Tag Archives: issues

Post-Party Depression

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?

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 “depression” 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 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) shows is 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 an anachronism. As BlueGreenBlogger noted, we don’t need mass media (the means by which mass parties “get their message out”). As I would note, we can 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. Commentator Bec at Blue Like You, for instance, exemplifies this point.

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. In other words, the Harper who leads a Conservative Party that stands for these principles:

  • A balance between fiscal accountability, progressive social policy and individual rights and responsibilities;
  • The Conservative Party will operate in a manner accountable and responsive to its members;
  • A belief in the equality of all Canadians;
  • A belief that the best guarantors of the prosperity and well-being of the people of Canada are: (1)The freedom of individual Canadians to pursue their enlightened and legitimate self-interest within a competitive economy; (2) The freedom of individual Canadians to enjoy the fruits of their labour to the greatest possible extent; and (3) The right to own property;
  • A belief that a responsible government must be fiscally prudent and should be limited to those responsibilities which cannot be discharged reasonably by the individual or others;
  • A belief that the purpose of Canada as a nation state and its government, guided by reflective and prudent leadership, is to create a climate wherein individual initiative is rewarded, excellence is pursued, security and privacy of the individual is provided and prosperity is guaranteed by a free competitive market economy;
  • A belief that good and responsible government is attentive to the people it represents and has representatives who at all times conduct themselves in an ethical manner and display integrity, honesty and concern for the best interest of all.

has no business deciding to:

  • Overthrow fiscal accountability with a slush fund approach to spending.
  • Ignore those members who want to maintain the principle of fiscal responsibility.
  • Makes some Canadians (e.g. auto sector) “more equal” than others.
  • Take over decisions from individual Canadians by burdening them with debt repayment for multiple generations.
  • Overthrow fiscal prudence by massive deficit financing (and approving of the destruction of the Canadian currency by the Bank of Canada).
  • Massively meddle in the economy, deciding which old economy forces will be winners (at the expense of their peers, other businesses in trouble, and the creation of a twenty-first century economy for Canada.
  • Creates a situation where the ethical probity of his Government, Ministers and Members will now be able to be called into question.

while demanding the loyalty of Conservatives with more moral fibre than him.

But, for a party supporter like Gerry Nicholls, whether on his blog or in the press, or for a commentator who is not a party member like <a href=”http://blog.macleans.ca/2009/01/29/the-right-in-full-retreat/”Andrew Coyne, whether reporting on the budget or the abandonment of principle in our politics, just as with me, principle is the core of moral fibre. I know in my own case that I have respect for those who truly believe in other principles and are consistent in their application, even when I think them wrong.

But Coyne is right. Canadians who adhere to the principle of fiscal conservatism are on the outside looking in. For myself, I am not searching for another party, a new party or any party.

This is one of my issues. 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 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. The second group would lead one to the Conservatives, but not the first. Which is to be abandoned?

Why have to make the decision? Why not work with two issue groups: one that presses for environmental 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 depression. For those of us who found supporting their parties steadily less viable, however, our depression lifts when we finally say “enough is enough”.

Postscript: The Media

Previously I have lamented the media’s focus on horse races and process rather than issues. The good news about giving up on parties and leaders is that the traditional media loses any further relevance as well. (Blogs, Facebook Groups, Tweets, and the like, on the other hand, bring together people around individual issues.) In other words, the inadequacies and poor service of our media in Canada is something that will end soon: dead due to a lack of interest.

If you choose to continue to sop up political media by the (Imperial) gallon or the dekalitre, or see value in being a party supporter, go right ahead. I just find it so much easier to sleep at night not caring any more about the polls, the latest twist in the wind, and the latest betrayal of principle.

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Getting Outside the Bubble

Whether we know it or not, we all live in bubbles. It is human nature to prefer the company — real or virtual — that we find congenial. This often translates, these days, into “people who agree with me”.

So co-religionists flock to co-religionists; party members flock to fellow party members; people in technical roles (accountancy, human resources, IT, etc.) gather with others of their work in industry associations and the like; and so on. This, in turn, fits those we choose to feed our desires for opinions.

When, for instance, a die-hard Conservative says “the CBC is against the Conservative Party”, what is meant is “I didn’t hear anyone on there I could agree with”. It’s easy to find evidence of bias if you’re looking for it. At the start of the G-20 meeting in Washington, for instance, footage of Prime Minister Harper walking with President Bush was shown. Easy to think this was at the conference, but the light seemed wrong: too bright and intense for November. Then, too, it was a shirt-sleeve environment in the shot. This was probably stock footage, rather than live coverage (which is typically by pool cameras in any case and therefore seldom shows anything Canadian) — but it didn’t say so. Bias? or fairly reported. You decide. I think it was just available footage as opposed to anything sinister.

Of course, “we report, you decide” is the slogan of the either deeply beloved or utterly despised Fox News Channel, isn’t it? I can report — having spent a few days with an American friend of mine who is a Fox News junkie and has his big screen on from morning to night — that FNC is actually two channels. Morning and afternoon programming actually does, for the most part, live up to the promise of “fair and balanced”, more so than most other 24/7 news channels. As afternoon starts to slide toward evening, however, it turns into an obvious and often vicious news twister carrying forward messages that support Fox’s party of choice.

How can I mention the CBC and FNC in the same breath? Well, because I do try to get outside my own bubbles of like-minded thinkers.

I found watching FNC in the evening very hard to do, even when I was on the same side of an issue they were reporting in a favourable manner, mostly because they were so obviously so over the top in twisting things. Still, it’s good to check out other bubbles occasionally, and to try and be open enough to them to “peer behind the curtain”.

This is also why, for instance, I stay away from joining a partisan or issue-centric aggregator. Sure, I could have more traffic for this blog (although it keeps growing by word of mouth as more people find it or are referred to it). I might generally support the ideals of the Conservative Party, and do think Prime Minister Harper hasn’t done a bad job overall. (Expecting perfection — or perfectibility — is a mug’s game anyway.) Does that mean he’ll (or his party) have my support next week? Perhaps not. For the fact that I send money to parties — and in the last two years the NDP and the Conservatives have received funds, as have candidates for the NDP and the Green Party — does not mean I am a die-hard partisan. I have standards and principles and positions on issues, but my blood does not run with the rhetoric of “my party, right or wrong”.

But I do enjoy — and consider essential — reading quality writers from all the major threads of thought and political stripe. (I have little time for tripe, and less stomach for it. Nor do I want to weed through masses of screaming, foul invective, outright twisting of the facts or character assassination, regardless of issue or position on the political spectrum. Rabid Conservatives are generally as noxious as are Rabid Liberals (Warren Kinsella, anyone?), Rabid NDPers or Rabid Greens.) Passion is fine, so is commitment: just try to convince me and retain your own integrity while you do that.

We need to get out of the bubbles we inhabit because more and more issues we must deal with — from the economy, to the environment, to the military, to the question of national investments, and so on — don’t “fit” the classic shorthands for allegiance. Party tents may well be “big” (or at least the attempt is made) but we are coming to a time where more and more discussions must cross boundaries to succeed in finding ways to move forward. Listening to only one’s own group of voices can’t do that.

If so many people don’t vote and don’t care to vote, could it be because the system as it is now has nothing and no one for whom they wish to vote?

Think about this for a minute. It’s assumed that if a party has the right policies to put in its “shop window” and a charismatic leader that victory can be achieved. But what if the citizen says “you know, I like this but I can’t stand that”? The presumption of a “big tent” is that that citizen would hold his or her nose to vote for what they like. Perhaps instead people are saying “I’m not holding my nose: figure me out”.

Is this a recipe for further fragmentation in our politics? Most likely, and that implies the need to undertake some structural reforms to deal with that. Why was Chuck Cadman so admired in 2005? Wasn’t his election as an Independent something that gave him, when it mattered, the chance to act on his promises rather than vote a party line? The opposition parties ask — even demand — that the Government listen to their proposals and act on them. When the Government, in turn, takes idea “a” from one party, idea “b” from another and puts forward a course of action that contains these alongside the Government’s own electoral commitments and policies, why do we hear screaming that the Government is acting in arrogance rather than praise for having picked up “a” and “b”?

Echo chambers, that’s why. The number of people looking for co-operative, cross-boundary action is apparently smaller than the number of people who are “to the wall” partisans. Certainly the media’s approach — talking heads fulfilling “roles” in ritualized combat — and the Parliamentary game of sound-bite dominance aid and abet this.

Perhaps the non-voters are part of the cross-boundary community: their voice just isn’t heard on television, on radio, in the papers or in the Commons.

So, if you’re a Conservative, read Liberals and NDP (and so on). If you’re a Liberal, stop despising Conservatives as unethical (they’re not; they just use more moral principles than you do to reach a position, as Jonathan Haidt talked about at the TED conference) and NDPers as “Liberal vote stealers” and enter their worlds. If you’re in support of the NDP … well, you should get the idea.

After all, with new ideas and a disturbing of a “too comfortable” and “closed” mind-set, the bubble you save may be your own.

Will Obama Face the American Reality?

As I write (19.32 PT) the networks have noted that there’s no path to 270 electoral votes for the McCain campaign; once the counting moves a little farther along Obama will show the required number of electors to win the US election. For the half a million or more waiting in Grant Park, Chicago to celebrate the victory, one more speech about change and hope probably awaits.

Tomorrow begins the education in reality. And so the question turns to: will the new American President actually deal in reality?

Fantasy land, for instance, assumes that the current drop in the price of oil and petrol are a return to “normalcy”. Reality recognizes that global petroleum supplies are strained, and becoming more so, as producing countries use more and more of their own production, as production is absorbed in greater quantities in more places in the world, and that therefore the future is far more like Atlanta and region experienced this fall — shortages, a failure to deliver product, no oil at any price — and that therefore a country whose entire economy is based on cheap road-based transport, many miles of commuting daily (by car, and especially for running the errands of modern life), big box shopping, etc. just cannot be sustained as is.

Fantasy land believes in alternative fuels, even though the EROEI (energy recovered on energy input) for, say, ethanol, is at best 1:1. A century ago, one barrel of oil produced 100 new ones. Today, in the US oil fields, one barrel of oil produces one barrel of oil, and slightly less than one barrel-equivalent of alternatives. Reality says our great petroleum-based society must be reconfigured, with new infrastructure, and far more locality of production.

Fantasy land believes that financial capitalism and ever-increasing growth will be resumed just as soon as the looting of the US Treasury and the treasuries of many other countries bears fruit and bails out the financial sector. Reality says those days are gone, and we must not only earn our way forward, we must pay off the accumulated debts of the past while we do it. (For Canadians, who saw Chrétien and Martin “balance the books” through tax increases and the destruction of provincial finances, the pain of the 1990s will be as a pin-prick compared to the national car crash complicated by cancer that is America.)

Fantasy land believes that “we owe our debt to ourselves”. Reality recognizes that it is owed to others — who are getting nasty about redeeming it. Fantasy land says there’s no problem financing ten times as much debt per month as the amount to be financed a year ago. Reality knows that the end of this game is very near, and that deficits cannot be run. To have universal medical care, 500+ overseas bases and at least one fleet must be retired — the US can no longer have guns and butter.

As with another pioneer from Illinois, Obama will face challenges no less potentially fatal to the American Union as were Lincoln’s travails as the Confederate States seceeded, with the Civil War to follow. Let us hope these are not personally fatal, as Lincoln found them to be.

A President — and a Congress — that deals in reality in the United States would be a most welcome change not only for America, but for the world. Happy Election Day, my American friends. May you rediscover your Republic and forgo your Imperium, burying it as the last dregs of the twentieth century that it is, carried over by Bush-Cheney even as the calendar changed.

Making Them Hear the Voice of the People

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.