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The Problem With Political Polarization

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MPs watched in disbelief last Wednesday as Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan faced-off against his NDP counterpart, Nathan Cullen, and Party Leader Thomas Mulcair.

Right in front of the Speaker, just to one side of the aisle down the middle of the House of Commons, they went at it hammer-and-tong. No actual punches were thrown, but on both sides, the crude insults and the aggressive body language were decidedly "unparliamentary."

The altercation followed a fairly minor procedural argument. But it reflects a deeper problem.

Since the last election, both the Conservatives and the NDP have pursued a strategy of partisan polarization. Their explicit objective is to drive all other participants off the political playing-field, so they can have it all to themselves. You see that strategy unfolding every day in the bitter polarizing tactics they both employ.

They argue that polarization would make politics so much "simpler" for Canadians. Every issue would be reduced to a mutually-exclusive two-way choice. No bothersome complications or nuances. No need to compromise. Everything would be straight-forward -- right vs. left, black vs. white, good vs. bad.

Simpler? Maybe. But better? Not so much.

A classic illustration of what you get from polarization can be seen south of the border. Americans are deeply divided between the Tea Party mentality on the right and the Occupy Movement on the left. Their political atmosphere is toxic. Decision-making is paralyzed.

Accommodation is seen as weakness. Even on the most critical issues -- like their looming "fiscal cliff" -- polarized politics in the U.S. makes them incapable of finding solutions that rise above divisiveness to earn broad-based support.

That's because polarization is all about driving wedges, not building bridges. It's about pushing people apart, into fiercely opposing camps, not pulling them together in common endeavour. It feeds off searing conflict. It gets personal. You learn not just to oppose the other side, but to hate them. Your goal is not just to defeat them, but to destroy them -- because polarization teaches you that you are "righteous" and the other guy is not.

And here's another damaging consequence. The deep-seated conflict that lies at the heart of polarized politics truly appeals to only a small number of the most extreme partisans, on one side and the other, who relish the constant fight. People like Van Loan, Cullen, Mulcair and Harper -- it turns them on.

But it also turns off large numbers of Canadians generally. They don't hold extreme views. Perpetual campaigning is not their thing. They don't like polarization or the hatred it breeds. So they just drop out of the political process altogether. They are the ones who stay home on election day.

But here's the good news!

Canada is far too complex a country -- too subtle and nuanced, too fundamentally decent, too full of hope and ambition -- to be content for very long with the polarizing wedge politics of division, greed, fear and envy.

People will look for something better. The greater Canadian instinct is to want to pull together to achieve goals that are bigger and more worthy.

The future will belong to those who blaze that trail.

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