The downside of democracy is societal division

Danielle van Dalen

Danielle van Dalen

November 17, 2020

                                                       Donald Trump and Joe Biden (USA Today Photo)

“I remember when President W Bush was elected, there were protests in the streets calling him a war criminal – this is so much worse. People cannot talk to their neighbours anymore.”

This was a friend’s response to my question on the state of US politics this week.

We tend to see that the United States is about ten years ahead of us in many wider trends, so I started thinking about our own election, looking for signs New Zealand might be heading in the same direction.

The political divide

Certainly, at first glance the red tide of the Labour party’s win last month suggests that New Zealanders are far from divided in their political opinions.

And yet, landslide victories are not always the sign of a united nation.

Instead, we can find early warning signs of societal division in the reaction our politicians get from the people who disagree with them.

When we cannot see past our differences in ideology, policy positions, or leadership style, and simply presume that anything said by a politician with whom we disagree is terrible, we are headed in a dangerous direction.

Vilified remarks

Unfortunately, we have already seen this style of disagreement in New Zealand politics.

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick has been open about the vitriolic comments that she receives from people who disagree with her, a park bench was dedicated to National MP “Gerry Brownlee who hates Christchurch and everyone in it,” while former MPs Clare Curran and Sarah Dowie have shared the impact of vilification on their mental health.

Dehumanising and caricaturing the people with whom we disagree politically tends to begin with politicians, but that does not mean it will not stop there. In fact, as we have seen in the United States, it is likely that this will trickle down to the rest of society with supporters of different politicians shocked that others could vote in a different direction.

Healthy disagreements needed

Of course, strong democracies require healthy disagreement.

Healthy disagreement, however, does not only ask us to air our differences, but also asks us to recognise the humanity of the person with whom we disagree.

It asks us not to see them as a caricature who only cares about the one issue you might be discussing, but to recognise that they are a whole person with families, friends, and lives outside of that particular conversation.

The Prime Minister and Judith Collins gave a positive example of this when they paused during their final leaders debate and complimented the person they were competing with for the top job.

Despite their political differences, they were happy to publicly praise one another.

If we do not want to follow the example of the United States and become a divided society, it is important that we follow their example.

Let us be nice

We need to find moments to recognise the person behind the policy position, compliment the lives of people we may disagree with, and refrain from imagining caricatures of people with different political opinions.

It will not be easy and requires listening with a posture of humility, but when I hear about the many broken friendships in the US, I am convinced that it is worth it.

Danielle van Dalen is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland. The above article has been sponsored by

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