Taking a lesson from American politics

First published: October 30, 2008

The presidential debate between Republican candidate John McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama last week provide some useful tools to think about this week’s federal election debate between party leaders.

As pundits dissected the American debate in detail over the weekend, a couple of things were pretty clear. Debates are no longer about ideas or policies; it is about winners and losers. No sooner could analysts draw a breath, then the discussion was about who won the debate. They were looking for a “knock out” blow that never happened. Even CNN uses a logo for its debates that look like a boxing match poster.

What is truly sad for democracy is the lack of respect politicians and mass media pay to voters. Strategists view citizens as consumers who are buying a political brand. Politics is laundry soap. We get new and improved policies sold by smiling pitchmen and saleswomen, who think we only care about shinier, brighter, get my taxes cleaner or whatever is the message of the day. Forget that we are intelligent, concerned people who are desperately worried about our future, or about the ability to get a doctor, or making a living, or holding a job, or kids getting an education and so forth. We are just an amorphous mass to be polled and then manipulated.

But what is more frightening is how the Conservative Party is borrowing from the playbook of the Republicans.

One terrifying aspect of the presidential debate was McCain’s performance, which was described by some pundits as mean-spirited, impatient and angry. He seemed to focus on belittling Obama by saying his ideas were naïve or ill-informed. His favourite line was: “What Senator Obama does not realize…” or “…does not understand” or “…does not appreciate”. Then, there was the smirk McCain gave when Obama was trying to make a point. But, what was most disconcerting was how McCain ignored Obama – he never looked at him.

There is no need in modern politics to display a host of negative emotions towards one’s political adversaries. Certainly, in dealing with partisan politics, strong feelings are often displayed. One only needs to watch a leadership contents within a political party to witness the tears, hurt and pain caused when a favourite candidate loses. Hillary Clinton is one most recent American examples.

But that is internal politics, not the public kinds of politics average citizens are involved in when it comes time for an election. Calling each other liars is ridiculous and not helpful when trying to understand party policies. The Conservative Party’s use of negative advertising (often distorting reality and peddling half-truths) before and during the campaign is reprehensible. And, while strategists say it works, it does NOT help one understand how the Conservatives will deal with doctor shortages or surgery wait times. Like McCain, Prime Minister Stephan Harper is gaining traction by hurting his opponents, putting them down. If his policies and plans are so wonderful, then let them stand. Let us see the differences and vote for something rather than against someone.

Politics today appears to be more about personality, not policy. It is insulting when Harper is dressed in a light blue sweater and we are all suppose to think he is a different man. He takes Canadians to his high school reunion and we are supposed to be sucked in to believing he is just an “average guy”. Canadians do not need ordinary people to run this country. We need outstanding individuals, with a vision for our future, a plan for our economy and the ability to stand up for important principles within the world so we don’t end up blowing ourselves into the next Kingdom.

McCain’s most despicable act was ignoring Obama. While it was not overt, this could easily be seen as a form of racism. To not look his opponent in the eyes, was to strip away his dignity and his humanity. This was a forum for civil discourse about the important issues of the day and McCain could barely muster the integrity to deal with his opponent as an equal.

Most notably, Obama was the opposite. As Michael Seitzman said in his column in the Huffington Post, a well-respected online newspaper, Obama showed grace, something that is all but gone in modern politics. By grace, he is talking about a disposition of kindness and compassion. It is the ability to express oneself without falsehood or insincerity, but in a respectful manner.

Obama spoke directly to McCain each time. He acknowledges ideas that were correct, but pointed out important difference, giving citizens a clear picture of policy. Nothing could be more helpful to a voter.

As Canadian prepare for the debate this week, we are lucky to have an excellent yardstick to measure our political leadership. Will we watch as candidates bash and yell at each other in some kind of verbal grudge match reminiscent of professional wrestling or will we see the respect given as they outline their party platforms? The same standards must apply to our local debates, as well. Without this, nobody deserves our vote.

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