The party system is undemocratic – here’s why

(This is the latest in an ongoing series on the question of whether voting is worthwhile. If you’re interested, here’s parts one, two, and three.)

Political parties are such a firmly entrenched part of our political system that it’s almost absurd to suggest, but I’ll suggest it – what the hell good do they do anyway?

Here’s the situation as it stands. Every four years or so, in your city or town or rural area, three or four wannabe politicians, having gained the approval of their party’s local riding association and (most importantly) of their party leader, swear absolute fealty to an incredibly detailed party platform and contend for your vote. If elected, they hew to that party line absolutely, speak when they’re told to (which is rarely), vote how they’re told to, espouse the views their leader tells them to hold, and occasionally come back to your city/town/rural area and get their picture in the paper saying that they’re standing up for your interests in Ottawa.

And that’s true regardless of the party they represent.

The majority of MPs are irrelevant to the process of governing this country. The government needs its MPs to show up for votes (and vote the way they’re told), but other than that, the majority of the caucus may as well be composed of mannequins:

W.S. Gilbert put the present Canadian political reality succinctly; “I always voted at my party’s call and I never thought of thinking for myself at all”. Canadian members of Parliament are essentially passive observers in the formulation and administration of most national policy. Indeed, Sean Moore, editor of the Ottawa lobbyist magazine, The Lobby Digest, told a committee of MPs in early 1993 that they are rarely lobbied by the almost 3,000 reported lobbyists in the capital because “elected officials play a very minor role in governing”.

(For more on this dynamic, and the extreme frustration that neglected and ignored backbenchers feel as part of this theatre, you can watch the fantastic short documentary Whipped: The Secret World of Party Discipline which CPAC(!) put together on MLAs in British Columbia.)

Unless your MP is a member of Cabinet (or the Prime Minister), your riding is essentially electing a simulacrum of a politician, a placeholder. It’s a role that could be played by a holograph, or a simple computer program, just as effectively. And the problem is worse here in Canada than it is in any other Western democracy:

Almost all discourse in the Canadian Parliament is scripted by party staffers. Questions posed of the government rarely meet straight answers. Politicians vote as their party leaders dictate nearly 100 per cent of the time. Few private members’ initiatives get past first reading.

Do other countries do democracy better? The answer seems to be yes – if you subscribe to the belief that MPs should be free to speak their minds and to act as the voice of their constituents.

Meanwhile, the benefits to the party leadership of such a system are incalculable. Their ability to tightly control and script their parties’ words and actions makes politics into a kind of reality television spectacle, just as scripted and spun as any episode of The Bachelor. And much like The Bachelor, it’s calculated to manipulate your emotions about the different actors in the drama.

The problem will only worsen after this fall’s election. For the first time in a long time, parties will now be entirely dependant upon donations for their survival, as one of Harper’s many sins was abolishing public financing of parties via a per-vote subsidy. And no party is better positioned to reap the benefits of this change than the Conservative Party. Everyone, from the Libs to the Cons to the NDP to the Greens, will be desperately trying to hit you up for cash:

The question stands, though: What is their business? What role do they perform?

Many of the dollars they collect these days goes to advertising and promotion — aimed largely at people who don’t follow politics. They’re taking money from citizens, in other words, to argue their relevance to citizens. Think of the ways in which those millions of dollars could be better spent — on local charities, for instance, or on health or education.

Advertising — or “branding,” as the marketers say — has become the chief occupation of political parties.

Well to hell with that. The system of “democracy” that we have is far more show than substance, and the role of the party system in the whole spectacle is central. To vote for someone running for one of the major parties is to vote for a continuation of this ridiculous sham.

The essence of representative democracy is that communities are able to elect an advocate for local interests and values to advocate on their behalf. The rigid system of party discipline which exists in this country runs completely counter to the foundational philosophy of our political system.

Now, there’s a case to be made against representative democracy – a case for more localized or direct democracy, for instance – but if we’re committed to electing representatives, then the best thing we could do to improve our system is to get rid of this absurd eighteenth-century anachronism. Let’s toss out the party system entirely.

If every MP is independent, if every bill needed a coalition of MPs to pass it, then you’re going to have a lot more constructive debate. Hell, I’d even do away with the position of Prime Minister if I could (that’s the contrarian anti-authoritarian in me, I guess), because I don’t know if I see the point of having one anyway.

Susan Delacourt, with the Star’s parliamentary bureau, somewhat surprisingly agrees with me on this one:

Invariably, someone is going to argue that it’s impossible to send political parties to the scrap heap of history — that we’re stuck with them as a necessary evil.

Getting them to make the case for their continued existence would certainly focus the discussion.

If they’re not bringing citizens together but rather repelling even their own MPs with their way of doing business, spending money to knock each other down or convince us of their relevance, do we really need them?

The task of imagining post-party politics is a big one, and exciting, too. The details are obviously vague, but to imagine that the way things are done is inevitable, or the best we can manage, is noxious defeatism. So I’d like to throw this one out to the readers – what do you think a post-party politics could look like? Would it be feasible? In what ways would it be better or worse? I’m interested to hear what y’all think on this one.


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