The murder of a Member of Parliament, Sir David Amess, in the United Kingdom this past week was tragic. Sadly it is part of disturbing trend, coming five years after the murder of MP Jo Cox as she was leaving a meeting with constituents. Canadian politicians have, so far, avoided similar violent attacks. But there are glaring examples of federal and provincial representatives, particularly women, who have had to endure hate speech and online violence and harassment. The protests during the recent federal election are also an indication of the more negative and toxic tone that is starting to pollute our political debates.
In the wake of the recent murder there are calls for better security for elected officials. Some have gone as far as to suggest a rethink on the engagement of constituents and voters. But personal dialogue and engagement between elected officials and citizens lies at the heart of our democratic system and we must work to preserve and enhance such efforts. MP and MLAs are accountable to their constituents and if they build a figurative wall around themselves such accountability and the knock-on effects on how our government operates will only get worse.
I recall from my time as an MLA in Nova Scotia that meetings with voters and residents was sometimes challenging, but it also allowed me to keep my ear to the ground and to know what is of importance to them. It was my job to reflect those concerns in the legislature and it was an honour to be their voice in government decision-making.
Recent research and analysis has shown that there are three key variables that are coming together to create a small, but significant, section of society that is being radicalized. A broader group of citizens, but still no more than 15-20% of the population, have bought into a polarized view of our political system, with “winner-takes-all” and a “fight of our lives” mantras.
First, economic inequality has increased in the 21st Century. According to Oxfam, after years of deregulation and tickle-down economics we now have the top 1% of the world’s population holding nearly 50% of the world’s wealth. While fifty-three percent of Canadians are living pay cheque-to-pay cheque, according to a 2019 study.
Second, economic inequality begets political polarization. A study from the US Federal Reserve has shown that there is a strong correlation between increased economic inequality and the rise of political polarization dating back to the beginning of the last century.
Third, the proliferation of social media has added to the increase in political polarization. To start, those that promote extreme positions politically, on both sides of a debate, have access to a much larger online audience, allowing for a greater risk of extreme views (and for a very few, violent action) being implanted on vulnerable citizens. Additionally, according to More in Common (a think tank based in the UK), as more and more debate and conversation amongst citizens moves online, the debate is dominated by the 10% on either side of an issue that are the true believers who do not want to consider compromise or consensus on policy decisions.
However, this means that 80% of the population is prepared to venture into a dialogue on key issues. Perhaps agreement or consensus cannot be found, but the process of engagement with others who may have a different perspective or opinion has value in itself.
This is why MPs and MLAs must continue to engage their constituents, both one-on-one with regard to the issues brought to them and through more creative, less formal means of group discussions. We are losing our ability as a society to have political debates and conversations as we get sucked into the online echo chambers in which we are hearing only from those that have similar thinking or, worse yet, more extreme positions.
No doubt, politicians must also consider how the language they use has an impact of political debate. Those that cross the line into hateful and extreme language or who weaponize misinformation need to be disciplined by their political colleagues. But for the vast majority of elected officials, those that truly want to encourage dialogue and are keen to hear from all their constituents, this is the time to lean in on public discourse. To do otherwise is to pave the way to more polarization, more acts of extremism and the rapid decay in on democratic system.