Jonathan Haidt's plea for us to all “just get along” sounds appealing in these times of harsh, often nasty politics. But we should not forget that increasing polarization can also produce political benefits.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt tries to explain the moral origins of the left-right political divide, arguing that the roots of our partisanship lie in moral philosophy. A self-proclaimed progressive, he tries to explain to liberals that the popularity of conservatism cannot simply be dismissed as the result of poor parenting and a wrong-headed world view. He argues that conservatives, like progressives, have deeply held values that shape their approach to politics and religion. Both conservatives and progressives are good people, he contends, trying to do the right thing.

Although Haidt can be a bit wide-eyed in his naïve distaste for acrimony, there is much merit in his research and argument. He sees the political process as the intersection of diverse forces, meeting with mainly good intentions. Without cynicism, he sees the possibility of these forces combining constructively to achieve not only better political outcomes, but to protect and enhance our democratic processes and institutions.

But Haidt warns that stretching those impulses has led many on each side to pathologize the other, resulting in widespread acrimony that is damaging democracy. The practice of labelling relevant, well-rooted activist groups or individuals in extreme terms undermines the fundamental principles of pluralism, personal conscience and respect for diversity, as well as the public’s confidence in democracy.

Haidt’s plea for us to all “just get along” therefore sounds appealing in these times of harsh, often nasty politics. But we should not forget that increasing polarization can also produce political benefits.

The Occupy Movement, for example, is seen by many as divisive and negative. Yet it has mobilized people to question the structural economic inequality between the richest people in the world and the vast majority of us who have no possibility of achieving such wealth. Occupy’s use of the 1% versus the 99% captured people’s imaginations. It expressed a fundamental unfairness that resonated well beyond those who participated in the protests, illustrating how polarizing actions can draw attention to problems that are being ignored, and perhaps even lead to significant changes.

Haidt’s demand for civility among leaders carries a parallel demand for civility across the board. But to what extent would this blunt some of the most basic processes and democratic principles on which we depend? While people of goodwill can easily relate to the call to “just get along,” drawing a hard line in the sand has time and again brought us forward. Environmentalists, unionists, First Nation Peoples, feminists, and even farmers, have been decried by their opponents as “uncivil” when taking actions to improve their lives and those of others in their communities. Their “incivility” was crucial to winning new rights to free association, to organize, to protest and even to vote.

Increased civility in political life cannot amount to sanding down our differences.

Increased civility in political life cannot amount to sanding down our differences. Civility is about managing disagreement, not eliminating it. The response of so many Canadians — partisan, cross-partisan and nonpartisan — to the illness and death of Jack Layton last year spoke to a powerful hunger in many to reject acrimony and hostility in our politics. But while Layton’s letter to Canadians was a “get along moment,” it still retained partisan messaging. His letter, funeral and public memorials had a political message that was about hope, courage and optimism with an undeniable tone of civility. It was also expressly social democratic.

In many ways, The Righteous Mind describes the story of the federal NDP and its successful provincial cousins. Not content with being the “conscience of Parliament,” the NDP have rejected self-righteousness, seeking instead real, practical influence with a focus on winning elections.

So what can Canadian progressives learn from The Righteous Mind?

  1. Partisan anger is blinding and destructive. It is a disservice to us and it does not damage or destroy our opponents’ support. We must reject the knee-jerk demonization of our opponents. Conservatives and their supporters are not the devil incarnate and our supporters and potential supporters deserve principled discussion, not simplistic pejoratives.
  2. Many political decisions are made on the basis of values and are not policy or issue driven. We can remain open to diverse values and opinion in decision-making and in the process create a more open tent and inclusive process. Voters need to know that social democrats care about individuals, families and communities. Authentic personal concern is at the heart of efforts to change the world.
  3. Legitimate and fundamental differences between political parties are productive. They can and should be highlighted without resort to name-calling or personal insults.
  4. Value-driven politics must be more personal.

Partisan politics should not be viewed with distaste but as a way to productively put forward ideas, policies and, yes, that Conservative favourite, values, to build a good society.

Politics is not for the faint-hearted. It is a contact sport, requiring sharp elbows and the ability to take a punch. However, progressives need to remember that those who are not with us won’t be wooed by vicious language. Resorting to nastiness and tit-for-tat invective has the opposite effect. Any party wanting to govern the country must remember that they talk to all Canadians, not just those who support them.

Photo: Shutterstock by SFIO CRACHO