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. Instead, I will argue that Reform's adoption of teledemocracy is an essentially cynical attempt to capitalize on the present climate of democratic unease, as a means of legitimizing the party's real goal of contracting the public sphere of political decisionmaking in Canada.
The Decline of Party
In his provocative 1979 essay, John Meisel argued that while Canadian political parties still performed the classic structural roles of providing a framework for voting and recruiting political leaders, their ability to function as centers of governmental organization and policy formation was on the wane. In particular, Canadian parties were declining in terms of their capacity to act as effective vehicles for the integration, mobilization and aggregation of political interests. As a result, Meisel observed, "...an increasing number of Canadians have sought to participate in politics and public life outside the framework of parties." (4)
Among the reasons listed by Meisel for this decline were the development of sophisticated electronic media and polling techniques, the burgeoning complexity of the modern state, and the dominance of the national political agenda by executive federalism and major economic actors. But well before the explosion of group identities that would follow the adoption of the Charter in 1982, Meisel identified "pluralism and the rise of interest group politics" as a major factor contributing to the growing ineffectiveness of brokerage parties. At this time, Meisel referred vaguely to unidentified "vested interests" and "lobby groups," but in a 1991 addendum to his original essay, citizens of the post-Charter "new Canada"--women, ethnic Canadians, aboriginal peoples--and the "non-party organizations" that represent them were explicitly referred to as the authors of a serious challenge to the efficacy of the country's traditional democratic party structure. (5)
Reforming Canada's Parties
Over ten years after the appearance of his original essay, Meisel's predictions regarding public disenchantment with political parties in Canada have seemingly been borne out. According to the RCERPF: "Canadian political parties are held in low public esteem, and... their standing has declined steadily over the past decade." The RCERPF reported that between 1979 and 1989, the percentage of Canadians who expressed "a great deal" of confidence in political parties fell from 30 to 18, while the number of those expressing "very little" confidence in these institutions grew from 22 to 33 percent. Massive numbers of citizens agreed that political parties in Canada engage in excessive "squabbling" (81 percent), confuse issues rather than illuminate them (87 percent), and inappropriately constrain the activity of individual M.P.'s (78 percent). Most seriously, 79 percent of those surveyed felt that once elected to Parliament, party politicians generally "lose touch" with the people they represent--an increase of 14 percent from a decade earlier. (6)
The corollary of the declining fortunes of parties has been a surge in support for alternative, nonelite-driven democratic practices. The research studies accompanying the RCERPF showed that the vast majority of those surveyed trust "ordinary people" more than "experts and intellectuals" (65 percent), and consider a devolution of decisionmaking power to "people at the grassroots" to be a plausible and constructive alternative to party democracy (74 percent). In what can only be regarded as a stunning distillation of this sentiment, the RCERPF found that a full 26 percent of Canadians actually believe that "true democracy" could better be achieved in the absence of political parties. At a minimum, the report of the commission warns that "Canadians would like greater control over their representatives and over public policies, especially between elections." (7)
In attempting to isolate the source of these symptoms, the RCERPF points to institutional inertia within the party system itself, insofar as it has been unable to manufacture significant opportunities for meaningful participation by individuals whose representational needs extend beyond the capacity of traditionally oriented parties. When it comes to issues other than leadership and election campaigns, Canadian brokerage parties are failing both as convincing vehicles of interest aggregation and mobilization, and as effective managers of collective political action. Interestingly, this disaffection with parties has not necessarily translated into a flight from political involvement altogether: the RCERPF reports that while the number of people joining political parties is indeed dwindling, overall levels of "political voluntarism and activism" remain high. How is this activism manifesting itself, if not in partisan attachments? In the absence of opportunities for effective democratic participation under the auspices of brokerage parties, "ordinary citizens" are seeking to satisfy their political aspirations through what the RCERPF has called "specialized interest groups." These groups, which encompass those concerned with "environmental causes, [or] the rights of women and minority groups," are characterized by the commission as "single-issue organizations with the sole purpose of promoting a specific cause." (8)
Despite their apparent vitality, the RCERPF was not convinced that the proliferation of organized interest groups in the political arena is necessarily an indicator of a healthy Canadian democracy. While it conceded that such groups excel in articulating interests and mobilizing political energy, the commission felt that they lack some of the more complex skills required to fulfill the aggregative role traditionally played by mass or brokerage parties. In focusing on single issues, "specialized" interest groups are charged with representing "at best a limited spectrum of public opinion." Furthermore, the RCERPF contends that such organizations neglect the need to "accommodate their goals with competing interests," and goes so far as to suggest that they are even "largely unconcerned with balancing competing objectives within the organization" (emphasis added). Thus, in the estimation of the RCERPF, the decline of brokerage parties as aggregative institutions has led to a flight towards circumscribed political organizations that are structurally disinclined to assimilate the "big picture" into their ideological agendas.
The RCERPF prescribed a number of measures intended to cure the ailments plaguing Canadian democracy, the details of which fall outside the focus of this discussion. However, it is useful to note that the aim which directed the commission's recommendations was the "strengthening [of] political parties as primary political organizations." Most of the proposed reforms regarding parties center around enhancing their recruitment, education, and policy development functions, as well as encouraging them to nurture broader and more extensive partisan networks. The hope of the commission is that traditional parties can be democratized to the extent that politically invigorated citizens will choose them over the more narrow organizations that have fragmented the Canadian polity. In the rhetoric of the …
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Publication information: Article title: Recline of Party: Armchair Democracy and the Reform Party of Canada. Contributors: Barney, Darin David - Author. Journal title: American Review of Canadian Studies. Volume: 26. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 1997. Page number: 577+. © 2008 Association for Canadian Studies in the United States. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.
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