Violence in Politics
During the current campaign, we’ve seen a rise in threats to our electoral candidates. This is extremely worrying, first and foremost because our candidates are members of our community, and have the same right to feel safe as everyone else. Secondly, because such hostile environments discourage many motivated and talented people from running for office. Even more depressing, bullying and harassment of candidates are often aimed at women, which further complicates efforts to achieve more gender equity among our elected officials.
Although more attention is being given to this problem now than in the recent past, violence against politicians is nothing new. The U.S. has many famous examples of assassinations going back throughout its history, from Lincoln to John and Robert Kennedy. Ronald Reagan was shot in the 1980s. More recently, lower profile (and less protected) politicians such as Gabby Giffords in 2011 and Steve Scalise in 2017 were also shot while in public.
Although Canada is in general less violent than the U.S., we have certainly not been immune. The most famous terrorist attacks were likely those of the FLQ in the 1960s and 1970s. But our history has been checkered with other examples as well. Many were ethnic based, such as the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee by Irish nationalists in the 19th century. Other political movements have been mostly forgotten, but Canadian anti-materialist movements set off bombs throughout the 20th century which resulted in several casualties in the 1920s. Anarchist movements were responsible for a series of killings and terrorist attacks globally throughout the 20th century, but luckily Canada was largely spared. Perhaps the most disturbing example of political violence in our recent history was the attempted assassination of Pauline Marois in 2012, where a technician was killed.
All of this is to say that verbal and physical violence towards our political representatives is, tragically, longstanding. Many have blamed social media for the rise in nasty behaviour over the last decade, and it’s certainly true that it fans the flames of deranged behaviour. Yet looking over history, social media on its own doesn’t explain political violence.
There are no easy answers, or we would likely have solved this problem long ago. But there are certainly strategies to improve the situation. The most obvious is to condemn divisive behaviour by both voters and politicians. For those running for office, engaging in nasty and provocative public discourse can be a tempting approach, as it is more likely to draw attention and attract enthusiastic supporters. Yet the price paid by society is very high. During the last two years of the pandemic, tempers were often at a fever pitch, and we’ve seen those frustrations spilling over into campaigns as well. Still, exercising restraint on all sides would make us all better off. We’re very fortunate that we haven’t had a political assassination in Canada since the 1960s. Encouraging civil public discourse can help ensure that we keep it that way. And an excellent start is to punish candidates who take the low road by not voting for them.