When North Americans aren't bowling alone, we're drinking, reading, and laughing together with people who are like us. The media with which we engage, our friends, our neighbourhoods, and, increasingly (sadly) even our churches are filled with people like us. We might differ from these people on minor points, but, in general, we stick with what we know and, perhaps more importantly, what makes us feel good.
Political parties, as always, have noticed this, and exploit these tendencies by routine use of a wedge to carve these various self-selecting groups into potentially winnable constituencies. As a result, while the conversations in our living rooms and across our fences are amiable and comfortable, our politics exude a special type of nastiness; extreme politics, if you will.
What can be done? Democracy relies on civil, principled debate, and perhaps more importantly, the willingness to have your mind changed by your opponent's logic, emotional pleas, or the ethos exemplified by her community. Persuasion is integral to a healthy democracy, and persuasion can only take place when you routinely interact with people different than yourself.
But, as sociologists continue to tell us, and as outfits like Sun TV and Rabble.ca proliferate, we are increasingly unlikely to interact or listen in any substantial way with and to those with whom we have fundamental differences.
Is Canadian democracy doomed?
Some, like Gregory Wolfe, think that beauty will save the world. I think he's on to something, but I wonder if even this might be a bit too much for us to bear. Beauty, after all, can be frightening in its scope. Perhaps we might start a bit smaller and operate according to the mustard seed principle of politics.
The mustard seed principle—a hypothesis as yet unencumbered by evidence—is that those institutions which mean the least to political parties matter the most to the overall health of a functioning constitutional democracy. In Canada at least, with the space increasing between those who hold to orthodox Christian beliefs and the concerns of political parties, the church might be the best example of such an institution.
The community garden might be another. Most big cities have them these days, and it is interesting to note the strange mixture of people that are drawn to growing their own food in little plots. On a given evening at the garden I'm a part of, you can see wealthy, poor, black, white, men and women, lefties and libertarians, and everyone else in between. And, in the midst of sharing space, watering cans, and advice on how to deal with beet leaf miners, one gets the sense that what is happening is both unique and healthy. The tropes that political parties would have us believe about our neighbours—that the rich don't care about the poor, for instance, or that the poor are lazy—seem slightly less plausible when you see a wealthy gardener help out a struggling neighbour with watering, or when you see the care invested in tender lettuces by the neighbourhood welfare recipient. Gardens might not save the world. They might not even save Canadian democracy. But the green shoots of civic virtue needed for healthy politics are cultivated there, and that's a start.