Witnessing the current state of affairs in our great neighbour to the south, the word polarization leaps to the tongue. In a previous post I suggested what we call polarization is really the right-wing of the conservative movement running off the rails into extremism.

The current behaviour of the Republicans in Congress supports that view. Not only have they feuded with the Democrats but now they are feuding among themselves. Their right-wing fringe in the House of Representatives recently decapitated its own caucus, firing the Speaker of the House. A polarizing party is now polarizing itself.

A recent article in The New York Times discusses polarization at length referring to “affective polarization,” defined as the animosity between parties independent of policy differences, a condition affecting both the political parties and supporters of the parties in the general public.

The article suggested that the U.S. was exhibiting the greatest polarization among Western nations. Polarization has risen in others, including Canada, but less, and in some, including Japan, Australia, Britain, Norway, Sweden, and Germany, it has actually fallen.

The reasons for greater polarization in the U.S. included the following (with some suggestions of mine why we have been less affected in brackets):

  • Partisan cable TV—more important than social media. (Fortunately we don’t have an equivalent of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.)
  • A failure of leadership. (Trump is the major problem here and we, thank god, don’t have a Trump.)
  • The loss of good jobs and their replacement by precariat jobs, a trend aggravated by the decline in labor unions. (We, too, have seen this but to a lesser degree and it is somewhat alleviated by our superior social programs.)
  • White people seeing themselves becoming a minority. (Doesn’t seem to be a factor here.)
  • The Christian right becoming a major political force—“especially important.” The article suggests it is turning the Republicans into a white Christian nationalist party. (We simply don’t have the numbers of Evangelical Christians they do and our Catholics seem more moderate.)
  • The progress of cultural liberalization. (Canadians seem much more accepting of such items as abortion and gay marriage, perhaps largely due to fewer Evangelical Christians.)
  • The two-party system that collapses issues and cultural differences into conflict between the “in” party and the “out” party. The article compares this to the proportional representation systems used in most Western countries which offer more opportunities for nuance of opinion and compromise. (We lack PR but may be spared much of the “us and them” by the presence of three viable parties plus a fourth in Quebec.)
  • Lack of a major public broadcaster. (The U.S. has a public broadcaster but with limited funding it is confined to a niche audience. Here, as in most other Western countries, our public broadcaster is a major source of news. This is a critically important point when you consider the leader of the opposition wants to rid us of the CBC.)
  • The length of political campaigns and their loud, negative messages. (Indeed, the campaign for their presidential election is already under way even though it’s well over a year away. Fortunately, we only have to listen to negative electioneering for a fraction of that time.)
  • Many Americans believing some groups shouldn’t even be included in the body politic. The article suggests that polarization began after the Civil Rights Act was passed. (This was certainly a problem in this country at one time, but I believe we are well past it.)
  • Far greater inequality in the U.S. than other Western countries. Inequality does erode the health of a country with an increase in social ills. (Inequality, and social ills, are far less here.)

We lack many of these factors and those we share are generally less intense. Consequently what polarization we do have is a milder version. We don’t have a faction of our Conservative party engaging in the madness of the Republican Party fringe, although party leader Poilievre does a pale imitation of it at times with his negative style and his tiresome attacks on the PM, threats to trash the CBC and fire the president of the Bank of Canada. He will bear watching.

One thought on “Why are we less polarized than the U.S.?”
  1. As always, Bill, thank you for the bird’s eye view, making some sense out of this particular present chaos!

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