Stop polarizing our discourse

TheGlobeandMail.com – News/Commentary/Opinion
Published: Thursday, October 21, 2010.   Preston Manning

Why is it so difficult to have meaningful debate on health-care reform or environmental conservation measures in Canada’s political arena, despite the importance of such issues and the desperate need for action on both fronts?

Ironically, the answer appears rooted in a positive aspect of our national character. Canadians are generally a moderate and tolerant people – thus the quickest way to publicly discredit a political opponent in debating an important issue is to characterize that opponent’s position as “extreme.”

So Candidate Jones declares that she favours national health-care standards enforced by the federal government – a reasonable position, whether or not you agree with it. Candidate Smith, however, reacts in mock horror to this suggestion. “I can’t believe it! Jones wants to trample on the constitutional rights of the provinces and establish a federal dictatorship over health care.”

Do we see what Smith is doing? He’s not debating the merits or weaknesses of Jones’s actual position – he’s ignoring it altogether. Instead, he takes Jones’s position, pushes it to the extreme, then argues against that extreme.

Smith then declares that he favours a health-care system offering universal coverage but both public and private health-care insurance, financing and delivery. Whether or not we agree with this position, it isn’t an unreasonable one, since more than two dozen industrialized countries offer their citizens such a system.

So how does Jones react to this suggestion? This time, it’s her turn to feign mock horror. “I can’t believe it! Smith wants to privatize and Americanize the Canadian health-care system.”

Once again, do we see what Jones is doing? She’s not debating the strengths or weaknesses of Smith’s actual proposal – she’s ignoring it altogether. Instead, she takes Smith’s position, pushes it to the extreme, then argues against that extreme.

Within minutes, what was supposed to be a rational debate on an issue of great concern to Canadians has degenerated into a debate between “a federal health-care dictatorship” versus “a privatized American-style health-care system” – options that neither of the candidates nor their parties believe in or advocate. No wonder Canadian voters – observing such phony debates time and time again – throw up their hands in disgust and conclude that it’s impossible to have an intelligent discussion on real health-care reform options in the political arena.

This disgust is even greater when the same thing happens to public debate over issues such as environmental conservation. Candidate Jones and her party are accused of wanting to destroy the economy in the name of environmental protection. Candidate Smith and his party are accused of wanting to destroy the environment in the name of economic development – extreme positions that neither candidate nor party supports but that become the focus of any public debate on the environment. No wonder we’re witnessing declining public faith in political institutions and democratic processes, including elections, when this type of debate becomes the dominant feature of our political discourse.

So what to do? Three suggestions: First, let’s recognize that this is what’s going on – a national virtue, the tolerance and moderation of Canadians, is being turned into a liability for short-term political gains. Thus, whenever you hear a public figure or their positions being routinely characterized by their opponents and the media as “extreme,” think twice. There are political extremists in Canadian politics, but 90 per cent of the time, such accusations are false.

Second, if you’re ever called on to chair an all-candidates’ debate during an election or a political roundtable at a conference, and the “He’s an extremist, she’s an extremist” exchange breaks out, don’t just sit there – stop the proceedings. Show the audience exactly what’s going on and threaten to shut down the debate if it continues. I’ve done this, and it’s been my experience that you won’t get halfway through your rant before the audience will begin to nod and even applaud – sending a clear message to the debaters that such inane discourse is unacceptable.

Third, recognize that confrontational, polarized debate between alleged “extremes” is more newsworthy in the eyes of most media than moderate, nuanced debate over real positions. So heavily discount media reports of political debates, especially during elections, and “go to source” for information on the actual positions of the parties and the candidates. In the Internet age, this is much more feasible for the average citizen than ever before.

Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

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