(Graham McKitrick, Queen’s University)
Five days before the U.S election, presidential historian Brooks Simpson said that the election would “go down as one of the most divisive races in American history.” A year and a half later, the Washington Post called the UK’s referendum decision to leave the European Union a “divisive vote.” This notion of divisiveness is often attributed to politics, whether it be certain speakers, issues, or election results. It is, ironically, an issue that crosses party lines – a candidate that positions themselves as bipartisan will often see more success in moderate jurisdictions, and since most electoral jurisdictions are predominantly moderate, bipartisan candidates are often viewed favourable. Most surprisingly, it seems more difficult to have political conversations with friends or family, even though these people are not considered such merely for the contents of their political beliefs.
So why is politics so divisive, and what can be done to fix what the majority of people think is a problem? Apart from the hyperpartisan fringe groups, political beliefs have not undergone a dramatic shift away from the middle. Instead, the methods of discourse used in political discourse has, and moving away from assumptions about motivations and focusing on the contents of policy proposals eliminates most divisiveness present in political discourse.
It was recently argued to me that before the current political era, both sides agreed on the goals they wished to achieve within whatever country they were in, and merely disagreed on the methods of achieving these goals. The argument proceeded by stating that these days, politics is divisive because the shared goals changed. This is an interesting thought, and there is a plethora of examples where the moderate elements on both sides of whichever aisle disagree on the fundamental goals related to the issue they wish to pursue.
At first glance, it seems the goals of those on the left and those on the right differ when discussing immigration. The left wishes to solve the demographic decline and create a more diverse and open society, while the right wishes to restrict immigration and work on the issues that face their country rather than bring in people from other, less fortunate countries. Decriminalization of marijuana, also, seems like an issue where the core goal differs: those in favour wish to expand people’s freedom to do what they wish. In contrast, those against wish to protect society from what they see as a potentially dangerous substance. The same can be said for the issue of deficits, or the issue of censorship, or the issue of public funding for the arts. All these issues seem to point to the divisiveness of politics being the fault of irreconcilable differences between the different sides. However, this is only the case if the issues are represented in an irreconcilable way!
In fact, all of the issues previously mentioned share commonalities between positions. Both sides of the immigration debate wish to maintain a healthy amount of legal immigration, but disagree on the quantity. Both sides of the marijuana debate wish to get the freedom-safety balance right, but disagree on where the balance lies. On deficits both sides want to maintain responsible finances while using the reach of the government to help those in need, but disagree on how long that reach should be. On censorship, both sides wish to preserve freedom of speech but disagree on what should be censored, and on public art both sides wish to use public funds to the benefit of the public, but disagree on whether funding art is benefitting society. In fact, in almost every political issue, there is a common goal at the heart of the issue that nearly everyone agrees on. The problem of divisive politics is found in how the issues are presented and discussed, not the specific policies themselves.
Many casual observers of politics would argue that public political engagement is heated. Often the most divisive political figures portray the other side as evil, completely wrong, an ideologue, or motivated by personal gain. To attack the contents of a person’s motivation is divisive, but to attack the contents of a person’s policy suggestions is not. If political language is personal, of course politics becomes divisive, but if political language is driven by policy, it becomes as divisive as the natural sciences— which is something to strive for.
Cross, Jim. “Historian: Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton one of most divisiv elections in US history.” KTAR News. 3 November 2016.
Noack, Rick. “A year after a divisive vote, doubts are mounting in a town that went overwhelmingly for Brexit.” The Washington Post. 23 June 2017.