“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
– W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming
As another election slouches towards Ottawa, the Conservative Party’s communications machine warns voters that if we don’t give the blue team a majority of the seats in Parliament, a ‘coalition of losers’ will step forward to steal power. From behind the red door there comes much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
This piece is not about the current election. Instead I’m fantasizing, ever hopeful, of a more representative parliamentary democracy marked by stable coalitions and civil alliances between a new generation of smaller, grassroots-oriented political parties.
This is coming partly out of my frustration with the shallow narcissism of the dominant parties. But it’s also well past time to admit that the Canadian federation is too diverse (regionally and otherwise) to be properly represented by highly centralized single entities. As evidence I’ll point to waves of support for the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party, and to the success of Danny Williams’ Anyone-But-Conservative campaign.
I will illustrate by talking about spaghetti sauce. In a TED talk given a few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell told the story of food scientist Dr. Howard Moskowitz. Dr. Moskowitz made his name doing market research for various food companies (Ragu, Nestle, Pepsi, etc.) which were looking to develop new products. He set up focus groups and taste tests to investigate the appeal of different variations of pasta sauce, mustard, and so on. And he gathered lots and lots of data. Here is a link to Gladwell’s 20-minute lecture.
Gladwell likes to pick noteworthy case studies and then extrapolate. In this case, Dr. Moskowitz argued that the existing food industry practice of offering customers only one or two options — ‘the perfect spaghetti sauce’ — was completely out of touch with the wide distribution of preferences which his research was uncovering. Instead of clumping around a single supreme flavour, preferences tend to cluster instead around multiple points — spicy, cheesy, extra chunky, light, extra tomato and so on. Dr. Moskowitz’s research is the reason, Gladwell says, that mass-produced food now comes in six different varieties and 36 different sub-varieties.
If you’re extracting socio-political wisdom from gustatory preferences, as I am, the terms to focus on are ‘horizontal segmentation’ and ‘clustering.’ The idea being that our preferences are divergent enough that being stuck with a choice of red or blue (or even orange) is unsatisfying and limiting. Instead, we would be better engaged and more accurately represented by a series of smaller, more specialized parties which would maintain their autonomy when forming ‘big-tent’ coalitions.
We might have political parties which are smaller in scope than the theory-of-everything parties we have today. Political parties whose platforms are developed and renewed at grassroots-oriented conventions. Some would be regional parties, an acknowledgment of the tensions inherent in Canadian federalism. Others would be parties with narrow but deep policy expertise — perhaps a hammer-and-windmill party concerned with turning blue collar jobs into green jobs. Perhaps there would be parties to represent marginalized or scattered communities such as aboriginal nations, seniors, or the working poor.
Call this a conception of representative democracy which borrows a little more from direct democracy. None of the parties would be rich enough to employ significant numbers of backroom operatives – rainmakers and spin doctors. With less room for the professionals, the parties once again become the domain of amateur organizers and volunteer canvassers. Only this time you wouldn’t need to be a member of the landed gentry to participate.
With the theory-of-everything parties losing ground to more specialized grassroots parties, the electorate would no longer be subjected to the simplistic narratives which are now considered vital to developing a party’s brand. At its annual policy convention, a party focused on urban affairs would hold in-depth discussions to establish a nuanced position on municipal transit projects, without having to waste time developing empty rhetoric on how it would regulate industrial activity in the oil sands.
The realist asks how these glorified citizen’s committees could hope to govern. Perhaps with one medium-sized party recruiting several smaller parties into a formal coalition. Perhaps with a much stronger commitment to the independence of individual members of parliament. There would be no backbenchers, because each MP would be a member of several multi-party caucuses — the aboriginal rights caucus, the western caucus, the francophone caucus, and so on — with varying influence on each. We’d need a few hundred damn fine parliamentarians.
There would presumably be a need for parties which could organize and manage the governing coalitions and opposition alliances. I can see the traditional parties re-inventing themselves to serve as the solid core of fluid big-tent coalitions. The new reds, blues, and oranges would campaign primarily on their leadership skills — the ability to bring the boutique interests together. I’d argue that this has already become the Liberal Party’s strongest (only?) pitch to voters. It just needs a generational update.
It could happen, a few decades from now. Other parliamentary democracies are much further along than we are, both in terms of necessary structural conditions (variations of proportional representation) and in terms of the electoral success of paradigm-shifting political parties (the Greens in Germany, for example).
The main obstacle is the belief among Conservatives and Liberals that ruddy-cheeked majority governments frolic just around the next bend. Perhaps they do. As long as outright wins seem achievable, party hacks will keep spinning the Liberal-Conservative revolving door, and parliamentary maturation will have to wait.
Because I went to school in the Liberal heartland of Toronto Centre, I know many baby Liberals who dream of the greatness which lies beyond gopherdom. I know they are sincere in their beliefs, but I fear that too many care too much about winning. It’s hardly their fault, with elections presented as contests for power and influence, and Evan Solomon on the squawkbox every day talking about fortress Toronto and battlegrounds and the latest polls and strategic test balloons and it’s all so EXCITING.
So let’s look ahead, ever hopeful, to a future in which no party has the slightest hope of forming a majority government. A future made possible by some form of proportional representation, when veteran MPs smile indulgently as young Ottawa tour guides parrot on about about the arcane notion of party discipline.