Policy vs Person in Politics: The Peril

Politics has never been easy.

Being in the public eye, particularly when one is representing a political party, ideology and/or agenda, opens one to criticism and scrutiny, and this has always been true. But in recent years the descent into outright hostility seems almost unprecedented, much of it likely having to do with the easy anonymity of social media and lack of consequences for words said in on online forums. Politics, which has never been easy and on occasion has been quite nasty, has somehow managed to get even far more unpleasant.

A recent report showing Albertan Premier Rachel Notley as the most-threatened Premier in Alberta history seems to lend credence to this evolution:

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It’s troubling on many levels, particularly when one sees instances of abusive behaviour dismissed as simply being acceptable or understandable because they involve politicians; and these abusive acts don’t end at attacks on ideology but extend into attacks on character, person and on occasion even spill over into threats against the families of the politicians.

Society has long been founded on the premise that there exists some sense of decorum in our interaction with each other as human beings, no matter where we lie on the political spectrum. It is based on some fundamental respect for each other as people, whether or not we share the same political beliefs, and it is predicated on the notion that we do not need to dive into personal insults or, even worse, threats, to engage in reasonable discourse on the issues.

But social media has changed that in many ways, and we are seeing it again and again and again. Whether it is municipal, provincial, or national, we seem unable to separate difference of political belief from our emotional state, leading to the use of aggressive language, occasionally including veiled and overt threats to the safety of those involved.

And when those who object to this abuse publicly state they will not tolerate, accept or understand it, they are deemed wimps for not just taking it – sometimes even by elected officials.

And the real trouble is this: the current pattern of behaviour is a strong deterrent to anyone thinking of entering the political realm. People like my daughter, for instance.

My daughter was involved in her first political campaign at the age of 12. She spoke to voters, she dropped literature on hundreds of doorsteps, she knocked on doors, she wrote her first press release, she attended debates and she was there on election night watching the results. I don’t know how many kids have had CBC news alerts installed on their cell phone since they were old enough to own a cell phone, but she did. She is the kind of kid who can speak to a provincial politician and walk away saying “nice guy, but I don’t think he really understands NAFTA”.

Any political party would be fortunate to find her in their ranks, as she is smart, loyal, dedicated, committed and frankly a strong strategist. Once upon a time she talked about getting involved in politics, but as she has grown older her interest has waned, and as she begins to apply at universities I see her heading down the path towards a future that does not include involvement in politics, at least as a candidate representing the rest of us.

And why?

Because she doesn’t see why anyone would subject themselves to the kind of vitriol and nastiness we are seeing politicians of all stripes endure, but often particularly women.

I blame all of us, the ones who are old enough to know better. Our behaviour is actively discouraging bright, engaged and passionate young people from political life, and it will be to our detriment. Politicians should not be rock stars, and should not be safe from all criticism; but nor should they be subjected to the kind of abusive and aggressive behaviour we are seeing far too often in this world. There are ways to disagree on policy without delving into the personal, and ways to discuss ideology without resorting to insult; and every single one of us needs to find a way to embrace them as our political futures are fading fast as young adults like my daughter turn away from public life.

If we want to understand why youth turn away from politics; from engaging in our system including voting, then we need look no further than ourselves every time we contribute to an atmosphere that would discourage any sane individual from taking part. Politics should always be about asking the hard questions on policy, but the moment it degenerates into personal commentary it loses all credibility. Respectful debate and discourse should be the standard to which we all aspire and which we encourage; to do anything less panders to a culture of anger, aggression and divisiveness.

When young adults like my daughter – the very people we should want to encourage to enter the political realm – choose to opt out, we need to understand we are imperiling our future. My daughter, who plans to pursue an education in science, has long thought those with a science background are under-represented in our political sphere and thought she may be one of those to address this. Given the current state, however, I fear this imbalance will continue as bright young adults eschew politics for careers in which they are not subject to abuse, aggression or threats to their physical safety.

The responsibility lies with all of us. As long as we tolerate, accept or understand this behaviour we allow it to continue, and we allow it to form future discourse in politics. Unless we address it every single time we are tacitly encouraging it, and further discouraging others from entering a realm that impacts our collective future.

The problem is clear; the only question that remains is if we believe in a society that is free of abuse, aggression and threats, including in the world of politics.

I know what I believe; do you?

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