One of the great advantages of working in various aspects of public life is knowing, and learning from, those political strategists termed “conservative.” At the food bank that I help to direct in our city, a healthy segment of the volunteer base, donors, and board fall into this category, and they have brought great depth and resolve to our operation. But, like so many others of similar persuasion across Canada, they have recoiled at political events of recent years. Their pain is real, at times poignant.
They have watched their political cousins south of the border seemingly on a path to self-destruction, and they fret about what’s happening to the conservative brand. Increasingly, commentators are writing opinion pieces on what’s to become of the Republican Party in America, as it appears it is on its way to some kind of reckoning. They also wonder what has happened to the status of moderate conservatives who were once essential to building nations like America, Canada, and Britain.
It is hard to imagine how their principled and institutional approach to the political order and public policy can prevail when conservatism itself seems to have disappeared into the mists of populism and fanaticism. I have spoken with a number of these women and men lately and have detected the mild confusion about what is happening to what was once the “decent” centre of their movement.
They felt their importance during the Stephen Harper years and took comfort that a more restrained outlook was governing the country and, especially, the economy. Soon enough, however, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction and they have been left to deal with Justin Trudeau. Dealing with the rise of the centre-left in Canada and the rough demise of principled conservatism in America has left them between a rock and hard place and, to date at least, their wait for moderate conservative leadership to rise up both north and south of the border has been a troubled one.
Just like their counterparts on the liberal side, they believed in balance and the idea that open-mindedness in policy issues was the best way to move forward. One wonders if modern politics even runs like that anymore. While global populism veers right, the reality is that Canada and America are becoming more diverse every year, and to try to hold on to the old ways is becoming increasingly harder.
Economist Jed Kolko notes that the most common age of white Americans is 58. For Asians it’s 29, for African Americans it’s 27, and for Hispanics it’s 11. That’s the current state of America, meaning that the future belongs to non-white citizens, and it’s a transformation too far along to reverse or even stop. Canada shows a similar direction. Key historical forces like religion are on the wane, replaced by individual identities relentlessly seeking redress for past injustices or independence from any kind of institutional control. These aren’t easy times to govern.
But a new trend, greater than this, is increasingly making compromise or the finding of common ground impossible. In the recent past, politics was something most Canadians kept private, like religion. Those days are gone. Politics is now everywhere – everywhere – and one can’t escape it. To be interested in politics now means to take a side. As political parties grow farther apart from one another, it means that their supporters are increasingly driven by their dislike for the other side instead of by loyalty to their own party’s policy.
This is a real problem. Volumes of research have been published in recent years revealing that people from one side hold a detrimental view of their opponent, and that this view is, in fact, wrong and misleading. It’s this way on both sides, and it’s ruining any chance of removing the animosity and poison from our party system.
In 2017, a group of political scientists and sociologists, in the largest study of its kind, decided to pay 1,220 Twitter users, who were either Democrat or Republican, to listen to the views of the side they disagreed with in order to see that much of the perception of their opponents was off-base. It was an extensive process, frequently enhanced by regular surveys of the participants. What the team discovered was intriguing and troubling.
Put simply, they learned that attempts to show a better and more open-minded understanding of the other side resulted in increased animosity, not less. The more they discovered of their opponents, even if it dispelled some of their theories, the angrier they became towards them. As the report stressed in its conclusion: “Reading the other side doesn’t change our minds, it deepens our certainty.” This represents, if it continues, the death knell of modern democracy.
This goes against everything that moderate conservatives or liberals believed for decades: The need for common ground to generate effective politics depended on open-mindedness in order to achieve that result. The better educated and more curious a politician was, the more they were likely to comprehend at least part of their opponent’s view. That approach now appears to be passé, replaced by rigid ideological outlooks that only grow more inflamed the more they have to consider other points of view.
What we have witnessed in America recently serves as a timely warning to Canadian politicians: One must seek and build on a better understanding rather than residing in the comforts of one’s own prejudice.
Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 32 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“. Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.