A recent headline in the Globe and Mail captured the heart of what saddens me about our political system: society’s appetite for perpetual conflict too often becomes the focus of politicians’ campaigns and governance. Commenting on the polarization of politics in that article, Adam Radwanski states that most parties are “more fixated on mobilizing existing supporters than winning new ones.”
We might not have a Ford- or Trump-eque leader pursuing a populist strategy in this election, but we certainly have several candidates that are more focused on the ‘us versus them’ approach to engagement than actually creating and sharing platforms that generate discussion and offer creative compromises that could move our province toward improvements. These politicians seem to prefer shouting matches and stalemates and overturned policies that do nothing to tackle issues but have everything to do with galvanizing and placating supporters.
I don’t have a scientific study to back up my assumption, but listening to other voters and considering my own response to this type of politicking, I believe this conflict-focused approach is contributing to the ongoing drop in voter engagement. Until the 1990s, roughly 80 percent of the population exercised their right to vote. The last time we went to the polls, it was more like 66 percent.
To me, the ‘us versus them’ approach shows a lack of respect not only for the role government is meant to play and but also for those of us who are trying to make informed decisions. The only thing that zaps my interest in a candidate more quickly than an attack ad approach to campaigning is a lack of preparation on the candidate’s part to discuss issues.
But it’s not always the party politicians and supporters who are driving this ‘perpetual conflict’ narrative. I was surprised this week to see a full page ad in this newspaper from a group called the Coalition of Concerned Citizens. Their ‘voter’s manifesto’ claims to be a call for change, but it continues to push the adversarial agenda that political leaders are out to ruin our province. I’ve yet to meet a single political candidate who ran with the intention to cause damage to where they live. People often make mistakes, their personalities don’t always resonate with us, and there will always be another approach that might have worked better, but no one is scheming to destroy us. We do that to ourselves by not stepping back from the fight and taking the hard move of actually researching the issues, challenging the candidates, and questioning the political party paradigm.
Thankfully, I’m also encouraged this election to see similar non-political party efforts to shift the political discourse. Dialogue NB is a non-government provincial organization working as a catalyst to bring communities together to better understand their shared values and varied experiences, with the goal of creating a more socially cohesive community. This is not a group focused on language, but rather one focused on citizenship. Dialogue NB has been holding sessions around the province educating voters on the basics of how our political system is designed to work, valuable information for those who have moved to Canada or didn’t pay attention in school.
Perhaps we can all take a lesson from politicians in New Zealand, who have managed to find common ground and agree on policy relating to climate by starting with an all-party, back-bench, citizen-focused plan that laid out the nation’s shared values and goals before working toward policy that reinforced and supported these ideas. New Zealanders didn’t let “current divisions … define our future.” That’s the type of political headline I’d love to see for New Brunswick.