I didn’t think political alignment mattered much until I came to the United States for university and got to see partisanship in practice. In Toronto, it was assumed that most people you meet would identify as Liberal, and few Conservative supporters dared to announce their party identification. Although I didn’t know it at the time, polarization had already reached Canada.
The myth of Canadian exceptionalism, as well as our multiparty parliamentary democracy (Canada.ca), might seem like safeguards against the global rise of antagonistic and adversarial sentiments, but in reality, it is among one of the many factors that contribute to the increase in affective polarization in Canada and its subsequent erosion of Canadian democracy.
Political polarization is traditionally seen as “a shift in the distribution of public opinion such that there are fewer people in the middle and more people at the ends of the ideological spectrum.” (CBC) When applied to Canadian politics, it can be seen that polarization by this definition is not taking place. According to a study conducted by the Canadian Elections Studies, ideological polarization is not seen in Canadian politics, as “we’d see more people identifying as extremes, but a lot of people are still largely centrist.” (CBC) Thus, a more nuanced definition of polarization is needed for the Canadian case.
Following in the steps of Murat Somer and Jennifer McCoy, I argue that polarization is becoming increasingly more relational and diverging from the common ideological polarization it became known for and finding new territory in social and interpersonal polarization. In simpler terms, it’s not that parties or voters have moved away from the middle, but that we have moved away from trying to find middle/common ground. The space of empathy and willingness to understand is decreasing at an exponential pace, as “1 in 4 Canadians hate their political opponents.” (Maclean’s) Richard Johnston of the University of British Colombia calls this affective polarization, also known as partisan sorting, which “divides electorates into mutually antagonistic “us” vs. “them” camps and collapses normal cross-cutting interests and identities into two mutually exclusive identities.” (Somer, McCoy) As more and more Canadians associate and conflate parties with ideas of morality and identity, political discussions have become a bloodbath where there are no winners and no survivors.
Scholars have put forth many reasons and factors for why affective polarization might be growing. Some attribute it to the rise of social media and growing online incivility while others emphasize the impact of politicians taking advantage of pre-existing social cleavages or using an antagonist framing as a tactic. In a Canadian setting, polarization is an unsurprising outcome when we consider the nature of competition amongst parties, our history of clashing cultural and ideological identities, and the era of moral and political superiority that Canada is in right now.
Structurally, since most established political parties in Canada all congregate within the center of the political spectrum, there is an always present need to distinguish oneself from another party. Especially during an important election season, many politicians may forgo forbearance, an important guard of democratic processes, and senselessly attack the opposition, for example, labeling actions or policy initiatives as “un-Canadians”. Furthermore, as parties became more defined ideologically throughout recent decades (Johnston), the implementation of positional narratives and comparative strategies have become more common in Canada, as well as voters feeling the pressure to identify themselves. Journalist Sarmishta Subramanian described it best when they remarked, “conservative voters are not actually becoming more conservative; more of them are just identifying as Conservative.” (Samara Centre and The Walrus)
As our existence in a political society becomes more and more ingrained in comparisons to morality and what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, citizens become discouraged from participating in politics as the cost of participation also increases. The fear of being “called out” significantly decreases political participation and engagement, as seen in a Samara Centre report that found “47% of Canadian social media users stay out of online political conversations because they’re worried they’ll get criticized.” (Samara Centre) Thus, reducing the pool of informed and conscious voters in a democratic system. Political actors are also negatively impacted by increasing polarization. According to a report published by the Samara Centre for Democracy, former Members of Parliament listed “extreme partisanship, hollow caucus deliberation, inability to check party leaders, intense peer pressure and the diminishment of local parties” (Samara Centre) as the detriments of extreme polarization and partisanship in Canadian politics. Clearly, affective polarization harms both political actors and voters.
Moreover, as more politicians forgo forbearance and attack their opposition, citizens will become desensitized to viewing other political parties and their supporters as not only wrong morally, but threats to our democracy. Pertinent issues also become dragged into this toxicity in the process, with topics like abortion and immigration being labeled as a “Liberal issue” despite its effect on all citizens of Canada. The perception that our parties have more differences than similarities also prevents and discourages collaboration, and seeing that only 12% of Canadians have a lot of trust in political parties (Environics Institute), it’s clear that affective polarization leads to the denigration of democratic norms and respect for political opposition and diversity.
So, what can be done? First, we must understand that narrative matters. Even though all Canadian parties face the need to distinguish themselves from the other more or less centrist parties, forbearance must be prioritized and practiced. When politicians label the actions of other parties as “un-Canadian”, citizens are conditioned into thinking parties and their supporters as “un-Canadian”. Furthermore, when parties and politicians dwell and focus on the differences between parties in terms of morals or beliefs instead of policies, voters can be swayed to view politics and political actions as mutually exclusive and diametrically opposed, when in reality most parties share more in common than they do differences. In short, we must keep our political actors accountable for the language they use and the culture of negativity they choose to create.
Second, and fundamentally speaking, there needs to be a better societal understanding of what healthy and productive political discourse and clash look like. As Somer and McCoy point out, “positive polarization” and a healthy level of competition are the fuel of democracy, as a critical populace can provide differing opinions and pressure on the status quo. At the same time, we must prioritize political collaboration, and educate all political actors on the importance of seeing political opponents as competition and not enemies. The importance of collective decision-making in maintaining democracy must not be overlooked.
Lastly and on a concluding note, Canadians must confront the fact that our political landscape is just as capable of democratic backsliding as the United States. We must maintain and support efforts to hold our politicians, parties, and narratives accountable, and admit wrongdoing and threats to our democracy when they arise. Only then will we begin to create the Canada that we are so proud to brag about.