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Political Division and All That

In the U.S. the divisions are like this: the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, red states and blue states, and a practical tie in terms of popular voting intentions until Election Day. In Canada, the opposition’s catch phrases revolve around “the politics of division of the Conservative government”, which – obviously – are used to rally Canadians against conservatives (I like to think that, in private, they laugh at this contradiction). We hear it all the time these days: “society is more divided than ever!” Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we even get wise comments along the lines of: “Wouldn’t it be great if we simply could all agree to work together?”

Division seems dramatic, and we are often told it is. Consensus, on the other hand, – if we could only get there – would be “that much better”. But how is this logic sustainable for democratic politics? And more importantly, how can one be right if no one is wrong? This sounds pretty basic, but it gets an important point across: it’s impossible to have politics without any consensus, but it’s also impossible without any dissent. That’s to say that it’s the division of consensus that makes the political wheel go round, whether we like it or not.

As democrats, however, this is hard to accept, especially because our countries were founded on a myth of a different order. As Abraham Lincoln stated it, a democratic government should be “of the people, by the people, for the people”; and this remains a mantra for democratic states around the world (others, like North Korea, have clearly achieved the potential of universal consensus). But when we take a close look at the country’s political system, we see that it turns out differently in practice. In any case, if the People could genuinely “rule itself”, there would be no need for government… right? Think about it – the question does make sense.

Nevertheless, the symbol this idea embodies – the notion of a “self-determined nation” – is socially strong; at least strong enough to hold together [pronounce the following with despair] “profoundly divided citizens”. In the ancient Greek semantics, a symbol is meant to “unite the divided”, and this is what democratic politics achieve. When the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, they formally agreed to disagree, and more importantly, to believe that despite their disagreements, their government would always represent them… individually! Put this way, it comes out as quite the paradox, but that’s precisely what holds our divided egos together (when you think about it, anyway, symbols hold a lot of paradoxical ideas together in our societies: e.g., freedom and equality, or self-realization and solidarity).

A simple split of the summit made – the belief in – “self-government” possible. In some cases with the beheading of a King (that’s not the split I am referring to), in other cases with a rebellion, society allowed for (here it is…) a government and an opposition to make use of political power. What this mechanism provides is a structure to reach order within a politically divided state of affairs. Dissent, of course, existed before democratic transitions, but in this process it was brought to the forefront of politics. If Descartes had discussed a “cogito dēmokratia”, it would probably say, “I disagree, therefore I am… part of this country”. 

All of this is to say is that commonsensical and media “division drama” is overrated: socially (as opposed to ideally) speaking, political division isn’t to blame  – it’s the name of the game. And if the very idea of democracy stems from division, we should perhaps spend some time questioning how society even achieves political order before we long for consensus. Do you not agree?

–  Maxime Fecteau

(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works DonkeyHotey, Creative Commons, Flickr)

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