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Can Blowing Up Canada’s Political Parties Save Us?

A thought experiment on multiparty democracy, inspired by American author Lee Drutman.

Crawford Kilian 8 Dec

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

A year before the 2020 election, political scientist Lee Drutman published this book, clearly hoping to get his fellow Americans thinking about alternatives to their present mess. Last September, weeks before the vote, he drew on the book to offer a quiz in the New York Times, inviting readers to position themselves politically in relation to six hypothetical American parties.

Americans who took the quiz would find themselves aligned with one of those parties. Social conservatives fell into the Patriot Party or Christian Conservatives. Economic conservatives would support the Growth and Opportunity Party. On the left would be the American Labor Party, the New Liberal Party and the Progressive Party (where I predictably landed, with the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren).

Each would have the support of only a fraction of the American electorate, Drutman estimated in his article. The Progressives would win just 14 per cent of the vote, while the New Liberals would take 26 per cent and the Christian Conservatives 20 per cent.

So once elected to Congress and the Senate, their representatives would have to work out coalitions like those that run democracies like Germany’s, Italy’s and Israel’s. Given such coalitions, American politics in 2021 would have looked far different from the present horror show.

I know — multiparty democratic governments tend to be either short-lived and volatile like Italy’s, or locked-in for years like Israel’s and Germany’s. They often stay in power by catering to idiot splinter parties. They take weeks or months to get their act together.

Still, as Drutman notes in his book, in multiparty democracies the governments run on compromises, voter turnout is higher and economic inequality tends to be lower.

Drutman argues that U.S. politics actually used to run under “a hidden four-party system: liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans in the culturally liberal northeast and upper Midwest, the West Coast, and the big cities in between, and conservative Democrats and conservative Republicans in the rural, traditional parts of the country and the South.”

Only in the 1990s did the four parties begin to polarize into two national parties — a process that climaxed in the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

The result, as Drutman sees it, is a “doom loop” in which each side sees the other as an enemy who must never be allowed to take power — on any level from school board to the courts to the White House. Negotiation is impossible, and the enemy must be silenced as well as kept out of office. Otherwise, the only recourse is civil war.

We Canadians aren’t quite that badly off, but our parliamentary democracy might do much better with more parties than we have now. Many of us like the idea of proportional representation; Justin Trudeau got himself elected on the promise of it in 2015, only to renege once elected with a majority.

Third parties inevitably get co-opted in American two-party democracy. But as reluctant coalition members, they at least get some influence in one party or the other, and maybe a chance to take the party over, as Trumpists have done with the Republicans.

In Canada, the federal New Democrats have never held power. They’ve survived for 60 years by moving gradually right and sometimes demanding a leftward step from minority Liberal governments like the current one. When the Harper Conservatives were in tenuous power in 2008, the Jack Layton NDP, Stéphane Dion Liberals and Gilles Duceppe Bloc Québécois attempted as a coalition to bring down the government; they failed.

In theory, a party ought to form around a set of principles for dealing with problems: employment, education, climate and so on. In practice, like the Americans, our own parties are far more interested in power. So they tell us what they think we want to hear, and try to put as many people as possible under their proverbial big tents. As Groucho Marx once famously said, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”

So they read their bases very closely, and consider how to lure a few more into those bases by offering a fresh principle or two. Or dropping some old principles. Even when elected, Canadian parties routinely break any promise they never meant to keep and count on voter amnesia to escape punishment in the next election. The result is horse-race politics, voter apathy and pundits earning good incomes bemoaning the sad state of Canadian democracy.

Suppose we took Drutman’s ideas and applied them in Canada: multiple parties with distinct policies, which are elected to Parliament in proportion to their electoral support. What might they look like?

To escape the crazy splinter parties that afflict democracies like Israel’s, let’s say 10 per cent is the minimum to elect an MP — even if the 10 per cent are scattered across the country, not focused in one riding or region.

Our thought experiment is complicated by Quebec, and by Prairie regions that think their regional issues of language, culture or economy supersede any national issues. But we could still develop at least six parties with distinct platforms:

People’s Party of Canada: Maxime Bernier, this is your moment. You’re the Canuck version of the Trumpist Patriot Party.

Conservative Party of Canada: Stephen Harper, all is forgiven. Come back and push for your neoliberal programs. Erin O’Toole clearly can’t handle the job.

New Conservatives: The return of the Red Tories: Do we have a new Joe Clark willing to demand vaccinated MPs and able to twist corporations’ arms to do serious emissions’ reduction?

Liberal Party of Canada: If Justin Trudeau can demand booster shoots from his MPs, and twist even more corporate arms, he can run this party. The Liberals can’t be “centrist,” because multiparty democracies don’t have many centrist voters.

Bloc Québécois: Yves-François Blanchet can try to save Quebec from climate disaster as part of Canada, or flirt with independence. Many Quebecers would go elsewhere.

Social Democrats: Whatever remains of the unions and managerial Brahmin Left now calling themselves the provincial and federal New Democrats.

Preservation Party: This is where people of whatever region, class or race could vote to do what seems needed to mitigate the combined climate and pandemic catastrophes. Forget economic growth; Preservation will just try to save as much as possible of what we’ve got now, as fairly as possible. I’d probably vote for them, but we’d be a small splinter until perhaps 2030, when November 2021 will look like the good old days.

As too many politicians say, let me be clear. No one of these parties would save us from the impending disaster. But if enough of our present parties decided to break up, a coalition of fragmented parties might thrash out a deal that would buy us some time.

So let O’Toole’s dissidents ditch the party. Let the shattered Greens and fed-up New Democrats find new homes, and the Liberal “centrists” figure out where they’re comfortable. Then let them make deals, even if it takes months. No pressure — the next storm or heat dome or outbreak will arrive when it’s ready.

Some coalition of minorities will work out a response, and some left-out minorities won’t like it. Fine — bring down the coalition and try something else. Otherwise, shut up, keep calm and carry on.

No, it will not be simple or easy. We’re already on our own death loop, shipping gas and oil overseas while pretending our customers are the real emissions problem, not us. Very powerful interests, including the present parties, would ridicule the very idea of multiparty democracy.

But Stephen Harper forced the Conservative splinter parties into a coalition that’s been falling apart since Maxime Bernier quit the party. The NDP could fragment too, and the Liberals have a history of civil war.

If our present parties broke up and then ran on policies instead of personalities, we might actually get ourselves out of the mess the old parties have put us in.  [Tyee]

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