Canada’s political parties are dying. Oh, sure they have shaken themselves into activity for the duration of this election. The parliamentary caucuses they elect will then take the stage, and the political parties will again slide quickly into somnolence.
”œGood riddance!” is one tempting reaction. Shake off the Gomery-tainted bunch of them and say, ”œLet’s try some- thing different. Direct democracy on the Net, say. How much worse could it be?”
Sadly, the answer is: much.
With apologies to the wise old man of 20th century poli- tics, ”œParty-based democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others.” (Winston Churchill had some creden- tials to make this judgment. He switched parties three times.)
The perversions of democracy that myriad totalitarians crafted out of its visible shell, from Ho to Hussein, from Hitler to Mugabe; the contemporary circus of the proto- fascist Berlusconi televisocracy, built on the ashes of the Italian political party system, are powerful proof that real democracy requires genuinely competitive, locally rooted political parties.
One might fairly ask, ”œWhy? Could not other forms of representation work equally well?”
To those who have never witnessed riding politics up close, permit this defence of their indispensability. In com- petitive democracies, the local activist is the only guaran- tor of political accountability between elections. The media sometimes plays the role, but they are too easily conned about local sentiment. Sometimes unions, service clubs and business groups play a gadfly role, but their interests are narrow.
Only the interplay between committed and determined partisans, with their elected representatives, ensures some balance of power. They feed up to the political elite the dis- contents of the community. They disseminate down the efforts of the MP and act as her intelligence service. An active MP, with a strong local party, is rarely surprised by an emerging local issue. They are also keenly aware of the shades of local sentiment on national issues.
But today’s ridings are often shells staffed by employees of the party, the member and/or the caucus, lobbyists or repre- sentatives of special interests seeking to influence the MP’s agenda on a their issue, and a smatter- ing of the retired and the bewildered.
This is Civics 101 and Canadian taxpayers spend millions of dollars teaching this democratic catechism and attempting to foster these struc- tures in formerly totalitarian countries. Those evangelists’ home towns increasingly lack the very democratic sinews they travel the world to build.
It seems unlikely that as fragile a cre- ation as Canada would have been possi- ble without the glue of national parties. It is not clear what kind of Canada would emerge if they disappeared. It is not likely to be a confident, prosperous independent nation if the experience of others is any guide. The prospect is clos- er than the parties’ public rituals might lead you to believe.
The poor imitations of a national convention that the Liberals and the Conservatives staged this spring appalled many jaded veterans of Canadian national politics. The thin attendance, thinner media coverage, and curiously listless proceedings were only the latest marker that something is seriously wrong with the health of the country’s national parties. Yet these pale shadows of former celebrations of party opti- mism and ambition should not have been sur- prising.
Consider the following health ”œvital statistics” for the typical federal party activist:
He is a white man of Western European ethnicity approaching 60.
He gives less than three hours a year to the service of his party.
He is scarce: fewer than 50,000 and probably closer to 20,000 people across all parties (less than one in every 600 Canadians, according to William Cross, in Political Parties).
If you are still skeptical, however, consider this fish tale from the Liberal Party, our party of govern- ment, the world’s most successful democratic political party, which in the 20th century was in power longer than the Communist Party in the Soviet Union:
At the end of their farcical leader- ship contest in 2003 ”” one candidate and several disappearing stand-in opponents ”” more than half a million Canadians had become Liberal party members ”” they claimed. At this year’s March convention, according to party insiders, fewer than 2,000 gen- uine riding delegates showed up. (Again, one needs to discount from the public claims of more than 4,000 in attendance. Everyone on the Liberal caucus payroll within a hundred kilo- metres of Ottawa, and many others simply looking to score, politically or in other fields, were happily creden- tialed as delegates to fill the hall.)
Even party loyalists acknowledge the Soviet-style membership claims from the leadership contest are laugh- able. The 500,000-plus represent, after all, everyone whom the Martin cam- paign could secretly pay the costs of membership for, plus the nominal efforts of his feeble competitors, added to the normal membership rolls.
Apart from visible strength on the ground in an election campaign, the best time to take a party’s temperature is in convention. Conventions are the bonding, healing, party-building insti- tutions that keep these ramshackle institutions alive between battles. In the European democracies, before the twentieth century’s roads and railways permitted the ordinary citizen to trav- el cheaply, the political convention was a local affair. Local leaders met regionally and nationally in smaller decision-making celebrations.
There were, however, large and influential political conventions from the earliest days of party democracy. Some, such as those campaigning against slavery and war, assembled delegates across party lines. The Basel Peace Congress of 1912 was a grand emotional effort by the European left ”” drawing thousands for weeks on end ”” to prevent the outbreak of the First World War; an institutional failure it nonetheless established friendships and alliances across national boundaries for the first time at a level of the ordinary activist in the European democracies.
British party conferences are more clearly the lifeblood and renewing force of partisan politics in that democracy than are conventions any- where else. Held annually for a week in isolated locations they generate enor- mous attention, heat and light for the party and its broad leadership. Through networks of ”œfringe” meet- ings ”” unofficial side gatherings along special interest lines ”” the official party is pushed to greater vehemence on fluoridation, global warming, seal hunting barbarism, and every other conceivable political enthusiasm.
To bathe in the British political party in conference in Blackpool or Brighton, is to be awash in a sea of alcohol, adulation, apostasy and angst. Political journalists, expert in conference coverage, which always take place one week apart for three weeks in September and October, speak only half-jokingly about getting in ”œconference training” during the August political ”œsilly season.” and then taking a ”œrecovery leave” at the end of the cycle.
Canadians know American politi- cal convention style from the somewhat mocking coverage they get from our journalists. This serves Canadian readers’ understanding of the importance of these very American political rituals poorly. The snide judg- ment is partly the umbrage Canadian journalistic stars feel at the ”œnonenti- ty” treatment they get at the conven- tions, and partly simply a product of laziness in misunderstanding what is going on beneath the surface. Beneath the glitz and tawdry entertainment of an American convention lies a power equivalent to that of the more serious British party conference in cementing the bonds of commitment of the American political partisan.
To attend this year’s Liberal and Conservative party conventions, held weeks apart in Ottawa and Montreal, was to witness clear evidence of decline and irrelevance as the fate of our once great national parties. The con- ventions received little attention locally or nationally, and had no impact on public support for the party among the electorate in the post convention polls.
But we have had some great conventions ”” especial- ly leadership conventions.
The Tories in 1967, 1976, and 1983, the Liberals in 1968 and 1984, even the NDP in 1975 and 1989, were boisterous, nail- biting, entertaining and, most importantly, opinion influenc- ing events. Parties negotiated with the TV networks for months about live coverage slots, floor locations, and special con- cessions in return for ”œexclusives.” Ridings held fundraising events locally to defray their often 30-to-40-delegate representation at the convention. Youth delegates would give breathless ”” and seemingly endless ”” accounts of convention high points for the Yorkton-Melville youth delegation at riding meetings on their triumphal return home.
This year a visiting Canadian aca- demic’s painful performance as parti- san keynote speaker, Michael Ignatieff with the Liberals, and the adolescent tantrum of a party grandee, Peter MacKay for the Tories, were the news highlights. Ignatieff, probably Canada’s most important human rights and democracy theorist and as accomplished a performer as any pub- lic intellectual anywhere, gave a naiÌˆve, stumbling partisan speech. The con- tent-starved crowd was polite, not noticing Ignatieff’s thinly veiled shots at the Martin government.
The rest of the convention was downhill, from a typical Martin tub- thumper ”” free of even a hint of rhetorical skill or believable emotion. The Liberal convention was completely lacking in continuity ”” not one living party leader was in attendance or even acknowledged. Not only was Chrétien conspicuously ignored, John Turner was not even invited.
The only Liberal leaders safe to celebrate, for a party still recovering from its 15-year civil war, were dead. Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson and Judy LaMarsh were all hailed from the stage and in various side events.
Conservatives, having survived their own near-death experience of patricide and self-indulgent fac- tional bloodletting, were surprisingly much more confident in their use of their elders as part of the healing process. Preston Manning worked the floor and had his picture taken with endless delegations, like some favourite uncle with his extended family. Brian Mulroney, recovering from surgery that was much more serious than advertised only days before the convention, appeared, as always, larger than life in a booming video benediction for the awkward Stephen Harper.
Curiously, the only fire or emotion at the convention occurred when Peter MacKay, the author of the double-cross that laid the groundwork for the new party, stomped out of a workshop, furi- ous at being double-crossed. His intem- perate language, childish demeanour and adolescent threats would have been sur- prising if the cause were politically life threatening. He single-handedly ruined the first day’s coverage of the conven- tion, from the party’s point of view.
Amazingly, MacKay’s tant- rum was in reaction to the sug- gestion that in the future some form of proportionality should be used in choosing delegates to elect a leader based on numbers of activists per riding. This ves- tige of Reform Party populism had been killed in the merger agreement MacKay had ham- mered out with the Alliance.
No one expressed surprised that what MacKay was defend- ing was a rotten borough system of delegate selection. One that guaranteed PEI’s four tiny rid- ings and one hundred party activists would always be able to trump the four suburban Calgary ridings whose Lougheed/ Reform/Alliance legacy meant they were among the powerhouses of any party anywhere in the country. That their thousands of activists would get the same number of delegates as PEI’s dozens ”” forever ”” was MacKay’s demand. A curious approach to party democracy, as one visiting American journalist observed.
MacKay’s probable reason is sad for Canada ”” he knows that it will not be soon before Atlantic Canada, or many other other parts of the country will have real political activists at the riding level. We therefore need to maintain our Potemkin village rid- ings, organizations with everything constitutional, financial, and legally required to be a real political associa- tion ”” except members.
What has gone wrong in a national political culture that was once the envy of most democra- cies? What has pushed our participa- tion rates from four out of five voters in national elections a generation ago, to barely three out of five today? Did an exhausted 20th century mineworker or farmer really have more time and energy for political life than today’s office worker? And if it’s tough all over in the volunteer busi- ness, how do the anti-fur campaigners, anti-landmine evangelists, and the ”œdefend God’s traditional family” cru- saders do it? Their activists commit huge amounts of time and money.
Proof that it is possible to rebuild dynamic political parties exists in a variety of places at the provincial level. The Bloc Québécois, originally a renamed PQ only, has grown into the dominant political organization in that province today. Not a trivial achievement in the face of the toughest, most entrenched wing of the Liberal party anywhere in Canada: an organization, we have discovered, that spent at least tens of millions of taxpayers’ dollars fight- ing the Bloc and the PQ directly, in violation of federal and provincial statutes ”” and lost!
In British Columbia, with large amounts of corporate support ”” finan- cial, technical and human ”” Gordon Campbell created a new Liberal party. One had not existed in that province, in any meaningful way, for half a cen- tury. Spurred by rage at an incompe- tent government, led by a vituperative NDP premier, the business community and its allies force-fed a new political party into existence in only months of activity. A considerable feat given the power of the NDP and its longtime nemesis, Social Credit, in that most partisan of provinces.
In Ontario, first the Liberal Party was kicked out of its cycle of perpetual failure by a group around David Peterson, then the NDP managed to create enough con- viction it was capable of government around its charismatic leader Bob Rae to win, and finally, and perhaps most improbably, the Conservatives smashed back into power and into an array of Ontario sacred cows under the leadership of the jolie laide, Billy Bob Thornton char- acter from North Bay named Mike Harris. That each of their governments failed, and that each of their legacies has already begun to fade, is not the point here. They built and then rode to power rejuvenated political parties at the same time as their federal party cousins were sinking slowly into senescence.
There is increasing evidence that more Canadians now view their provinces and their cities as the levels of government they care about, and see impact of, so they are separating their federal and provincial partisan views. And the parties are beginning to behave as members of different political tribes.
Fewer than 15 percent of the Ontario delegates at the federal Conservative Party convention in Montreal in March attended its provincial equivalent only a few months earlier. Dalton McGuinty has stunned and infuriated his federal cousins by attacking the Martin gov- ernment’s treatment of Ontario ”” openly seeking the support of Jack Layton and Stephen Harper in beating up on the federal Liberals.
This extraordinary division between federal and provincial Liberals was only seen previously under Trudeau and Robert Bourassa in Quebec ”” Trudeau once famously called Bourassa a ”œmangeur de hot-dog.” Today McGuinty’s advisers brag that there is no penalty for them in attacking a Liberal prime minister in their polling, even among self-described Liberals!
We have clearly entered new ter- rain in Canadian politics: the old brands and the old loyalties are weakening, new political forces munici- pally and provincially seem able to thrive absent any federal partners, and the engagement of voters about the government of Canada is weakening across all demographic sectors.
In a political construction under such constant centrifugal pressures as Canada, any weakening of the strained exoskeleton of national unity is a real threat. When the electorate’s faith in the ability of the federal government to govern fairly, or even competently, is on a secular decline, and voters’ faith in their province to fight for their interests is on a matching ascendancy, the weakening of the national parties is doubly dangerous.
The brokerage role that Canada’s national parties have played for most of our history may often have been self-interested, but the impact was often powerfully beneficial to the strength of the national political fabric. The most powerful recent illustration is the different outcomes to our series of constitutional collisions in the past thirty years.
Joe Clark, prodded constantly by regional Conservative leaders Bill Davis and Richard Hatfield, dropped his dead-set-against stance on repatria- tion, then forced Trudeau to slow down and abandon some of the more bizarre elements of his constitutional campaign. Ed Broadbent, balancing the entirely hostile views within his own party towards Trudeau’s constitu- tional project, and the hesitant sup- port for the Charter among many party members, fought for and won important concessions from the Liberals, which made the anger and bitterness felt by Albertans, Quebecers and Aboriginal peoples less savage than it might otherwise have been.
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And federal Liberals from across Canada, often in quiet partnership with other parties’ partisans, helped find the saleable package of changes that most Canadians would accept; culminating in the tapestry that Roy Romanow, Jean Chrétien, Bill Davis, and Allan Blakeney so adroitly stitched in those fateful nights of constitutional bargaining in Ottawa in November 1981.
Yes, René Lévesque was enraged; yes, Quebec and Alberta’s grievances were left to fester to explosive levels later; and yes, Trudeau’s triumphalist approach to victory were all blemishes on this process of national political power brokerage. But contrast the chap- ter which ended with the Constitution Act and the Charter’s proclamation in April 1982 with the two chapters which followed: Meech and Charlottetown.
One may quibble about the content of the later reform efforts, but the 1980-82 product was hardly ”œlegisla- tion, drafted by gods, in its perfection” either. Although there were many dif- ferences in time and personality and public patience between the three peri- ods, one seems significant from the per- spective of this examination of partisan politics at the federal level: the decline in the power and authority of the national political parties.
From 1987 to 1990, Trudeau and Chrétien openly defied their own party’s leadership on Meech. On Charlottetown in 1992, Joe Clark fought Conservative activists’ resist- ance hard, but did not have the abili- ty to face down either Preston Manning or their provincial cousins’ hostility. The NDP’s Audrey McLaughlin was certainly not Ed Broadbent. Yet it was not even the diminished status of the federal lead- ers that crippled these efforts at national constitutional campaigning, it was the weakness of their own polit- ical organizations to win support or face down opponents that was fatal.
As recently as 1995, it took a group of terrified Liberals, assisted by dozens of donated corporate staff volunteers to throw together the O Canada! rally in the closing days of the referendum. Where was the federal Liberal Party? In truth, it doesn’t have much of a ground game in Quebec, usually relying on its cousins, the provincial Liberals.
Chrétien has said on many occa- sions that it was one of the central mis- takes of his career to agree to sit on the referendum sidelines, silenced by the provincial Liberal apparat. A more interesting puzzle is, why did he agree?
This famous fighter, the ”œno prisoners” PM at the top of his game? Because his advisers warned him he would lose a battle of public opinion with his provincial cousins in Quebec?
How ironic, in light of the Gomery revelations, to see the impo- tence and irrelevance of the federal Liberals in their 1995 Quebec strong- hold, only a decade after Trudeau’s departure. How much less consequen- tial they are today, 10 years further on, is even more frightening given the vac- uum in federal political power in Quebec this creates.
Historical ”œwhat ifs” are more useful for drinking contests between nostalgic political warriors than in understanding what might have led to different outcomes. In the case of Canada’s ongoing constitutional itch, however, it is clear that weaker national politi- cal parties will lead to a weaker confederation, perhaps unsus- tainably weaker.
Predicting Quebec politics is a game for those who believe in lotteries as a form of retirement planning. However, the renascent Bloc Québécois, the shattered federal and provincial Liberal parties, and the irrelevance of either a Tory or an NDP alternative leave a hole in the political firmament at the centre of Canada that is worrying to contemplate.
Comedian Rick Mercer made great fun of the awkward Anglo Tories nervously foraying into Montre- al. He expressed astonishment at the decision to eat box lunches in the con- crete bunker of a convention centre ”” three meals a day ”” rather than sample any of the hundreds of restaurants within spitting distance. More amazing to this observer was the sight of Monte Solberg, a fine and smooth chair, whip- ping the convention through two hours of tough internal debates ”” entirely in English! No one asked for a comment from his francophone co- chair, and none was offered. Questions from the floor in French were answered in English. It was a political time warp.
The party endorsed bilingualism by a vote of about 95 to 5 percent on a show of hands. Many Quebec journal- ists sneered that the Conservative Party of Canada had now endorsed Canada’s Official Languages Act, 35 years after its passage. But official bilingualism is still not a great idea in Wild Rose country or even in parts of southwestern Ontario. Only a political party with national ambitions has the will and the capability to push such provocative nation-building initiatives onto a skeptical activist core.
How can the parties get their groove back?
What Al Gore calls the ”œdialogue of democracy” has been denigrated by the power of money and technology, corporate dominance of political life combined with television. He observes that the thirty-second attack ad more often dishonours democracy than illu- minates it, that this shallow discourse is a sad replacement for the careful study of thousands of copies of the federalist papers by a huge percentage of early American democrats.
We ahistoric Canadians are mostly unaware of the powerful role full page newspaper essays by Robert Baldwin and Louis H. LaFontaine, William Lyon Mackenzie and George Brown similarly had on the early development of Canadian democracy. Politics mattered to those who were one generation away from autocracy. It matters less to those who are more than a century away from the first experience of the freedom of universal suffrage and liberal democracy.
How to generate an enthusiasm for, and a hunger to participate in, democrat- ic choice to a populace made cynical by the collapse of ideology, and its replacement by image-driven politics, is a conundrum facing each of the established democracies. Each is suffering declining participation rates in elections, weakening party structures, and aging activist profiles. Only the ”œactive immi- gration policy” societies such as Canada and the United States mask this phenomenon of declin- ing interest with the greater elec- toral role played by recently anointed citizen immigrants.
Some things are proven false gods in democratic trans- formation. One of them is pro- portional representation. Changing the way voters choose their representatives can have dramatic consequences, but it is not likely to change voters enthusiasm for the task of dem- ocratic selection or the outcome.
Some consequences are clear: there will be more parties, there will be more parties in government, turnout is likely to rise ”” at least temporarily ”” if only because more choices lead to more voters resisting the ”œnone of the above” decision. Are PR-derived governments ”œbetter,” more ”œefficient,” more ”œdemo- cratic”? Maybe, but not necessarily, is the only discouraging conclusion that one can draw from the observable evidence. PR systems do not necessarily lead to more instability ”” the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium’s unshakeable, permanent government-by-small coali- tion-tweaks are proof that conservatives need not worry that PR will deliver an Italian- style government of the week. Nor do they deliver radical change; stale- mate is as common in a pure PR system as in ours ”” ask Ariel Sharon.
Sadly, from a Canadian perspective, neither do they necessarily deliver any greater sense of regional balance and fair- ness in government. The rich and popu- lous German states dominate that PR system. Scotland and Wales have achieved greater regional decision- making power in the what has been called the world’s most unfair and unbal- anced first-past-the-post system: the United Kingdom.
Nor is increasing the dependence of the parties on the public teat any guarantee of greater participation or transparency. It is not my purpose to analyze the tragedy of the Chrétien government’s deathbed destruction of Canada’s 30-year-old election expenses system. Suffice it to say, banning corporations from playing a role in federal politics will be as successful as prohibition was in the trade in alcohol. It will create and foster the criminal approach to politics and political fundraising that marked Quebec’s similar decision a quarter-century earlier.
Parties’ expenses should be limit- ed, their donors declared within days of the cash arriving, and donors do deserve a tax credit. But a party capable of raising more money from more donors should be permitted to. Imposing limits on that proof of sup- port is unfair and unenforceable. Charities that are hugely successful at fundraising are usually those that use the funds most effectively and have the widest degree of public support. Why should our standard for political parties be any different?
Four small ideas with a potentially large impact have been proposed by those who have looked at the experience of ”œparty building” in developing democracies.
First, it is important that politics does not become a synonym for fundraising. Yes, it is the mother’s milk, but in America is has become the heroin addiction. Why? Television.
The cost of television advertising soaks up one-half to two-thirds of all election spending in the US. As the last presidential cycle collected and spent over a billion dollars, this is not trivial if one is the owner of a TV station. But the escalation in cost, rhetoric and per- vasiveness is unsustainable. The Swift Boats libels escalate, their reach is extended by new covert cycles of fund- ing, and each side pushes rhetoric and frequency to numbing levels. We are on the verge of the same cycle of escalation in Canada.
The solution is one that was con- sidered by the 1972 Parliament, which adopted Canada’s much admired election expenses system but dropped it in the face of TV networks’ resistance.
Each national party would get an allocation of TV advertising time, to be awarded on the same formula as other forms of subsidy. The amount will approximate one minute per primetime hour per station, divided among the par- ties, for the five weeks of the campaign. The networks and stations would be paid a negotiated market price by Elections Canada. No other election advertising could be bought or sold, neither by party campaigns, nor by third parties.
To this well recognized structure I would add two tweaks: no ad less than sixty seconds ”” it’s harder to be mean- ingless and rude for sixty seconds than thirty. Secondly, end the charade of free time spots on radio and TV. They are an irritant to the parties, the sta- tions and the listeners.
The second change to the rules would be to push parties to spend money between campaigns on party-building, rather than blowing a budget amount more than they could ever raise in a five-week campaign, and then wasting four years of party activism trying to retire the debt.
Public policy mavens encourage skepticism about the wisdom of using funding models to change behaviour, but our parties have so amply demon- strated their addiction to the crystal meth of modern politics ”” the 30- second attack ad ”” that an exception may be called for. Granting a portion of party subsidy in the form of conven- tion or regional party meeting travel assistance would give legitimacy to this aspect of party life, and help to ensure that the sad state to which party meet- ings have sunk begins to be addressed.
Third, a separate source of funding for the parties to create think tanks or permanent policy forums seems at least as legitimate a use of taxpayers’ dollars as subsidizing moronic television ads. You helped pay for that bizarre, student- video quality, Tory ad with a garbage truck loading dollar bills last year. We all also helped the Liberals launch their guns and goblins attack ads. I’d rather some of that money went to the creation of serious thinking opportunities in each of the political families. We know that they don’t have the ability to wean themselves off their addictions without help, let’s offer them that tough love.
Interestingly, it was the early American CIA and the British SIS that set up the pioneers of this model in de- Nazifying Germany. The German polit- ical foundations ”” one for each of their four parties ”” are now domestic and international powerhouses in poli- cy research at home and in democracy- building internationally.
The fourth thread would be to take a page from Australian experi- ence and make voting a family affair, on a Saturday, compulsory if you are over 16 years of age.
A conference of thoughtful political hacks, real world academics, and experts from other disciplines and cul- tures could no doubt enhance and tweak these small party building ideas. As we increasingly offer ourselves to the world as the source of constitutional and judi- cial system wisdom, perhaps we might be modest enough to solicit advice on how to rebuild our ailing party system. It is not extravagant to suggest that without tough, passionate, vision- ary political parties, Canada could not have existed. Sir John A. Macdonald might have been able to command a nation into being, united by his per- sonal dynamism and tough military oppression, but it seems unlikely.
The Progressives, the 19th century Socialist Party of Canada, the CCF, Reform and Social Credit helped Canada find a self-definition more humane than the template to the south, more tolerant of diversity and dissent; and a national politics, more honest by virtue of their constant chal- lenge to corrupt duopoly. However horrified and enraged we are by the revelations in front of Judge Gomery, Canada’s political system remains one of the cleanest on the planet. Ironically, Gomery will ensure we reach a higher plateau, just as Judge John J. Sirica did for a generation of Americans more than 30 years ago.
The brokerage role so despised of true believers among partisans that the national parties played in each of the ”œimmigrant nations” were essential to their nation building. Maybe a post- modern democracy no longer needs these strange three-legged creatures to help mold national identity and pur- pose. Maybe some form of direct democracy driven by electronic refer- enda and round-the-clock temperature testing of the electorate’s twitches is more appropriate to today’s atomized collection of ”œbowlers alone.”
Human history shows, however, too clearly the path to tyranny that a malleable citizenry, easily moved, takes. With few strong institutions capable of bridging the immediate and the needs of a new generation; of bal- ancing self and community interest, or managing complex community trade- offs where today’s losers cannot always out-shout tomorrow’s winners, democ- racy cannot prevail.
We can sneer at an Italy in thrall to the modern Goebbelsry of the Berlusconi television state. We can tut- tut quietly to ourselves about the sad failure of a Japan or Mexico or Turkey to find a path to democracy after gen- erations of faking it. But we cannot, at the same time, ignore what unites them all ”” failed attempts at creating competitive political parties ”” espe- cially if we are to claim our greater virtue in the face of how low an ebb our parties have arrived at.
We can even indulge in our favourite proof of national virtue, regarding with raised eyebrow the compromised judici- ary, the one-party city governments and the endless corruption trials of American political life. But the engagement with their electorates, the vitality the American parties exhibit in most areas of their vast polity, can only make a Canadian partisan drool. This is new. Only a decade ago similar eulogies about the US party structure were conventional wisdom. They reversed the decline.
An attempt to replace vibrant national political parties with shallow regionally and factionally based parties kept alive on a steady drip of taxpayer revenue and legerde- main won’t work as an alternative to our traditional institutions. Indeed, the German and French experience is that parties kept alive through public subsidy decline even more quickly into corruption and irrelevance.
But fear not. This failure will not lead to apocalypse, only a relatively painless slow decline. We are not head- ed for another round of constitutional head banging: too little passion remains to sustain such a contest. I do not share Michael Ignatieff’s angst that we are in need of ”œbold, new ideas not seen for a generation.”
Rather this failure will unfold in a more Canadian fashion, slowly, imper- ceptibly, with few Cassandras to be ignored. One day, we will wake to dis- cover we have become the new Argentina: a country of ample national pride, a deep sense of history and culture, a vast nation full of yesterday’s potential. A nation governed by shallow men and women of shallower virtue. Leaders with the support of ever-diminishing fractions of the electorate, successfully leaping from one evanescent government to the next, each built on faction, region, greed and ennui.
Until, of course, someone arrives who cares enough to demand an end to the cool ennui of decline ”” the cit- izen/ leader who organizes that small cadre of the committed that always catalyzes change. Together they look to others’ more successful experience and history. With all the tools of modern persuasion they plot a new direction. A new institution, built on a different vision emerges, and pre- vails. Later ”” as in the case of a Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney or a George W. Bush ”” what was improbable, has become inevitable.
The societal defence mechanism of decline/rebirth has saved many democracies at desperate times ”” England’s Reform Laws, America’s New Deal. What makes our challenge so complicated is that the times seem so free from peril. The decline of one of the keystones of our democracy ”” national political parties ”” seems so painless, meaningless, unconnected to our vaunted economic and social triumphs.
Let’s hope that it is not too long before that small group of the commit- ted recognizes that those successes are underpinned by our democratic mus- cle, that their 21st century vision of national political will begins the next cycle of rebirth. Soon.