Us vs. Them

In a divided era, one things seems to unite: political anger

WHEN ABRAHAM LINCOLN was chosen as a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1858, he delivered an address to his colleagues that included the phrase, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Some of his supporters thought the blatant ­reference to the schism between pro- and anti-slavery advocates would be too provocative. After all, there was little common ground between the two camps, and to say many on each side despised those on the other would not be too harsh.

In response to such criticism, he is quoted as replying, “I want to use some universally known figure, expressed in simple language as ­universally known, that may strike home to the minds of men to rouse them to the peril of the times.”

Some 140 years later, there are new perils that threaten the American republic, and the former dominion to the north, too. In the U.S., the left and right have become polarized to an extent seldom seen. In the 19th century, a not-dissimilar split eventually led to the terrible tragedy of the American Civil War, a bloody fratricide that nearly destroyed the country.

Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible, but without at least a modicum of restraint and good manners, negotiations become recriminations

And we are far from immune in Canada. For the first time in years, there is again serious talk of the potential for western separatism, not to mention the ever-present threat of Quebec wandering off.

South of the border, Donald J. Trump has united both the right and the left, the former by leading them to the White House and the latter by mocking them into a near-insane frenzy that is defined almost entirely by a lack of thoughtful dialogue and common decency.

In this country, as polite as we are supposed to be, Trudeau the Younger has ignited opposition that can only be described as personal and profound. I don’t come across many people who are indifferent to his regime, but for all his popularity in some circles there are plenty who despise him as a fatuous playboy dilettante with not much more to offer than a nice haircut and a cheese-­eating grin.

I have long been on the outs with most of my extended family on political matters, and learned decades ago that politics was not fertile ground for enjoyable dinner-table discussion. In social situations I generally maintain the same reserve, and for the same reasons. I cannot fathom the very real public hatred the left in the U.S. have for their president, and, to a lesser but still troubling extent, the right in Canada for Trudeau (and the left for anyone who dares question such shibboleths as official multiculturalism and global warming).

This is not the way to build a progressive and harmonious society in either country, and the animosities that have been unleashed may take decades to re-bottle. If, indeed, it is not already too late to do so.

This has to stop. We are all lost if we allow the angels of our better natures to be driven off by the demons of derision and the heralds of hatred. Trump is not the devil, nor is Trudeau or his opponents. They are just people, the products of their times perhaps, but human beings just the same.

To see them widely mocked as less than that, as malign forces threatening the future, makes reconciling disparate views not only difficult, but well-nigh unworkable. Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible, but without at least a modicum of restraint and good manners, negotiations become recriminations and progress across the board becomes impossible.

We can and must restore at least a bare minimum of civility to political discourse in both countries. The alternative is more fratricidal fracturing of the body politic, and if we don’t stop it, I fear Lincoln’s quote may well be put to the test.  Jim Chapman

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