Elections Are Not ‘War by Other Means’

by Maxwell A. Cameron
Professor, Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, University of British Columbia

The Mark, April 13 2011

Competition is good. It makes us better, stronger, and more successful. This mantra is widely accepted in business and politics. It enjoys an aura of scientific respectability: Darwin’s survival of the fittest suggests that competition is not only good – it is natural.

But the great evolutionary advantage enjoyed by humans arises from our capacity for co-operation, not competition. Great civilizations have never been built on competition alone. The human capacity for empathy, for social problem-solving, and for moral judgment are the foundation of human progress. Without our ability to imitate, collaborate, learn, and understand one another, we would have developed neither language nor tools, neither art nor, indeed, war.

Yet over and again, our public discourse emphasizes conflict and competition over empathy and co-operation. Tom Flanagan’s claim in a recent commentary in The Globe and Mail that “an election is war by other means” is a good example of this bias. Since all is fair in love and war, why should we worry when politicians attack each other, bend or misrepresent the truth, and present themselves, not their ideas, before the electorate? To think otherwise is high-mindedness, says Flanagan.

Curiously, Flanagan quotes Aristotle to back up his argument. But Aristotle was a “do the right thing” kind of guy, not a mean-spirited bully. He thought politics was about finding the common good, about doing what was right for one’s self and one’s community. Flanagan should have quoted Machiavelli instead – although I hasten to add that there are even readings of Machiavelli that would suggest the imprudence of the “election is war” mantra.

More to the point, contemporary political science has increasingly moved away from the idea that politics has any natural essence. It is not “like war” or “like nature.” It is what we make of it. If politicians race to the moral bottom, then political life suffers. There is nothing inevitable or natural about this.

Politics requires the exercise of political and moral judgment. An election is not a war by other means. It is a process of selecting leaders on the basis of their capacity to assume responsibility, to know their ethical limits, and to have the empathy to understand and serve the public well. If they can’t exhibit these qualities during an election, they certainly won’t in power.

When we treat politics like war, our adversaries become enemies. They are no longer collaborators as well as competitors in a struggle to serve the common good, but nuisances or worse. They must be crushed or eliminated. This is indeed a step toward war.

Campaigns are not only about selecting leaders. Our deliberative institutions are weakened when we obsessively focus on the horse race among leaders and ignore the platforms they propose to implement. There is nothing particularly high-minded about the expectation that substantive debate occur around an election. We want to know not only who is going to govern us but also how they are going to govern us.

One of the reasons we are in this election campaign is precisely because of the contempt for Parliament exhibited by a government that does not accept that truth in politics matters and that ministerial responsibility is an inherent and indispensable part of our system of government – a government that thinks it is OK to bully top civil servants into submission, punish whistleblowers, and hide from accountability.

Flanagan is right in one respect: Going negative does work. This is why Canadians who are tired of the incivility of politics should speak out. The trend toward attack-style politics is not irreversible. We get the politicians we deserve and, if we think we deserve better, we should express a little more outrage about the tenor of political life.

The last thing we should do is encourage nastiness. We need look no further than Flanagan’s own words to see what happens when we fail to hold ourselves to standards of civil discourse. Not long ago he publicly, albeit fatuously, called for the assassination of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, on national television.

Flanagan’s words brought to mind an observation by political philosopher J.G.A. Pocock. He said that when Shakespeare’s Brutus calls Caesar a tyrant, he “invokes a whole world of reference structures, into which his other words, his intended act, and his verbalized state of consciousness now enter in such a way that it qualifies them all; so that ‘Caesar,’ ‘kill,’ ‘intend,’ and even ‘I’ take on new meanings retrodictively as they enter the world that ‘tyrant’ invokes.”

Pocock went on to make a memorable observation: “Because of the magical quality of speech, the worlds you invoke are likely to appear around you.”

One can only hope that Canadian democracy does not start to appear more like the worlds invoked by the words of Flanagan.

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