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Ex-Liberal leader and academic Michael Ignatieff is shown addressing supporters Monday, May 2, 2011 in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ex-Liberal leader and academic Michael Ignatieff is shown addressing supporters Monday, May 2, 2011 in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

JOHN IBBITSON

Michael Ignatieff's timely warning on the politics of fascism Add to ...

A wise voice is warning that fascism lies at the bottom of the English-speaking world’s dangerous political decline. That voice belongs to Michael Ignatieff.

Mr. Ignatieff is a rarity: a public intellectual who once held the title of Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

That word “loyal” is telling, as Mr. Ignatieff explained in an address at Stanford University earlier this month. Democracy, he said, depends on politicians respecting the roles that other politicians play.

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“The opposition performs an adversarial function critical to democracy itself,” Mr. Ignatieff observed. “Governments have no right to question the loyalty of those who oppose them. Adversaries remain citizens of the same state, common subjects of the same sovereign, servants of the same law.”

But that vital underpinning of respect is being lost in the United States, where a Democratic president is fighting for re-election against a Republican opponent whose supporters, in some cases, maintain the President seized office illegally using a forged birth certificate.

And although Mr. Ignatieff avoids referring to his personal circumstances, we all know he was the victim of a Conservative attack machine that questioned his loyalty to his country. Remember “Just Visiting?”

You could argue this is sour grapes. But Mr. Ignatieff came down from the stands to fight in the arena. Now back among us in the stands, he speaks with a unique authority.

In his speech, Mr. Ignatieff bore down on the high price paid when politicians treat each other as enemies rather than adversaries.

When you think of your opponent across the aisle as an adversary, “you reject arguments, not persons; question premises, not identities; interrogate interests, not loyalties,” Mr. Ignatieff said.

But when politicians look upon each other as enemies, “legislatures replace relevance with pure partisanship. Party discipline rules supreme, fraternization is frowned upon, negotiation and compromise are rarely practised, and debate within the chamber becomes as venomously personal as it is politically meaningless.”

In that light, the American Congress and the Canadian House of Commons share much in common.

Godwin’s Law stipulates that the longer an online discussion carries on, the greater is the likelihood one side will compare the other side to the Nazis. But Mr. Ignatieff invokes the spectre of fascism with more credible intent.

“Fascism took the fatal step from a politics of adversaries into a politics of enemies,” he warned. “We are not there yet, but it is worth remembering that the fatal declension occurred in a democracy not so dissimilar to our own, in a society plagued by economic crisis, among a battered population looking for someone to blame.”

Treating politics as a war against enemies is a mortal threat to democracy because it corrodes compromise. The willingness and ability to compromise permits politicians to make deals, and making deals is essential to a healthy democracy, whatever purists might think.

“We have politicians precisely to make the deals the rest of us are too fastidious to make,” Mr. Ignatieff pointed out with telling accuracy. “We need leaders prepared to take the moral risks with their own integrity in order to make the compromises that keep us together.”

If your opponent is an enemy, however, then compromise is not an option. Victory or defeat are the only possible outcomes. Which is why journalists – who are themselves becoming more polarized and less respectful of opposing points of view – increasingly resort to military metaphors to describe political contests. No other words are appropriate.

How do we reverse this dangerous descent? Mr. Ignatieff’s solution to an American audience is threefold: Limit the power of money in politics; encourage wide-open primaries in which anyone can stand for office, even without the endorsement of party leaders; loosen the bonds of party discipline in the legislatures.

Such solutions are only partially applicable to Canada. But Mr. Ignatieff’s most important lesson could be applied by all:

“We should focus martial energies where they are needed: [against] those adversaries who actively threaten the liberty of other peoples and our own. Towards those within our borders, however heatedly we may disagree, we should work from a simple persuasive, but saving, assumption: In the house of democracy there are no enemies.”

Something to think on, the next time the Prime Minister and the Leader of her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition confront each other in the House.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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