By Naomi Lai
From Donald Trump’s Twitter rants to the infamous behaviour of former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, how did politics become so uncivil?
From imitating a disabled reporter, to name-calling and insulting other world leaders via Twitter, the list of Donald Trump’s uncivil behaviour goes on. And while he may be the most notorious, he isn’t alone in his actions. In recent years we have seen an increase in politicians behaving irresponsibly and ultimately seeing fewer and fewer repercussions. It’s as if we’ve become numb to this kind of behaviour among our leaders.
When Toronto’s infamous mayor, Rob Ford, was eventually faced with video evidence of himself smoking crack cocaine, and forced to admit his crime, his approval rating rose five points. When he was later recorded drunk in public, slurring and swearing in a racist impression of a Jamaican accent, his supporters stood strongly behind him. He projected himself as a “regular guy”, and it appealed to a segment of the population who found it somehow relatable. This has become all too familiar. It is now ordinary for the houses of commons around the world to erupt into squabbles, all speaking over each other at once, sometimes pushing, name calling, and even shouting animal noises at each other; and only sometimes apologizing for it later.
The recent shift towards politicians branding themselves as “regular people” has allowed them to get away with these kinds of juvenile actions. We all lose control sometimes, right? But should we want to be lead by people we can relate to, or those we see as more capable than ourselves?
David McLetchie, a former leader of the Scottish conservative party, and David Laws, the Chief Secretary of Treasury under David Cameron, both had to resign after being caught in expense scandals as recently as 2015. However, now it seems incidents like these are becoming shockingly commonplace. It’s hard to keep up with them all. Bill Clinton was impeached and shamed for an adulterous exploit in the oval office, and the term “Bushism” was born to express George Bush’s frequent, embarrassing slips of the tongue. In 1993, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney lost the people’s trust and stepped down following a financial scandal known as the Airbus Affair. The judge on the case said Mulroney “failed to live up to the standard of conduct that he himself adopted in the 1985 ethics code”. Today, we regularly see politicians in breach of ethics practices and continuing to hold office. There was once a general standard and expectation of our leaders, but it seems that standard and rudimentary ethics are quickly eroding away.
As Katheen Hall Jamieson notes in her Political Science Quarterly article – Disruption, Demonization, Deliverance, and Norm Destruction: The Rhetorical Signature of Donald J. Trump, “he relies on hearsay, anecdote, and suspect information in partisan media but also shifts the burden of proof to those who oppose his conclusions and shuns responsibility for distributing faulty information.” His strategic use of slogans and catchy chants for his supporters to recite, as well as the demonization of “fake news”, is modern propaganda. This distracts and causes citizens to ignore the blatant fact that he has no political platform or policy detail outlining how he plans to achieve the sensational goals he exhorts. These practices are damaging to the political paradigm by setting false expectations and creating combative “them vs. us” mentality among citizens. This is exacerbated by the promise to build a wall along the Mexican border, and put a ban on Muslim visitors to the United States. This undisguised hostility and discrimination is on the rise among other politicians around the world, and is proven by divisive political outcomes like Brexit.
Due to the loss of mutual respect and behaviour among our leaders, we as voters subsequently lose our civility as well. This is continuously apparent when simply checking the comment sections below any political post on any social media platform. The discussion always erupts into combative arguments, with debaters commonly using newly coined pejorative terms to describe their opponents (ie. snowflake, libtard, moonbat). Organized protests begin or become violent; one devastating example being the death during the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally last year.
Robert Entman, the professor of Media and Public Affairs, and of International Affairs at George Washington University, believes the incivility increase stems mostly from the Right:
“It’s entangled with rise of right-wing populism,” Entman argues. “In my view it consists not merely of nasty, impolite speech and behavior, but of cynically manipulating lies. It is a result of corporate and financial elites allying with nationalist, xenophobic and racist elite opportunists who know how to exploit the anxieties of poor, working and middle-class white people. Those anxieties are rising because of globalization and unbridled capitalism. Angry, uncertain, insecure publics reward incivility that seems to address their emotional needs. Under cover of emotional gratification provided by Trump, Brexit, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, Orban in Hungary, etc., the corporate and financial elites enjoy governments supporting their ever-increasing opportunities to enhance their power and wealth.
“So incivility is actually a project, a deliberate tactic in a larger strategy to expand the power of a large segment of the elite stratum, and a quite successful one in recent years.”
If the success of incivility continues, how will the future of politics be effected? Entman hopes that “maybe larger numbers of citizens will be motivated to come out and vote for a more honest, civil politics than will be motivated by the anxieties and demagogic rhetoric behind uncivil politics. In the US at least, this is made more difficult by constitutional limits on majority rule and by Republican determination to reduce Democratic-leaning citizens’ ability to vote. We’ll get a clue from the 2018 US elections. I’m a little more optimistic for the UK, Poland and other Western democracies, which are somewhat less vulnerable to corporate-financial money swamping the democratic political process.”
If there is anything to be gained by this erosion of political accountability, perhaps it is to achieve some clarity on the importance of our votes and encourage the population to go out and use them, and to demand more from those we elect.
Naomi Lai is a Marketing graduate from Toronto. She blogs about her travels at Run Away With Me.
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.
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