Sunday, July 08, 2018

No More Parties?

As discussion in the public square gets uglier and uglier, Andrew Nikiforuk returns to a suggestion Simone Weil made over eighty-five years ago: It's time to abolish political parties:

Simone Weil, a French philosopher and mystic, concluded that political parties had become organizations dedicated to one purpose: “killing in all souls the sense of truth and justice.”
Although her radical essay calling for the abolition of political parties wasn’t published until 1950, it remains the only polished political stone on a beach now smothered in plastic.

Weil believed that political parties smothered the search for truth,  justice and democracy:

Weil measured the performance of political parties against three critical things that matter in life: truth, justice and the public interest. She found that they dishonored all three principles because a party’s essential character was anathema to such pursuits.
To Weil all political parties possess three dangerous traits: they work as machines to “generate collective passions;” they strive to exert pressure upon the minds of their members with propaganda; and they have but one goal — to promote their own growth “without limits.”
As such, every party becomes a means to an end and that end can only be totalitarian in nature.
Weil, then, regarded political parties as self-augmenting and self-serving entities primarily concerned about gaining and securing power.

Weil's diagnosis appears particularly accurate these days:

Today we’d recognize many of these characteristics in the constant campaigning, the rigorous branding and the ruthless employment of techniques to engineer votes either through Facebook or data miners like Cambridge Analytica
A 2014 book, Tragedy In the Commons, shed much light on the whole totalitarian story.
Based on interviews with exiting Canadian politicians, the authors found that their subjects shared a near total disdain for the discipline, feuds and partisanship of the party system. “As power consolidates under the party leader and staff, MPs become increasingly powerless and the voters increasingly disenfranchised, making the misfortune of this behaviour all the more acute,” concluded the authors.

So perhaps it's time our politicians took Weil's suggested oath of office:

“Whenever I shall have to examine any political or social issue, I swear I will absolutely forget that I am the member of a certain political group; my sole concern will be to ascertain what should be done in order to best serve the public interest and justice.”

Pie in the sky? Perhaps. But consider the alternative.

Image: Colin Bennett


Toby said...

Many years ago, I heard (or imagined) Rafe Mair saying that BC had no political parties in its early years. I have not been able to find verification. What he may have said is that BC had no political whips or that political parties were so loose as to be ineffectual. It was probably W.A.C. Bennett who polished the party system we now have in BC.

Regardless of my memory and lousy Internet searching skills, our present party system stinks. We elect dictators. It's like choosing kings; we hope we find a benevolent one and are usually disappointed.

By the way, I have several times tried to get around Privy Councils by writing to the Party in power. Never have I received even an acknowledgement or redirection. Nothing other than requests for money.

the salamander said...

.. I love this topic !
In my view - Step One is eliminate Party Whips
I thought the whole point of electoral ridings was to represent the constituents - dreams, needs and wishes. Off to Ottawa or Provincial capitals etc.. goes the elected 'public servant'.. to uh.. be of service to the public. No deals, no tradeoffs.. find out what the riding constituents feel on important issues (not your policies or Party policies.. but theirs).. and go represent it. That you are trusted to do so.. is why those people elected you.

Political Parties now run on fumes of yesteryear and corruption. Look at British Columbia, where Christy Clark, a so called 'Liberal' thrived with nice hair & a pretty smile while using taxpayer $, Crown Assets as a piggybank & slush fund to attract corporate donors.. quid pro quo.. and offered secret sweetheart deals. Her main Ministers were all in. Did 'Rich' Coleman finally surface? Ms Clark was handed a 'safe seat' when she was defeated in her riding, by her constituents.. so you really never lose.. and now she is on the Board of Shaw.. for what 1/4 million for a few sessions in the boardroom ?

Ms Redford of Alberta was busy feathering a taxpayer paid penthouse when she was caught in between endless private jet scams for her and her daughter. We still don't know who funds Jason Kenny. The list is endless of career political animals expecting to be 'made whole' and as multi millionaires. Harper. Baird, Tony Clement made out like bandits. Ms Rona Abrose via her rodeo boy stockbroker vacations aboard the super yacht of the guy who's dam burst in BC.

This is just a taste of partisan Party politics..the tricks are endless.. and most of Main Media has sold out. Big Oil hammered some 13 swing ridings in Ontario recently.. hello majority for Doug Ford who had all the ex Harper backroom folks, Jenni Byrne, Ken Boessenkool et al and a whack of big dough for media and hype. Its all gone toxic in the Party koolaid jugs but nobody can resist

Deacon Jester said...

Voters would be lost without the labels. Turnout would plummet. The craziest of the crazies would win.

Lorne said...

I read Tragedy of the Commons, Owen. it confirmed my deep cynicism about politics today. The only chance of remediation, it seems to me, is for greater numbers of people to vote in order to send a message to our representatives that they are being watched closely by the electorate, and will be held accountable.

Owen Gray said...

Responsible government used to mean that constituents elected representatives and the representatives elected their leader, Toby. Now things are exactly backwards. The leader is elected, chooses the representatives and presents them to the constituents. We've turned the system upside down.

Owen Gray said...

It's about getting the best government money can buy, sal -- and who has the money to do the buying.

Owen Gray said...

That doesn't say much for the wisdom of the elctorate, Deacon. But, then, given the choices they have recently made in the United States and Ontario, wisdom appears to be in short supply.

Owen Gray said...

Elections have always been about turnout, Lorne -- how many voters turn out and where they turn out. A turnout of between 70-75 percent used to be the norm. We now hover in the 50-55 percent range. No wonder we're in a bad way.

The Mound of Sound said...

The conflicts of interest between our partisan political caste and the public who elect them are broad and deep. Political parties function as enterprises - look at how they serve the big accountancies and the chartered banks. We're already seeing political capture underway in Canada.

The National Energy Board is a perfect example of regulatory capture where the board is stacked with people with deep ties to the energy industry. In 2015 Trudeau denounced them as corrupt and promised new hearings, new evaluations to replace the rigged outcomes on pipelines and such. Once in power he quietly adopted those patently rigged approvals. Then the Trudeau government - not Harper, Trudeau - told senior public servants that it was their job to come up with arguments justifying the TransMountain pipeline. Corrupt? Absolutely.

Electoral reform? Trudeau, like Horgan in BC, is not going to upset the Liberal enterprise by abandoning FPTP, even if he had tattooed the promise on his back.

Wait, there's an idea. The leader of each party shall have the party's platform tattooed on his back. Should that leader come to power and then renege on a particular promise, that part of the tattoo will be excised by flaying.

Kip Hardy said...

there is a fixation on the equivalence of voting and democracy

because so few elected representatives have understood their constitutional function, the tendency to identify "party" over "policy" has subsumed all discourse, creating a feedback loop of willful ignorance defined by gratuitous and extremely harmful intolerance

ditch the parties

ban electoral advertising

only candidates can go door to door

no signs, no tv or radio ads, just open-houses in the school auditoriums and libraries tax payers already pay for

all candidates are given a web page to post their platform on, all other web activity, or "social" media activity is illegal. all e-mails and responses concerning their election must be openly posted on the candidates web page

all positions related to elected representation and paid for with tax money are in line for an elected representative - ie the person who wins the most votes becomes the riding's MP, the person who wins the next most votes becomes the MP's "assistant", the person who wins the third most votes runs the MP's office, etc


Owen Gray said...

Big money is embedded in our political system, Mound. Our parties spend a lot of time fundraising. And, if a plank from a party's platform gets in the way of the money tree, it's easier to get rid of the plank than it is to give the money back.

Owen Gray said...

Excellent suggestions, Kip. Under Chretien, we were moving in that direction. Unfortunately, that direction was not Stephen Harper's direction.

BJ Bjornson said...

I live under consensus government (no parties). All three territories were under this style of government, but the Yukon switched to a party system and I suspect it will not be long before the NWT and Nunavut do the same. It’s nice in principle, but really not that great in practice. As bad as parties are, they do at least have a slate of issues they agree on and policies they will attempt to enact if elected. Electing a bunch of individuals who then elect a leader and cabinet means you really have no idea what kind of government you are going to wind up with. There is effectively no platforms, because to have a platform means you have a slate of candidates running on an agreed-upon set of issues and positions. Meaning a party.

One of the big complaints about our government is that it is run by the bureaucrats, which both is and isn’t true. The true part is that without a power and research base of their own, the MLAs are stuck with what the bureaucrats tell them. The Premier can and does appoint the Deputy Heads of the departments and agencies, and so can control things quite a lot if they are of mind to and know where to find like-minded candidates to appoint. But that effectively means a party organization of sorts without that party being visible and accountable. (And even worse, really hard to get rid of once in place.)

It also means a strong inertial preference for the status quo. Getting a majority of individual MLAs to back anything risky, with the bureaucracy being risk-adverse by design, and far more knowledgable of government functions than the elected members, who don’t have a party apparatus and historical operatives to fall back on for alternate takes (or at least not an official one), and nobody committed to such changes since each elected member goes it alone in the elections for just their own riding, meaning there are few if any shared ideals or visions for what the government is supposed to do with their mandate.

It isn’t dysfunctional, but it also doesn’t accomplish much. And how do you hold your MLA accountable for what the government does if you aren’t really sure how much of the government’s agenda they actually agreed with? How often do you look up how your MP or MLA voted on specific bills? Or ask them for reasons on why they did or did not support such bills? And how sure can you be that the person you replace them with will be any better? Elect an individual, and you have to pay far more attention to the goings on of the legislature, and if that individual gets into cabinet, they are required to vote with the government anyways, or resign their position, so how do you separate what they voted on because they agreed with it to what they voted on because they thought it was more important to stay in their position and get something else passed than resign? Parties give us an effective shorthand for most of these questions, even if not 100% accurate.

Long-winded way to say that I really doubt parties are going anywhere. There is a reason they have developed everywhere there is a democratic form of government. Voting reform I can get behind. Getting rid of parties is simply not going to happen.

Owen Gray said...

You have an interesting persepctive -- and experience -- on this issue, BJ. The problem is that political parties -- like most organizations -- evolve into top down institutions. They are only renewed by suffering a devastating defeat. It would be nice if they could develop mechanisms which allow new ideas and people to bubble up from the bottom.