The Party’s Over

This is the second post in the series about my most recent article, “‘Third Parties’ and Democracy 2.0”, (2015) 60:2 McGill LJ 253. I introduced the paper, which deals with the repercussions of political and technological changes on our framework for regulating the participation of persons other than parties and candidates in pre-electoral debate, yesterday. Today, I want to discuss the changes, in the last 45 years or so, to the respective roles of political parties and “third parties” in political debates. To me, this is probably the most important part of the article, even though it is not directly about election law, or any sort of law, at all. While it is obviously key to my argument about the regulation of elections, I would like to think that it is a contribution in its own right, because it should help us understand the way Canadian politics actually work.

Our electoral regulations, as well as the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence in this area, are based on the idea that political parties are the normal, the central mode of citizen participation in politics. The political process, as theorized for instance by John Rawls, is a competition between political parties, which tend to represent various social and economic classes and interests. Much ― though certainly not all ― of the worrying about “money in politics” has to do with this association between parties and social classes, because political competition cannot be fair if the “moneyed interests” all support just one of the parties. Importantly, however, parties not only contest power, but also compete in the realm of ideas. Their campaigns are based on fairly detailed policy proposals, expressed in manifestos and party programmes. Citizens assess these proposals and voted for those that advance their interests ― in theory, anyway, because political ignorance was no weaker then than it is now, and most people simply vote for “their” party without knowing or caring much about what it stood for. And since parties competed on ideas and policy, those who seek to inject their own ideas by other means are regarded as anomalous.

However, as Bernard Manin explains in his illuminating book on The Principles of Representative Government, while this may have been a decent approximation of what politics actually looked like up until, roughly, 1970, this model does not fit the politics of 2015. Parties may still release detailed platforms, but these are less important to their appeals to the electorate now than they ever have been. From representatives of class interests, political parties have remade themselves into vehicles in the service of leaders. Instead of campaigning for the interests of social groups and classes, what parties do is identify a wedge issue, a social cleavage, no matter how superficial and short-lived, that allows them to position themselves on the “right” side, and move their opponents onto the “wrong” one. In addition to, or better in combination with, this sort of tactical positioning, parties rely on demonstrating the leadership qualities of the person at their helm.

While this may sound terribly cynical, prof. Manin points out that there are compelling reasons for the parties to adopt this approach. One is the rise of electronic media, and especially television, which made it possible for party leaders to communicate directly with voters, and made their personalities the focus of the voters’ attention. The other is the increased complexity and unforeseeability of the environment in which governments operate, which makes would-be governors reluctant to commit to policies which they might then have to abandon in the face of changed circumstances ― and arguably also makes it more rational for voters to judge their would-be leaders on their decision-making skills than on specific policies.

Canadian politics, at the federal level anyway (my paper did not look at the provinces, though I suspect there is little reason to think that things are much different there), fits this analysis. In the article, I rely on descriptions of the Conservatives’ and the NDP’s campaigns and that of the “campaign in the media” in a collection of essays about the 2011 election, which illustrate these trends marvellously. Television coverage, focusing largely on party leaders’ tours through the country, shown mostly as a series of speeches to cheering supporters, was central to the campaign ― as it was to every campaign since the 1970s. Substantive policy issues were mostly absent. The two successful (in different ways, of course) campaigns played up the personalities of Stephen Harper and Jack Layton, respectively, and their leadership qualities. They also, tellingly, attacked the personalities of their opponents much more than their proposed policies. Admittedly, it is difficult to attack the policies of a politician who is not proposing any. But that’s the point. Policy does not matter.

Now, even as, beginning in the 1970s, parties were abandoning the field of policy ― they stopped being what Pierre Trudeau claimed he wanted them to be, “supermarkets of ideas” ― other entities came to fill the void. The supermarkets were replaced by a variety of boutique suppliers: NGOs, think tanks, unions, and more recently social movements. For many citizens who care about ideas, these means of participating in public life are thus more effective, more meaningful, than membership in a political party. Indeed, these entities may be the only force injecting a debate about ideas, which parties would rather avoid, into politics. Yet come election time, they are treated as “third parties,” and silenced by rules that seek to make political parties the central if not the only participants in pre-electoral debate. Besides, as an empirical matter, rules restricting third-party participation seem to affect unions and social movements (such as students in Québec) much more than corporations (which are typically uninterested in participating in electoral politics), belying the concern about money skewing political competition in favour of the wealthy.

Our electoral rules were conceived for politics where political parties dominated not only competition for power, but also debates about policy. While the parties have kept their former role, they have largely abandoned the latter. Yet the rules, and the thinking of the courts that apply them, have failed to take that change into account. It is perhaps too much to ask, but I hope that my paper helps change that.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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