Debating the future of the party of the center. Errr…. centre. Middle.
THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING?: All the cool kids are talking about the future of the Liberal Party. The catchphrase appears to be “party of the center.” That’s what Michael Ignatieff called it in his farewell address, and that’s what Rob Silver says it has to be going forward. In a much-discussed blog post, Silver says the Grits need to “[r]eform everything about the Liberal Party[:] Top-to-bottom. New blood, new voting coalition – there’s not much that stays the same in this new Liberal Party.” In the follow-up, Silver suggests the creation of a left-wing Manning Institute, a think tank operating outside of the party apparatus that could develop fresh new ideas. It all sounds very promising. Just one thing.
CLOWNS TO THE LEFT OF ME; JOKERS TO THE RIGHT: It’s just that I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around the whole notion of “centrist” political ideas. What’s a centrist policy? Running a deficit — but a small one? Going to war in Afghanistan — but not Iraq? (Come to think of it…) When you think about it, “centrism” as a political ideology is defined precisely by its lack of ideology. Ignatieff and Silver and others make scary faces about the coming “polarization” of our politics between the right-wing Tories and the left-wing NDP. What they propose as an alternative is a party that stands for… nothing. Everything. Anything. Depends on the season.
THE MEANS ARE JUSTIFIED BY THE END: When a party purports to be conservative — fiscally conservative, say, we know how to judge its success: has it made government smaller, or slowed the pace of its growth? Are taxes lower? Debt under control? We judge a progressive government similarly: is the social safety net secured? Expanded? Are economic extremes tempered? But that’s not how you judge the success of a centrist party. The only metric of success for a centrist party is… success. A centrist party exercises power for the purpose of… exercising power. I mean, that’s what Silver’s talking about, right? He wants to scrap the whole thing, start from scratch, rebuild from the ground up. New faces, new ideas, new policies. To what end? Centrism! Um… to what end? Power! What else?
THAT’S NOT A FEATURE; THAT’S A BUG: But isn’t that precisely the Grits’ problem? For years we’ve been told that Canadians aren’t ideological. Stephane Dion used to use “ideological” as a slur against Stephen Harper — and the man was an academic, for goodness’ sake. But since the Western rebellion and the rise of Reform twenty-five years ago, there has been increasing interest among the voting public in parties that actually stand for something. At the same time, there has been increasing impatience with parties who stand for nothing except power, and who seem willing to stop at nothing to retain it. Surely that’s at least part of the lesson of the Sponsorship Scandal. Is that really the model the Liberals want to adopt?
A LITTLE TO THE LEFT… PERFECT: The “centrists” invoke Liberals such as John Manley as standard-bearers of centrist ideology. But although Manley was often seen as the “right-wing” of the Liberal Party, his brand of Rooseveltian liberalism is a distinctly left-wing approach to government. It certainly differs from the NDP’s labour-leftism — but by in large it differs in degree, not kind. So if centrism as an ideology means something other than a raw pursuit of power, surely it simply means tempered ideology — that is, government guided by a basic philosophy, but tempered in its approach by other (philosophical and/or practical) considerations.
CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG, IN TWO COMPETING GROUPS?: But if that’s the case — if the niche that the Liberal rump seeks to fill is the niche on the center-left of the traditional ideological spectrum — then surely the place to do that is within a unified left-wing political party or movement, no? That’s what the Tories have done. Contrary to the accusations of its detractors, the Conservative Party is not a social conservative party — or a Christian conservative party, or a libertarian party, or a monarchist party, or a party of big business. At least, it’s not just any one of those things. It’s a big tent. (A tent that now seem to include the ‘centrist’ voters of the 905.) Not all the constituencies within the tent are going to be happy at any one time. But the tent is held together by the common understanding that what is shared is more important than what is not shared, and that the pursuit of any one group’s unique interests at the expense of the interests of the group would spoil the party (ha!) for everyone. If the Liberals are uncomfortable with the unreconstructed leftism of the NDP, they should roll up their sleeves and reconstruct it — or at least join the party and raise a voice for a more tempered social-democratic experiment. For their part, the NDP should recognize that they’re still seen by many Canadians much as the Reform Party was seen a decade and a half ago — as committed ideologues unfit to hold serious office. If the NDP and Grits can get past their superficial, partisan mistrust — and if Liberals like Silver can surrender the fanciful notion that “[t]he Liberal Party is not a ‘left-wing party’” — they’ll be able to start finding the broad common ground that would allow the emergence of a broad, stable, big-tent left-wing counter-party to the Conservatives.
WHO ARE YOU CALLING BI-POLAR: It’s been very de rigeure this week to decry the “polarization” of Canadian politics. Humbug. Unlike a multi-party system, which encourages fracturing and the pursuit of narrow interests, a two-party system encourages the development of broad-based coalitions of the sort described above. And while two-party systems are certainly more “conservative” in the sense of tempering political fads in favor of a sort of political inertia, such systems are perfectly able to adapt to new developments and sentiments, whether through the eclipse of old partes by new (e.g., the Liberals by Labour in the UK and the Whigs by the Republicans in the US) or through the influence of third-party and popular movements (e.g., the Populist and later New Left influence on the Democrats and the Progressive and later Tea Party influence on the Republicans).
STEPHEN HARPER, CHAMPION OF DEMOCRACY: In fact the worst tendencies of two-party systems are often the product of other mischief. The greatest obstacle to the emergence of alternatives in the US is not the two-party system per se, but the fact that those two parties have effectively co-opted the machinery of the state and made the creation of alternative parties a practical legal impossibility. It’s grossly undemocratic. There’s a risk of the same thing happening here of course, since, under current laws, parties receive public financing in proportion to their share of the popular vote — a similarly undemocratic arrangement that acts to entrench incumbent parties at the expense of potential alternatives. But fear not, friends of democracy — the Harper Government has vowed to scrap the per-vote subsidy. Be sure to send him your thanks!
DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS: So it turns out the Bin Laden raid didn’t happen quite the way we were told. He didn’t use his wife as a human shield; he didn’t shoot first, or at all; and in fact of the four people killed, only one was armed. Inaccuracies in the initial account make wholly contrary narratives — like his (twelve-year-old) daughter’s claim that he was taken alive and then executed — all the more plausible. I’m not saying that’s what happened; I’m saying that it gets harder to convince people it didn’t happen if you don’t have a clear and consistent account of what did. I’d wager, though, that most folks — at least most American folks — will have heard the original accounts, but not the subsequent corrections. Isn’t that always the way? So most folks will be left with the abiding sense that the Seals did a bang-up job, busting in and killing the baddies before they could be killed; the possibility that the Seals took the compound and then executed its male occupants won’t ever be considered. That’s probably better for the national psyche — and the administration — than the hand-wringing that would have occurred had the whole truth been known from the start. Am I saying that the administration purposefully disseminated an inaccurate but more pleasing narrative in the first instance? No. I’m tempted, but… no. I think this was all fog-of-war stuff. But it’s a point worth considering.