Post-Party Letdowns

Who amongst the political cognoscenti does not deplore the following:

  • Falling rates of voter participation;
  • The economics of fund raising;
  • The rising number of potential candidates declining to run;
  • The falling quality of elected members; and
  • The lack of “democracy” in our leader-centred parliaments and legislatures?

All of these can be consolidated under the rubric of Canadian politics having moved to a “post-party” position. The breakdown of parties as the lead players in the system is the source of the “let down” being felt in the media and amongst party leadership (elected and back-room).

Why People Don’t Vote

The twentieth century was once described as a “short century“: 1914-1991 (originally 1989 for the fall of the Berlin Wall; updated for the fall of the Soviet Union).

This was the period of the common man, of the mass, of the mass state (state capitalist [communist], social democrat, corporatist, etc.).

Media outlets were few (relative to today), and required — as did almost everything else — large amounts of capital to be mobilized to allow them to even exist.

Whether one takes 1989 or 1991 as the date, one of the first events of the post-short-century period is the rise of the Internet, and, in particular, the World Wide Web.

Suddenly any person could become a publisher: pennies replaced mounds of dollars as the cost of expressing oneself.

Coupled with this is the ease with which the Web made everything fit nicely into one category: miscellaneous. No longer were institutions needed to organize ideas: any slice of opinion could be created and attract its followers.

In the mass age, to vote was to vote for a party.

What had, heading into Confederation, been primarily a vote for a member (to act as a representative in a distant capital) had long since transitioned into, first, a vote for a party — a platform and ideology and a cabinet team — and, starting with Trudeau, a transition to a vote purely for a leader who would become Prime Minister.

As we entered the 1990s, party big-tents began to break down: how else can one describe the splintering off of compromise over federalism leading to the Bloc Québécois, or the splintering off of compromise over neo-liberal populism that was Reform?

But the fracturing of the federal Progressive Conservatives was just the beginning of a realignment playing itself out in a Canadian context, but not at all unique to Canada.

What Reform (in particular; the BQ’s raison d’être being different) showed was a fundamental unwillingness, even in the late 1980s, to doing the work necessary to compromise on policy that is the essence of a big-tent party.

Instead, Reform “took its ball and went home”, maximizing its vote by concentrating it.

To be fair, as Reform moved from populist non-ideological movement to full-blown “neo-conservative” party, and thence watered down its social conservative and fiscal conservative roots in the transitions through the Canadian Alliance to the Conservative Party of Canada, it, too, has had to adopt the policies and practices of a big-tent party.

Conservatives who now look at the outcome and talk of replacing Mr. Harper, deploring the deficit and the budget, etc., are considered to be the “splittists” for daring to appeal, for instance, to the Party’s actual statement of principles. Many are walking away. But for every ten that do, only a handful will end up shifting to another party. Most will simply become “unpartied” — and likely will not vote.

For parties are not required and have become in many ways an anachronism. Their sole remaining function is “brand”.

An increasing number of voters now deal exclusively in issues. That will inevitably produce a sum of positions that matches no party’s set of policy compromises.

No Fibre, No Support

This, of course, is something overlooked by those who believe that, first and foremost, we must be “on side” with the leader and the party.

If one does subscribe to twentieth century politics, as laid out in the opening to this post, then this position follows naturally: principle should not stand in the face of need. That need might be for continued power, it might be for future power, it might even be for someone or something to believe in.

For someone to challenge a change of views — and I do not believe that anyone should be forced to maintain a position in the face of new information — on the ground of principle is to indicate where consistency is to be expected. What is it Edmund Burke said?

[I]t ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

I take this to mean that no politician and no party should abandon principles for any reason of expediency. Following the herd into “what to do” falls into this camp.

Well, I can’t go there. “My party, right or wrong” is not me.

For myself, I am not searching for another party, a new party or any party.

As I’ve often said, I embrace the independent member. One who plays to my issues will get my vote. Otherwise, I have joined those who ignore the party system.

So Why Not a New Party?

The short answer to “why not a new party” is: I don’t want party discipline in the mix.

A Burkean representative is not a trained seal, applauding on command and voting against their principles and conscience because the leader’s whip says so.

Given our undersized Federal Parliament and Provincial Legislatures, however, it takes a member of rare fortitude to stand against his/her party: the backbenchers are too few to make a difference, given the number of shadow assignments, parliamentary secretaryships, ministerial appointments, committee chairs, etc. on offer.

Then, too, such a member is seldom kept in the caucus, nor renominated by their party. These are institutional issues. A candidate who runs as an Independent, however, is likely to keep that independence in practice.

As Australia is showing — where the number of independents in their State Houses and in their Commonwealth setting continues to rise — principle can be returned once it must be demonstrated to win support.

Issue Circles

The other major reason for avoiding parties (like the plague) from now on is that inevitably one is forced to choose between principles as the big-tent is formed.

Suppose, for instance, one believed that it is long overdue that we should raise more tax from unwanted production of externalities (this is broader than a carbon tax but along the same line) and instead raise less in other ways. Suppose, as well, that fiscal responsibility, accountability and no deficit spending were another set of principles being held to.

No current party embraces both. Which is to be abandoned?

Why have to make the decision?

Why not work with two issue groups: one that presses for environmental economic change, and one that presses for responsible finances?

This is, of course, how many who are entering the voting stream see matters.

They are quite committed to their principles — and they see no reason to engage in traditional politics to get their way.

Indeed, wisely, they often decide to have nothing to do with “the system”, seeing newer parties (such as the Greens) as the moral equivalent to the older parties.

Extra-parliamentary pressure is their avenue for policy change, as opposed to selecting “a winning leader” or a policy convention.

For those in parties, the drying up of donations, the evaporation of votes, the lack of ground workers for campaigns, the failure to acquire a candidate of choice — these are the causes for their sense of malaise. For those of us who found supporting their parties steadily less viable, however, our depression lifts when we finally say “enough is enough”.

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