Samara Canada released their latest report inspiring this piece on the role of political parties. Read it here.
Political parties have radically evolved in their purpose and function over the last century. What started out as coalitions of geographic and ethno-cultural groups moved into stark ideological camps. This sorting took considerable time, and was not complete until relatively recently. Political parties in the not-so-distant past used to be much broader in their opinions and members were much freer to rebuke the standard opinions found within them. This tradition has been far clearer in the United States with liberal Republicans and conservative (sometimes radically so) Democrats.
However, after the great ideological sorting was complete in Canada there seemed to be a realization that the broader population was not particularly polarized. Instead the mass of Canadians lived somewhere in the ever-dominant middle. As a result parties who sought power watered down their wine to such an extent that their grape juice-like swill was now indefinable from their peers, who they claimed to be so separate from.
It seems possible that personality-driven politics and elections are becoming more dominant as time goes on. Politicians with big personalities, charisma, notoriety or at least strong brands are in vogue. Citizens seem far less driven by policy than personality in many circumstances. I feel Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC) is an example of such a leader. I admittedly have my biases against the Liberal leader, but his popularity seems to me to be fueled entirely on his personal appeal to voters.
Contrast this to Tim Hudak (PCPO – Niagara West-Glanbrook) the PC leader of Ontario who has diligently put out policy positions but fails to outperform Andrea Horwath (ONDP – Hamilton Centre) in likeability despite her relative silence on policy. In my experience policy often has very little to do with how voters make decisions. Traditionally parties used to believe with the proper policies they could win people over. Now modern marketing and psychology reveals that values and emotion are far more likely to sway people than logic. It’s confounding, but it’s true.
In this era when power is being centralized more and more in the leaders’ office political parties are becoming less about principles and policies, but more the machinery to place one individual (or small group of individuals) into power. Their rivals are not other ideals or philosophies, but rival pretenders to the throne who seek to turn the populace against them.
I personally reject this style of politics. In 2012 I helped select Thomas Mulcair to lead the federal NDP. Were an election to be held tomorrow making Thomas Mulcair prime minister would not be the sole motivator of my vote. Instead the quality of the local candidate, the platform, the issues, and the campaign would influence my vote, donations, volunteering and support. It seems more and more voters think only of the leader and less about the other factors.
What is the purpose of political parties? It is a question that is not well answered, or perhaps more accurately, not well fulfilled by our modern parties. Which is a shame, because it’s critical for our democracy.