefully even though I was too young to vote. I still have the banners and buttons, all in orange and white, for Mr. Trudeau’s campaign. I admit, politics seems very jaded today, but I still try to look for inspiration in the words of the leaders. Attack ads are not inspiring and reflect badly on the user. Jane

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Hi Jane. Those were heady days for sure. Your esperience would have mirrored mine when I was 14, still living in NY, and JFK was running for first the nomination and then the presidency. So much excitement. The outcomes are so sobering. I find myself despairing when I look for inspiration in our leaders these days, but I will try harder to believe that it’s just around the corner!

  2. There seems to be a void of truly strong and great leaders recently. Negative attack ads are the tools of people without their own strengths and ideas to talk about. Too many people find that the easiest way to get ahead is to pull the competition back to you rather than push yourself forward.
    My glass feels half empty when i think about the future of our province. There was a time when it felt like the place to be for IT and technology work, innovative job creation, as well as “lifestyle”. The last three governments have failed to advance that and seem to have lost a lot of ground and momentum. There is no leader, provincially or federally, willing to stand up and say “Just watch me”. Well, maybe Mr. Trudeau knows someone who said that but it remains to be seen if he can live up to those words.
    My half-full outlook says that when the next great leader comes along who is willing to stand up and make the tough decisions, regardless of negative attack ads, a pretty big proportion of Canadians would gladly follow.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Hear, hear, Keith. We think similarly. I will give the Lord govt credit for seeing the value of the IT industry insofar as funding expansion of CS at UNB; they really came to the plate for us. But by the end of that govt, I was stymied. It’s almost as though a new govt believes that it has to make its own mark, and if an industry is thought to have been promoted by a previous govt then they’d better look for a new approach (or no approach). It breaks my heart, truly. That’s why we need private individuals such as you to say, “We’ll do it despite you.” Please!!

  3. Roy McCarthy says:

    Tom Hodgkinson wrote (I paraphrase) – ‘in a true democracy wouldn’t the beaten candidate or party put their hands up and admit that the majority had spoken and the winners must henceforth be allowed to pursue their policies? But no, the very next day they’re plotting the best path to take down the victors.’
    Party politics is nothing to do with running a country, it’s to do with the pursuit of, and the retention of, power.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Sigh. It’s so sad to have us all think this and not be able to change it in the world’s most open democracies. Money at work, I can hear people say. I was much happier in my innocent, idealistic state.

  4. An old friend of mine once said, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the Government always gets back in.” Year by year I see more and more truth in that statement and the one thing I can look forward to, from time to time, is a clean sweep. But that only lasts for a while. After only a little while arrogance and entitlement cause the new lot to revert…
    Half-empty is, I think, appropriate. In the meantime we should all continue to keep as close an eye on THEM as they would on us :>)

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Sadly, Maurice, you have summed up nicely what now seems to me to be the unmistakable reality. I’m keeping as close an eye as I can stomach. 😉

      • I am particularly disturbed (and boy do I have a long list of things from our Fed to be disturbed about) by the government’s insistence on ramming through a bill that essentially allows law enforcement unrestricted license to spy on its citizens. They are masking it in the guise of watching pedophiles (because, hey, nobody will oppose something as sick as that) but the reality is something just as scary as anything the most depraved members of our world can do.
        Look, I’m not a silly conspiracy theory nutter. What I am is very literate in the ways of government and know that, in time, any group of people will misuse any power it has been given. The proposed laws represent simply too much power with no gatekeeper and, thus, too much potential for abuse.
        If you are interested it’s worth keeping an eye on Michael Geist’s Blog.
        Besides, I have yet to hear a sensible answer to this question: Why do you (the Fed) have a problem with simply getting a judge to sign a warrant?
        That’s a big part of why we have that third vital part of government, isn’t it? Oh, wait–you (the Fed) want to get around those pesky gatekeepers. Yes, of course…
        Well—having them around and serving in that manner makes us all that much better off so, Fed, please go away and come back with something that is respectful of the people you are supposed to be serving.
        OK–down off the soap box now.

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