Recline of Party: Armchair Democracy and the Reform Party of Canada

By Barney, Darin David | American Review of Canadian Studies, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Recline of Party: Armchair Democracy and the Reform Party of Canada


Barney, Darin David, American Review of Canadian Studies


If one were asked to go spelunking around the dim caverns of neology to come up with a satisfactory label for the type of political energy currently driving modern liberal democracies, one could do worse than to settle for "centrifugalism." Instead of imploding due to the objective contradictions of their economic systems, these states have had to contend with an explosion of subjectivity--a fecund ecology of highly politicized identity-bearers has developed, and they appear bent on asserting their diversity in the face of outmoded centripetal institutions designed to falsely homogenize or assimilate their experiences, needs, and priorities. For the most part, the owners of these newly invigorated consciousnesses see the political infrastructure of liberal democracy as a barrier to their fulfillment that is every bit as formidable as the economic relations of liberal capitalism. This impression has manifested itself in escalating challenges to the legitimacy of traditional practices of representative democracy which, depending on the ideological concerns of the observer, are either decried as symptomatic of society's "ungovernability," or celebrated as a blossoming of healthy pluralism.

Canada has not been immune to these developments. The explicit recognition in the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms of aboriginal, multicultural, female, and disabled citizens helped to congeal these as distinct and legitimate political identities in Canada. (1) Additionally, recent years have witnessed the increasing activism of various religious, environmental, and gay rights groups who, together with the aforementioned "Charter Canadians," have grown increasingly frustrated with the limitations of a political discourse constructed exclusively upon the brokerage of regional and linguistic interests. This debate crystallized around the popular rejection of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990, and was evident in subsequent critical public commentary on the deficiencies of Canadian representative and parliamentary democracy. (2) It quickly became evident that the traditional party system was an insufficient collector or conduit for the burgeoning democratic aspirations of a heterogeneous citizenry not content to see their diverse interests brokered away to the margins of political consideration.

This recent flurry of identity-based group politics, with its implicit rejection of traditional representative institutions, would appear to vindicate the observation made by John Meisel over a decade ago that an increase in the role of organized groups in the processes of interest articulation was leading to a decline in the aggregative capacity of traditional brokerage parties in Canada. (3) Indeed, the idea that organized interest groups are a democratic threat of one sort or another has since appeared as a common focus of two otherwise divergent offspring of the malaise afflicting the Canadian party system: the recent Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (RCERPF) and the Reform Party of Canada. While the RCERPF's concern appears to be that democracy in Canada suffers as organized interest groups assume, but ultimately fail to fulfill, the role and functions of traditional political parties, Reform's approach to the "problem" of "special interests" is quite different. In this paper, I will use the example of its recent forays into the world of electronic plebiscitarianism to argue that the Reform party's brand of populism is designed specifically to combat the threat organized interests pose to the unfettered free market distribution of political and economic values, rather than as a democratic corrective to the rise of pluralism and the decline of parties. By contrasting it with the RCERPF in the context of the decline of party thesis, I intend to show that Reform's use of these techniques represents neither a serious desire to alleviate public alienation from the representative system, nor a sincere response to citizens demanding increased opportunities for meaningful democratic participation. …

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