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‘Blind date’ for political rivals? TV show is breaking down barriers.

Courtesy of Political Blind Date
Toronto City Councilors Gary Crawford and Shelley Carroll, who hold very different political views, chat in a Toronto coffee shop during an episode of the TV show "Political Blind Date."

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It’s called “Political Blind Date.” And far from being a hokey reality show for the political set, the popular Canadian series aims to break down walls around contentious issues from gun rights to climate change.

Take the moment Toronto City Councilor Gary Crawford confided to colleague Shelley Carroll that his daughter has a disability. Ms. Carroll, who raised a daughter diagnosed with autism, replied instinctively, “Oh, Gary” – an empathy so obvious in just two words.

Why We Wrote This

At a time when political exchanges are often caustic and unyielding, a Canadian TV show is modeling a different approach. It creates space for rival politicians to share views and experiences respectfully – and viewers love it.

It’s not that the two didn’t know one another. They’d worked together in City Hall for years. But more often than not, they were battling over city finances. This meeting, at a coffee shop, was a way to set the stage for engaging one another with the time and respect that complex problems require.

With filming of a fifth season underway, about 50 politicians have participated, spending two days together with each other’s constituents. The show has been optioned to the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and South Africa, and is being shopped in the United States. “It’s a moment,” says director Mark Johnston, “where people are trying to heal and listen to each other.”

When Gary Crawford confided to Shelley Carroll on TV that he has a daughter with a disability, the mother who raised a daughter diagnosed with autism replied instinctively, “Oh, Gary” – conveying an empathy so obvious in just two words.

It’s not that the Toronto city councilors didn’t know one another. They’d worked together in City Hall for the better part of a decade. But more often than not, they were dug in on either side of the chamber, battling over city finances.

So this meeting, at a cozy Toronto coffee shop, was an intentional step away from those fiery legislative sessions, a way to help two rival politicians find common ground in sustaining North America’s fastest-growing city – even if Ms. Shelley envisions new revenue tools while Mr. Crawford dubs himself a “keep taxes low kinda guy.”

Why We Wrote This

At a time when political exchanges are often caustic and unyielding, a Canadian TV show is modeling a different approach. It creates space for rival politicians to share views and experiences respectfully – and viewers love it.

Welcome to “Political Blind Date.” The popular Canadian television show might sound like a hokey reality show for the political set. But for its creators, the aim is to undo some of the stubborn binaries that have built up around contentious issues from gun rights to taxation to immigration to climate change.

Getting beyond the media scrum, the yelling during parliamentary question periods, the sound bites on nightly news, and the callous swipes over social media, producers set the stage for participants to engage one another with the time and respect that complex problems require.

“Respect is at the heart of it. Not only are politicians, in the way they are using political rhetoric, not respecting each other; they’re disrespecting their citizenry,” says Mark Johnston, showrunner of “Political Blind Date.” “And at the same time, there’s been a disrespect and dehumanization of politicians.”

The television show was directly inspired by a column in the British newspaper The Guardian in 2015, where politicians would debate issues cleaving British society ahead of the Brexit referendum.

Canadian producers saw the opportunity for a TV show on their side of the Atlantic, where polarization has also crept into politics, unsettling a sense of politeness and compromise that is so central to the national identity. 

With the filming of a fifth season underway, about 50 politicians have already participated, spending two days together with each other’s constituents and wrestling with legalization of marijuana, Indigenous rights, and climate change. It’s not easy: In one episode, a politician who supports gun rights visited a Toronto mother whose children were hit by bullets at a playground.  

Courtesy of Political Blind Date
Toronto City Councilors Shelley Carroll (in red pants) and Gary Crawford talk with Melissa Appleton of the Participatory Budgeting Project in New York during the filming of a "Political Blind Date" episode.

The goal is not to get the two politicians to reverse their positions, something that rarely happens. It’s to slow down and study policies in all their complexity, and to hear the human concerns and perspectives that lie behind their support.

John Ferri, an executive of TVO, the television network that airs the show, says they are trying to forge more respectful debate. “Contemporary politics is defined by the fact that campaigning never ends. Basically, politicians are in spin and win mode all the time,” he says. “And that coarsens the public conversation, because everyone is always on the attack, so divisions are exaggerated. There’s less and less room for compromise, which is the essence of who we are. It feels like the current hypertoxic, hyperpartisan reality of politics is un-Canadian to me.”

City finances

During the episode on Toronto city finances, which aired in January 2020, Mr. Crawford hands Ms. Carroll a button to put on. Hers is a big yellow disk with an arrow pointing upward, reading “High Property Taxes.” His reads the opposite, the arrow pointing downward next to “Low Property Taxes.” 

But after the show, he realizes the buttons don’t make as much sense as he originally thought. They both want their constituents to be able to stay in their homes and rely on services their taxes pay for. The question is how. “I realized we have been sitting at two separate chairs of a table; we are definitely sitting apart. But the reality is, there’s a lot of food that we’re sharing between us,” he says. 

He says he’s still a “low tax kinda guy.” But the experience opened him up to a conversation he would not have been willing to have before the episode. And both say they talk more than they ever did before. “We’re often understaffed, under-resourced, and really stretched for time,” says Ms. Carroll. “We don’t get to know enough about each other’s personal lives. So you don’t know where each other are coming from.” 

“You can have different politics, but it always helps if you can humanize and say, ‘OK, I get your point of view and it’s different from mine, but I know where you’re coming from, so let’s work on it,’” she says. “Gary Crawford and myself share in common that we both have special needs children who are now in adulthood. ... And we’ve had that in common all along.”

Trickle-down behavior

Anna-Kay Russell, co-founder and director of funding partnerships for the Canadian Black Policy Network, says this kind of connection between two rivals has a trickle-down effect. “The ‘us versus them’ mentality not only seeps into the behavior of our politicians, but down into the mindsets of the voters, and it detracts from the fact that we’re a nation that needs to and should be operating as one, collectively,” she says. 

Sometimes being too “polite,” one of Canada’s most enduring traits, constrains the country from driving change, she says – and beyond that, points to a double standard around politeness. “There’s a lot of room to be uncivil if you have power, whereas [for] people of color, recent migrants, women, I think civility is often used against us to keep us quiet.”

Janet Fanaki, who runs a podcast called “Resilient People” in Toronto, says she has learned more from watching the show than she does listening to any political debate or rhetoric. “I’m not the kind of person who really wants to learn while people are screaming at one another,” she says. “So I like the premise of ‘Political Blind Date,’ where a topic will come up that they’re not in agreement with but they can talk in a calmer kind of way. And you just wish sometimes that was more the way things were discussed.”

The show has averaged about 195,000 viewers per episode, a solid number for a small network like TVO, says Mr. Ferri, and it has been optioned to the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and South Africa. The show’s creators are also shopping it to the United States, given all the divisions that have grown amid the pandemic. “It’s a moment for this show,” says Mr. Johnston. “It’s a moment where people are trying to heal and listen to each other.”

He sees potential even in the explosive political environment of the U.S. “It’s easy to sit behind a Twitter account or stand up in a legislature,” he says. “But if you agree to go on a journey with another human being, I just think in general people are going to listen to each other.”

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