Monday, October 26, 2015

Stop partisanship!

"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Luke 6:27-28 ).

Partisanship is, without doubt, one of the most serious political problems. This term describes how political parties and politicians rip each other apart, especially at election time. Unfortunately, this problem is getting worse. In some countries, it is endemic and never seems to stop.

Partisanship is so serious that it threatens democracy itself. Democracy cannot function in a toxic environment that is marked by hatred and enmity. Compromise is what makes politics possible, but the type of hyperpartisanship that exists in certain countries preclude even the possibility of compromise.

In the recent Canadian federal election, partisanship played a prominent role and contributed to the defeat of Stephen Harper's Conservative party which has practiced it for a long time. A majority of Canadians voted against partisanship and for a return to a healthier politics.

Justin Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal party which won the election, rejected the negativity that marked the campaign and promised a new attitude. While the Conservative campaign focussed on dividing Canadians, the Liberals preached unity.

Many Canadians have remarked, even before the new government was installed, that they already discerned a new spirit in the country. The divisiveness that marked the Conservative era seems to be gone. Trudeau set the tone in his victory speech on election night.

Harper's entire tenure as prime minister was marked by partisanship. Everything became politicized: it was always us against them. Politicians from other parties were regarded as the enemy. In fact, anyone who disagreed with Harper was treated the same way.

Harper also turned ethnic groups against each other. This is illustrated best by the niqab issue directed against Muslims. At the end of the campaign, he associated himself with the infamous Ford brothers in Toronto, who are noted for being hyperpartisan.

Harper, in desperation, hoped that the "Ford nation" would align itself with the Conservatives, but this did not happen. Instead, many Muslims and other ethnic groups rejected partisanship and voted against the Conservatives.

This sort of partisanship is largely imported from the US. While partisanship is not unknown in Canada, this fierce hyperpartisanship is foreign to a parliamentary system that allows for many political parties to be represented in Parliament, unlike the presidential system in the US where two parties are dominant and voters register as one or the other, although independent is also an option.

Any political system is adversarial by nature, but it does not have to be partisan to the degree that is evident especially in the US. The Canadian Parliament seats parties opposite each other as much as possible.

In Canada, as in Britain, the House and Senate chambers are separated by an aisle that is two sword lengths wide. Such a martial spirit is not common in Canada, where the only duels are fought with words.

Partisanship in the US has reached such heights that Congress has become largely unfunctional. The Tea Party is perhaps the most extreme example of partisanship since they not only refuse to cooperate in any way with Democrats but they reject any Republicans who do not endorse them.

The 2016 election is still more than a year away, but the Republican swords are already out for Hilary Clinton. The House Select Committee on Benghazi has met for 18 months now and they are relentless in their grilling of the former Secretary of State and leading Democratic candidate for the presidency.

The enmity between these two parties is palpable. This partisanship is due in part to the US having only two parties that count. But that does not explain the vehemence involved, especially on the part of Republicans.

As a person of faith, what concerns me, in particular, is the way Christians (and some people of other faiths) support and even encourage partisanship. It makes me wonder where their true allegiance lies: with the party or their faith?

Fortunately, there are always people who transcend partisanship. They are capable of forming friendships across party lines. That is the way it should be. Political opponents should not be treated as the enemy, but rather as colleagues who together can craft legislation that benefits the entire country.

When partisanship reigns supreme, there is no room for beneficial legislation. Instead, narrow interests driven largely by ideology or economics are the only beneficiaries. Obamacare is vilified by some Republicans in part because they despise the president. In this case, there may even be an element of unacknowledged racism that lurks under the surface.

Conservatives espouse small government, but this should not come at the price of cutting necessary services. A belief in low taxes must not benefit the wealthiest most of all. Instead, the poorest must be taken care of properly, not just those who contribute the most to political campaigns.

Where is the love of neighbor that Jesus teaches? However, Jesus goes further. He commands us to love our enemies, to bless them, and to pray for them. This is unheard of today!

Love does not leave any room for the sort of partisanship that is evident in the US and is now being exported to Canada. Hyperpartisanship is impossible those who sincerely want to obey this injunction.

Loving our enemies is difficult, but it is the only way for people to live and work together, especially when they are in close proximity, Justin Trudeau realized that when he in his victory speech he said, "Conservatives are not our enemies, they are our neighbors." If our political opponents are also our neighbors, then the partisanship that we witness in both the US and Canada should be ended.

Stop partisanship! That ought to be our cry today. Stop treating those who have different political views as the enemy. Instead, we should love them.

Admittedly, the word "love" sounds strange in the political arena or many other areas of life today. Such language is foreign to most people, but it is the language that is required in a pluralistic society where people of different faiths, different ethnic groups, different languages, and different political opinions live side-by-side. We must love each other. There is no other way to survive.

"Stop partisanship!" For the US, that means, for example, stop the Tea Party, Donald Trump, and others from dominating the political platform. These people are extremists who do not deserve much public support since their message is a negative one that is focussed on fear and even outright hatred.

Within one year in Canada, the political tone changed with the defeat of Rob Ford, as the mayor of Toronto, and Stephen Harper, as the prime minister of Canada. Trudeau has earnestly promised to usher in a new era that is marked by unity rather than divisiveness. 

In saying this, Trudeau follows in the footsteps of the late Jack Layton, former leader of the New Democratic Party whose quote has become iconic: "My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world."

Layton's closing triad is similar to St. Paul's even more famous one: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:11).

If we truly want to change the world, let us begin by eradicating partisanship. The only way to do that is through love. Am I being too naive when I cry, "Stop Partisanship!"? I hope not! And I hope you agree!

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