Watching the drama of the US election come to a head last week as protestors stormed the Capitol and this week’s impeachment and 25th amendment discussions has left a lot of us wondering, “Where do we go from here?” Indeed, there are dark waters ahead. In the days between now and Biden’s inauguration, there is still room for trouble. Once he has sworn the oath, the divisions leading to this violent and angry event will not easily be healed.
As Canadians, we must not be too quick to assume we are immune or that we are in any better position.
As Andrew MacDougall points out in this MacLean’s article, both our politicians and our media systems bear responsibility for the polarization that is occurring across our political spectrum. Canadians use the same social media platforms, our news sources follow the same methodologies, our politicians use the same tools to sell their brand, leaving us just as vulnerable to dangerous hyperpartisanship as our southern neighbours.
MacDougall puts the responsibility for fixing this mostly on individuals. Without a doubt, we as individuals bear a responsibility for the accuracy and volatility of the information we consume, create, and disseminate. He even suggests, while he holds his conservative nose, that governments may have to get more involved in regulating news and social media content.
But where has this divisiveness come from and how might we address what has become a systemic problem?
Electoral systems in both the US and Canada are terribly outdated. They were developed in an age when right and left indicated whether you were with the Crown or against it. They were based on a notion that a heavy-handed, majority-rules process was the best way to set policy.
Our winner-take-all electoral systems make polarization virtually inevitable. In both the US and Canada, we can see this playing out. The razor-thin counts that won the Georgia Senate seats in the recent run-offs have given the Democrats full control of the US government. Canada’s Liberals and Conservatives know that a change of 10% in the popular vote is usually more than enough to ensure a majority government.
In reality, and perhaps surprisingly, voters are not that disparate in our political positions. Mark Manson makes a great argument for this idea on his blog: While we may not always agree on how to get there, we tend to broadly agree on policy issues such as balanced budgets, human rights, infrastructure improvements, law and order, and education.
This means that when our politicians are forced to chase after slim margins to get that winner-take-all power, it becomes almost impossible to win on the issues alone. It becomes personal. Divisive. Destructive.
MacDougall argues, correctly, that we need to hold our politicians and media accountable for their behaviour. We need to do better ourselves, to be mindful when we engage with the media and with each other. However, we also need to take this opportunity to demand, again, a proportional representation electoral system that would help reduce the winner-take-all attitude that is increasingly and catastrophically polarizing. This is not a new idea in Canada: Trudeau won his first term in 2015 on the premise that it would be Canada’s “last unfair election.” It’s time to fix this. Let’s not waste the opportunity.