In the past, politicians could be adversaries in civil debates without being enemies. They could reject each other’s arguments without attacking them as people. They could debate facts and lines of logic with vigor and humor, without the vicious mockery and, more and more, outright profanity that’s heard in the House of Commons. They could quibble over their interests without attacking their opponents’ patriotism. Canada’s Parliament has never been an academy of selfless Solons tirelessly reflecting on the public good. Six years after Confederation, a journalist wrote: “At Ottawa, little enough is done in the way of practical legislation for the country, but the struggle of parties is carried on vigorously, with a shrill accompaniment of organs on both sides.” Still, there was a sense of collegiality, perhaps inspired by the fact that Ottawa was a forlorn place and the city was awash in booze.
Now politics is seen as war by another means, with control of patronage and public spending as the prize. In places where politicians look on each other as enemies, “legislatures replace relevance with pure partisanship. Party discipline rules supreme, fraternization is frowned upon, negotiation and compromise are rarely practiced, and debate within the chamber becomes as venomously personal as it is politically meaningless,” Ignatieff told his American audience.
And when political opponents – or any other group -- are cast as enemies of the popular interest, it’s not much of a leap to label them as enemies of the people and enemies of the state: Anne Coulter, the American right-wing controversialist, has made a good living doing precisely that, peddling books attacking liberals, giving the books titles like Treason, Demonic, Guilty, and High Crimes and Misdemeanors. “Fascism took the fatal step from a politics of adversaries into a politics of enemies,” Ignatieff, still hurting from his own electoral beating, warned. “We are not there yet, but it is worth remembering that the fatal declension occurred in a democracy not so dissimilar to our own, in a society plagued by economic crisis, among a battered population looking for someone to blame.”
Democratic politics requires compromise, often a dirty business that can shock and horrify those of us who rarely find the need to hold our noses and make deals with people we don’t particularly like, don’t agree with, and want to see fail. It’s one of the skills that lawyers need, which partly explains why lawyers move so easily into political life. But today’s “politics as war” conjures up ingrained concepts of unconditional surrender, scorched earth, take no prisoners, and divides outcomes into victory or defeat. The idea of compromise for the good of the public disappears pretty fast. High-functioning sociopaths flourish in this environment.