Attack Politics and the Future of Canadian Political Discourse

Trine Skei Grande, Leader of the Venestre (Liberal) Party of Norway

Children and the Political Environment

In March I attended the Equal Voice conference in Ottawa and sat in on a wonderful keynote speech by the Norwegian Liberal Party leader, Trine Skei Grande. Equal Voice is of course a Canadian organization promoting the inclusion of women in politics. Grande began a wonderful, inspiring speech by mentioning how out of the seven most supported parties in Norway, five are led by women. Gasps rang out in the hall as these words were spoken in Canada where only one out of the five major parties are headed by a woman and where, at the time, women made up less than 25% of Members of Parliament.

Grande tried to explain why there was such a great difference in gender representation between Canada and Norway. She largely argued that Norway had encouraged its women to be integral members of society for years, both at the polling station and in the workforce. I’ve heard the same argument be made of the women of Newfoundland, a province where each of the political parties are currently run by women. Women in Newfoundland played an enormous role in the day to day life of the province in war-time and never let up afterward. The women of Norway similarly entrenched themselves in the fabric of their society.

The most interesting thing that Grande spoke about was the perception children have of their broader social world based on what they see go on within it. From 1990-1996 Norway had a female Prime Minister. Grande recounted how at that time, canvassing politicians could arrive at a door and speak to a boy and a girl and receive a response totally foreign to Canadian politics. Grande mentioned asking a little boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. The boy said ‘Prime Minister’. The young girl next to the boy laughed and said, ‘You can’t be Prime Minister. Only girls can be Prime Minister’.

Youth and the Political Environment

Only a few weeks earlier I attended a youth political convention and gained a lot of different experiences and insights but one that stayed in my mind after hearing Grande speak weeks later was about how engaged youth often respond to politics.

I spoke with a number of the youth who attended and conversations typically found their way to the topic of the coming federal election and what youth needed to do for the party when it arrived. At one point I witnessed a conversation in which someone suggested making attack videos featuring the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, some mention of a terrible action he undertook in office, and finishing the whole piece off by calling him ‘Stephen Mubarak’, referencing the Egyptian leader who at the time of the convention had just been ousted.

Attack Ads, Imprinting, and Limbo Politics

Society laments the lack of participation of youth in general but specifically in the political process. When teenagers (and those slightly older) do get involved, they often join youth wings of political parties. I’ve noticed that youth involved with political parties almost instinctively turn into pitbulls for those parties, mindlessly parroting party talking points and (viciously) attacking their opponents. Not only do they take up this role, they relish it. And the older party members seem to both expect it and count on it so that they may stay slightly above the fray since they are the respectable ones in office.

This is not true of all youth in politics nor of the older members of parties. But it does happen. While this is a problem in itself, it is worsened by the fact that older politicians seem to be increasingly crouching deeper into the mud that politicians now regularly sling at one another. If politically involved youth are to be even more aggressive than their elders to fulfill their attack dog role, they will come to understand politics as a purely negative environment. They will decide that the rules of limbo are applicable to politics, that the lower one goes the better.

This does not begin when youth join the youth wing of their preferred party. It begins much earlier and to a much broader audience, that being whole generations of Canadian citizens. When Grande spoke of a little girl who thought only a woman could be Prime Minister the girl thought that because it was the only reality she had known in her short life. She looked out at society and saw the political configuration at the time and inferred the rules of that society. Canadian children are no different.

Youth involved in political parties in Canada today seem to be increasingly showing signs of the psychological concept of imprinting, best seen in the animal world where infant animals learn specific survival behaviours from their parents simply by watching and mimicking the actions of those parents. Youth today have grown up in a political climate of televised Question Period, minority government (until this year), and attack ads. And they have so far seen no proof that parties are punished for their antics in the House, on the airwaves or in politics in general. They have been raised in a politically negative climate and are reproducing that environment in their own political actions. It is no surprise that youth now compare the Prime Minister of Canada with dictators because only months later during the election, Members of Parliament themselves made the same comparison towards an opposition leader.

Raising the Bar on Political Discourse

Instead of pursuing limbo politics, politicians and Canadians in general should aim for a political discourse that better resembles high jump. It seems that at this point in our political society, most have given up on the current crop of politicians and expect the youth of today to somehow drag the entire political process out of the mud and back to respectability. However, it is hard to see this happening when they are learning and being trained by those who have the power to demand enlightened discourse right now but aim for sound bites instead, as if a 30-second clip is the stuff from which legacies and countries are built.

The negative impact our current political environment has on our society is upsetting. But it pales in comparison to the future political world it is informing and imprinting on the next generation of politicians and voters. If today’s politicians do not step up and demand legitimate, respectful discourse, the ones that follow them won’t know how to.

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