Michael Ignatieff, former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, urges a return to civility and compromise in politics

During the annual Stanford Humanities Center Presidential Lecture, Michael Ignatieff, the former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, underscored how the acrimonious nature of partisan politics is causing voters to walk away from democracy.

Steve Castillo Michael Ignatieff at podium

During the Stanford Humanities Center Presidential Lecture, historian and former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party Michael Ignatieff describes how the divided political culture of both the United States and Canada is creating 'crisis of representation.'

Michael Ignatieff has a unique perspective on politics. As a scholar of history, he has studied political theory and written about international affairs. As the former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, he has firsthand experience in the political realm.

Speaking recently to an audience at the Stanford Humanities Center, Ignatieff described a "crisis of representation" that he sees emerging from the increasingly divided political culture of both the United States and Canada.

One of the few political intellectuals to have led a political party, Ignatieff drew on personal knowledge as he outlined in his talk, part of the Presidential Lecture series, how partisanship is tearing politics apart by turning adversaries into enemies.

Partisanship, long a fundamental of politics, Ignatieff said, has veered from its original purpose and created parties that no longer represent the "real choices" that voters face. The emphasis on division rather than agreement is alienating voters. "For most voters," Ignatieff said, "partisanship is what's wrong with politics."

Ignatieff, who recently joined the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, is known for his prolific work as a writer, scholar and journalist. A historian and public intellectual, he has penned nearly 20 books and has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times and New York Review of Books.

Citing America's fourth president, James Madison, who warned of the danger to democracy from "political parties serving their own interests rather than the people's," Ignatieff told the audience that a "healthy distrust of politicians" has deteriorated into "active loathing."

This outright loathing, Ignatieff asserted, is directly responsible for a disengaged citizenry. Since 1960, he said, voter participation rates have declined in nearly all advanced democracies. In the 2008 Canadian election, only one in five eligible 18-year-olds voted.

"When you ask young people why they don't [vote], they tell you: It makes no difference anyway – they [the politicians] are all liars," Ignatieff said.

Moral realism and civilized debate

Voters, Ignatieff pointed out, are partially to blame for the crisis of representation. "There is a type of disillusioned voter, especially young ones, who have expectations of honesty, clarity and principle that no person, let alone a politician, can attain," he said.

Calling politics "a morally questionable profession," Ignatieff said that leaders must often make tough calls about ambiguous situations, where the truth is complex and information may be scarce.

"Leadership means deciding in uncertainty and being willing to live with the consequences however they play out," Ignatieff said.

Citizens will continue to be let down if they demand complete transparency. "We need to be moral realists about democracy," Ignatieff said.

Compounding the lack of voter trust is the gridlock and outright animosity between parties. "Partisanship divides an already divided society, turns adversaries into enemies," he said.

The democratic process has been transformed from one of mutual respect and productive debate to an environment where politicians are restricted by the viewpoints of their party.

When political partisanship rules, "you are always preaching to the converted, never reaching across to the other side," Ignatieff said. "When persuasion loses its pivotal role, debate becomes ritualized and pointless. Nothing lowers a citizen's estimate of democracy more than the sight of two politicians hurling abuse at each other."

Rather than identify with parties they distrust, voters are abandoning party affiliation in droves. Up to a third of American voters now register as independents, which Ignatieff said signals that the parties "neither represent their interests nor their reality."

Compromise for the good

As Ignatieff outlined, voter disdain is warranted. Together, waning legislative democracy and heightened partisanship threaten democracy's key role, which is to "enable opponents to compromise for the good of the nation."

Harking back to the era of Madison, Ignatieff noted, "Members from opposing parties would often dine or drink together when sessions ran late, and these rituals reinforced the civility inside the chamber."

Ignatieff compared today's economic climate to that of Germany in the 1920s – "a society plagued by economic crisis, among a battered population looking for someone to blame. "

Modern western democracy has not slipped that far, but Ignatieff said it was worth remembering that in a democracy not unlike our own, "fascism took the fatal step from a politics of adversaries into a politics of enemies."

The goal of Leninist politics, Ignatieff added, was "not to defeat opponents but to obliterate them as the 'class enemy.'"

Voters today would be better served if politicians focused their adversarial energies toward those "who actively threaten the liberty of other peoples and our own," he said.

"Toward those within our borders, however heatedly we may disagree, we should work from a simple persuasive but saving assumption: In the house of democracy there are no enemies," he said.

Although the animosity of partisanship appears to be an entrenched aspect of party politics, Ignatieff said that democracy gives people the ability to initiate change, which he called "the very promise of democracy itself."

A video of Ignatieff's talk, "On Partisanship: Enemies and Adversaries in Politics," is available on the Stanford YouTube Channel.

Administered by the Stanford Humanities Center, the Presidential Lecture series is sponsored by the Office of the President to "bring the most distinguished scholars, artists and critics of our time to the Stanford University campus."

For more information about Ignatieff's work and career, visit the Stanford University Libraries Presidential Lecture site, which includes excerpts from Ignatieff's writings.

For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.