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A new year, and the word on everyone’s lips is “polarization.” Former Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole, in a recent blog post, decried the “rise in polarization” in Canada over the past decade. The Eurasia Group’s annual report on global political risks includes for the first time a chapter on Canada, warning of “deepening polarization” leading to greater instability.

Certainly it is hard to escape the feeling that something is amiss in our politics, something new and disturbing – the constant, escalating rage, the proliferation of conspiracy theories, the unmistakable overtones of menace. But I’m not sure that “polarization” is the right word. As ever, we seem to be importing American language to describe phenomena that may have echoes of events south of the border, but nevertheless have a distinctly Canadian ring.

Polarization suggests a population and a politics that are evenly or at least starkly divided over fundamental questions of ideology, with a vast no-man’s-land between them. That’s a fair description of the United States these days, not only in public opinion but in the positions of the parties: further apart than ever, research shows, but also more uniform, with fewer members of Congress of either party willing to vote with the other.

In Canada, by contrast, where party-line voting has long been the norm, the parties remain relatively closely bunched, ideologically. I’m one who worries that the major parties seem less interested in courting the median voter than in the past, but in the main that manifests itself as a fascination with wedge issues and demonizing rhetoric, rather than substantive differences over the role of government.

Polarization, indeed, is not always a bad thing. Consensus-seeking incrementalism may often be the path most likely to achieve results. But sometimes you have to make a choice. Sometimes large and sudden change is unavoidable. And sometimes this will open up, or expose, deep divisions in society. Free trade was an example of this kind of fundamental choice. So were the deficit-cutting budgets of the 1990s.

But that’s not what is roiling our politics at the moment. The problem is not polarization, but extremism. Calling it polarization is a misnomer, not only because it exaggerates our differences, but because it implies a false equivalence, as if there were equal fault on both sides: as if the issue were merely that people disagreed. My point is not that there are more or worse extremists on one side or the other – though it is certainly true that the most virulent extremism is more likely to be found among the right than the left at the moment. My point is that it is a mistake to invest extremism with ideological content of any kind. It is not, fundamentally, about ideology, but about temperament and attitude.

The people who stormed the U.S. Capitol two years ago; the people who occupied our own capital last year; the people who sacked Brazil’s Congress and Supreme Court buildings over the weekend: none of these had any achievable goals or coherent agenda, still less a philosophy of government. Neither do their political leaders. It may please some of them to call themselves “conservative,” but this is no more than a badge of identity; there is nothing conservative about any of it, in any recognizable sense of the word.

It is, rather, a set of reflexes, or perhaps appetites. Mostly it is a kind of adolescent nihilism, an unwillingness to be bound by any constraint, whether of taste, morals, logic or reality – and, ultimately, the law. To its adherents this is understandably intoxicating, a liberation from all things, but most especially from the disapproval of their “betters”: elites, experts, authority figures of all kinds. And, like other intoxicants, it requires progressively higher doses to sustain the kick.

The people in the vanguard of this movement, the followers of QAnon, seem almost to be in a competition with one another for who can propose the most lunatic theory of the world. Hence its contagiousness: start from “if you can imagine it you can believe it” and every fresh suggestion holds new and thrilling possibilities. As it happens, most of the suggestions they are receiving, for some reason, are for ways to undermine the ability of democracies to govern themselves.

The gravest danger comes not from extremism itself, but from accommodating – normalizing – extremism. You can see this in the United States, where one-third of Republicans now say they approve of the Jan. 6 insurrection, and where Marjorie Taylor Greene has become a major figure in the party. If to oppose this kind of extremism is polarizing, then by all means: let us have more polarization.


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