Does Polarization of Political Discourse Hamper Good Public Policy?

2 03 2011

To what extent does the polarization of political parties and of the political culture of Canada hamper the ability of government to frame and develop public policy to best serve the needs of the entire community?

The general political culture of North American democracies has usually revolved around two polar opposites on most major policy issues.  These polar opposites are usually described as left-wing versus right-wing policies.  This polarization is not limited only to socioeconomic matters, but also such issues involving church versus state, sexual mores, business and labor, environmental matters versus economic growth, national security, etc.  The reality faced by policy makers and government officials, however, is that determination of policy conforming to an ideological slant often may not be practical or in the best interests of the community, although policy statements catering to core areas of support may win elections.  In fact, policy decisions crafted to cater to the interests of one polar segment of the political culture may result in destabilizing political conflicts within the whole community.

It is a general facet of all democracies that divisions in beliefs and values arise, sometimes permanently, in the nation’s political culture that result in severe political conflicts between political élites.  Public policy arising from this dynamic is framed to serve the specific interests of a sector of the political culture represented by the political élites currently holding power, and may often be detrimental to non-represented groups if not to the community as a whole.  The result is a political discourse that often engages the public through angry attack advertisements, “sound bite” sloganeering, and rigidity in government positions that may produce non-optimal policy decisions.  Lost in the rhetoric is the fact that these policy measures may favor a few special interest groups rather than the public at large.

The conceptualization of right-wing versus left-wing approaches to policy making should likely be rejected, treated instead, as an anachronism of early forms of liberal democracy. In its place a more effective approach for good government and public policy would be to frame issues of concern in such a way as to identify the societal issues at play and apply a problem solving technique.  This would include extensive consultation with constituents including greater reliance on government and academic research studies, enhanced consultative processes between government and its constituents, impact assessments, determination of regulatory burden, and benefit-cost assessments, to ensure an optimal policy framework for the affected community as a whole.  It could be stated that such an approach to policy making is mandated by the Canada Act respecting legal powers and mandate for “peace, order, and good government.”

The focus of political discourse on public policy should be shifted to promote problem solving and issue resolution strategies for effective policy approaches.  Issue resolution should rely less on the atmospherics of political rhetoric, personal attacks, and “sound bites” that misrepresent or distort public perception of the issues.

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