One of the things to like about the Conservative Party of Canada is its broad, shallow, “retail” donor base. One of the things to dislike about the CPC is exactly that same means of raising prodigious sums of money. Before you call me schizophrenic, stay with me for a moment and see why it is both a blessing and a curse.
“Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” It’s not, of course, that money plays any different a role in politics than it plays in any other field of human endeavour. Athletes need money to be free of working for any purpose other than their training, and to be able to afford to compete at the levels required for world competitiveness. Non-profits, in doing their work, need the funds to carry out their missions. Policy influence study groups need to be funded so as to pay the costs of researching and publishing their papers. Entrepreneurs need investors so as to be able to handle the start up period, when costs far outrun revenues and the newborn business is nurtured to health and potential prosperity. In all these cases, how the money comes in matters.
Have just a few funders, each of whom writes a large cheque, and you have an oligarchy (even if its members do not know the others) that, by virtue of its financial support and the weight of worry if it were lost in the future, have a significant voice in the direction of affairs in the endeavour they are funding. Have thousands of small funders, on the other hand, and those voices are stilled: the loss of a few dollars is not something that keeps the leadership of an organisation up at night, but the potential loss of hundreds of thousands all at once can cause a ready loss not only of sleep, but rationality, with worry.
What’s to Like: I said in the beginning that the broad donor base of the CPC was something to like. If I’m a donor to anything — a subscriber to start-up capital, a charitable subvention, or a political campaign — I want to know that my money will be used for the things I expect it to be used for. A broad donor base helps ensure this: the party can reasonably conclude that the record of accomplishments and policy options for the future that it puts “on the table” are what is being subscribed to with the donations. As a result, there is little reason not to stay the course, as it is the ebbs and flows of funds in their thousands of droplets that gives an indication of what the “political market” wants, as opposed to just a few voices with the undertone of “be reasonable, do it my way … or else”.
It can — and has been, many times — be objected that this reduces political participation to “consumer” behaviour rather than the involved interactions of being a citizen. Does it surprise you that we act as consumers? For most people of voting age, their entire life has been spent barraged and assaulted by the presumption that they ought to be consumers. That this message should have been internalised ought not to be a surprise. Nor should, in such a world, we be surprised that a political party “gets it” — and treats their donors in precisely the right way to trigger the “consumer” response mechanism.
What’s Not to Like: Alas, every upside does come with a downside. The downside of mass political donation rather than élite accommodation (lubricated by funds) is that there is no easy mechanism to say “hold on, guys, you’re on the wrong track”. The power brokers of old, after all, were steeped in the on-going conversation (both via the media and directly over lunches, drinks and social encounters) of other influencers in the land. High names in one sphere of endeavour — a Jeffrey Simpson, say, in print media — have their calls taken by another high name in another sphere — a Paul Demerais, say. Influence could thus be brought to bear on political parties to adjust their policy vectors — in ways “appropriate” to the large influencers, of course, but there was a path to make this happen.
This is the pattern that operates the Liberal Party, and operated the historical Progressive Conservative Party. Our New Democrats are less so, even despite the long-standing “union connections”. Greens, the Bloc and Reform/CA, on the other hand, were and are all resolutely “grassroots” driven — and it is this strain that influences the CPC today.
”Grassroots” Is a Mixed Blessing: Alas, a permanent policy “conversation” does not occur within parties. It is considered by one and all to be a source of “off message diversions”. Today the Greens, in public, do the best job, with their many Green bloggers linked via their party website, but even there’s a lot of self-policing going on. As a result, the “grassroots” becomes a means of taking over an EDA (riding association) or forcing a candidate upon a riding by weight of temporary numbers — and a source of funds. That’s it, tout court.
EDAs, in turn, are focused on getting their candidate elected at the next opportunity. A free-ranging policy discussion unfolding over months would “tear the association apart” (in the words of one EDA president) or “lose our focus on getting [the candidate] elected” (in the words of another). Yet, without these links back to the party itself, the money comes without its voice. There is the illusion of participation, but not the reality of it. “Turn out your troops for the ground war, keep us flush with cash … and otherwise know your place.” This seems to be the anthesis to the thesis of élite accommodation.
The “Chrétien Revolution”: The closing days of the Chrétien government, as we know, changed election financing in this country to make the micro-funder supreme. This is, on the whole, a good thing (although its impact on leadership selection and other aspects of party management has yet to be fully figured out): more of us can decide, month by month, who to reward and who to punish with our dollars. (The parties, on the other hand, will be working to get the vast majority of Canadians to stick a crowbar in their wallets in the first place. As with any other “consumer” situation, the by-far-largest share of the market is held by “not interested in what you’re offering”.)
Now, as the Liberals try to ramp up their micro-donor base with their Victory Fund, and the Conservative Fund keeps on massing its monies, and the New Democrats turn in substantial-enough performances at the cashbox, the second half of this revolution must be undertaken. In this, the burden will be on the donor. Part of this comes by demanding that gag laws and other anti-democratic initiatives be put to rest: parties no longer need protection, nor an exclusive field. Issues, indeed, are far closer to the future of politics than parties in a stream of minority governments! — and far more likely to engage that growing body of Canadians who can, but won’t, take part. The other part is that we must engage with EDAs and other structures and bring democratic discussion to them.
These considerations apply regardless of party — and just as much to issue-oriented groups as to classic political venues. To only give money — and not to bring your voice into the fray, somewhere — is to essentially allow those in charge to do as they please. After all, these days, there isn’t the restraint traditionally offered by the élites.
It’s our money: our voice comes with it. Only then will the synthesis of the new power arrangements be complete.