Over the past twenty years, the political landscape in many of the so-called free, democratic countries of the world has become more contentious, more rancorous, more partisan than I can ever remember it.
That’s not to say that the notion of rough-and-tumble politics is a new phenomenon, for it assuredly is not. One need only read the history books to learn about such scandalous activities as, for example: the Profumo Affair, the Zinoviev Letter, or the Suez Crisis in Britain; the Teapot Dome Scandal, the Iran-Contra Affair, or the Watergate crisis in the US; and the Pacific Scandal, the Munsinger Affair, or the Airbus Affair in Canada.
The playing of hardball politics has been with us for a long time.
Many of the examples cited here occurred long before my time as a mostly-passive observer of the political scene, so I have no perspectives on them that haven’t already been hashed and rehashed by pundits more astute than I. Nevertheless, I think such scandals were more the exception than the rule—although I concede that may be more a commentary on my naïveté than an accurate assessment.
Today, however, regardless of whether or not political scandals roil the waters upon which sail the ships of state, there seems to be an especially bitter tone to the back-and-forth among the various political parties in each of these three nations, and even between the factions within those parties. It seems that no one is prepared to listen to anyone anymore, so desperate are they to trumpet their own messages.
Stand your ground! is the order of the day.
Sixty-five years ago, in 1953, fighting in the vicious three-year war between North and South Korea—which also involved hundreds of thousands of troops from China, the US, and other allied nations—was halted with an armistice. A demilitarized zone was created as a buffer between the two Koreas, and no formal peace treaty was ever signed to formally end the war. In all the time since, both countries have fiercely guarded their borders on each side of the DMZ. Neither side, until very recently, has even bothered to hold talks with the other, relying instead on the issuing of provocative, aggressive threats against each other.
Yet, earlier this year, for a host of reasons important to both countries, their leaders decided to sit down with each other to talk—and to listen. That, in itself, was a notable and praiseworthy endeavour. Even more significant, however, was the location they chose—the demilitarized zone that keeps them apart.
After decades of standing their ground, the two men stepped forward, across their respective borders, to stand face-to-face on common ground, the DMZ.
Is there not a lesson here for the politicians who govern us? The Korean peninsula, by some accounts, is the most dangerous place on earth, a tinderbox where even the slightest spark could re-ignite the long-ago war—but this time with even more disastrous consequences. Nuclear consequences.
Still, the two Korean leaders managed to take that step on to common ground, even though the precarious circumstances in which they find themselves are infinitely more perilous—infinitely more—than any found in the halls of Congress or Parliament.
So why, I ask, can our elected representatives not do the same thing, ensconced in their much safer environs? Why can they not forego their squabbling over issues that history will consign to the dustbin, and focus on finding solutions to the real problems confronting us?
Looming environmental disaster. Decaying infrastructure. Racial and religious intolerance. Poverty and inequality. Spiralling debt. Food and water security. To name but a few.
No one knows at this point where the discussions that have begun between the two Koreas will lead, whether to lasting peace or to a resumption of hostilities. And no one knows, either, how successful a coordinated, bi-partisan, multi-national effort to address the world’s problems might be.
But, just as those two leaders have tried to find common ground across the border that divides them, so, too, must our elected officials do the same thing. They must try to understand each other, and the opinions each side holds dear, rather than labelling each other as enemies of the people.
In 1989, in his acclaimed book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote: Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
To all our elected officials, I would add this: Stop standing your ground, look for common ground, and have the courage to take the first step forward.
The ensuing steps will be easier.