Know your history -

Know your history


I’m only a chapter into it, but I’m going to go ahead and provisionally recommend Dynasties and Interludes, the new study of Canadian electoral history. If nothing else, by page 33 you will have come across at least one paragraph that contains more or less all the political analysis you will ever need.

To wit.

Canadian political parties have traditionally been brokerage parties. Lacking stable support in the electorate, and avoiding clear ideological differentiation from their competitors, political parties approach each election anew, hoping to put together a coalition of support across the entire electorate. Brokerage parties do not seek to appeal in election campaigns on the basis of long-standing principles, or on a commitment to fundamental projects to restructure the economy or society, even if they have these. They are not bound by positions or actions they have taken in the past. Electoral platforms are typically put together from a short-term point of view, offering a mixture of assurances of general competence to deal with the major problems of the day, commitments to prosperity and social security, specific promises designed for instant appeal, and an assertion that only they can provide creative leadership.

There are a half dozen such paragraphs in the first chapter. If the editors need a blurb for future editions, I’m willing to offer that “Dynasties and Interludes is like slipping into a warm bath of sober reflection, surrounded by candles scented with the soothing aroma of common sense.”


Know your history

  1. I would add "Successful national" right before parties, but otherwise find the analysis sound.

  2. No direction, no philosophy, no vision

    Just ad hoc, seat-of-the-pants campaigning on anything that might get you elected.

  3. Yeah. I don't think Wherry or whoever wrote the passage is wrong, but I think you have a point, Emily.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, Wherry! I look forward to joining you in that warm, candlelit bath of sober reflection.

  5. Perhaps that "brokerage parties" observation helps explain something we've seen re: the Tories and Grits, at least over the last 40 years or so: the fact that whenever these parties have been kicked out of power, or are out of power, they seem to have a huge amount of infighting, discord and disagreement, especially regarding the existential issue of what they're really all about. Maybe it's because once they're out of power, that throws into stark relief the fact that all these people under this tent don't really agree on all that much. I'm thinking especially of the Tories after Dief was thrown out (and the bitter leadership contests that gave us Stanfield and Joe Clark), the Liberals under Turner (very bitter fighting between the Turner & Chretien camps), the Tories after the 1993 debacle, and the Liberals now (still lots of Liberals sniping at Iggy, especially those who see him as too far to the right, etc.).

  6. Perhaps that is what Canadian political parties once were, but I do not believe that is an advantageous position for Canadian politics to pursue. We need to have parties that commit themselves to a code of values, so that voters know what they are voting for. Clearly, politicians following a catch-as-catch-can philosophy may prefer not to define their (lack of) position.

  7. Is there something more between you and Wherry than meets the eye? ;)

  8. But to a certain degree, it's always been like that.
    Sure – some platforms have been more constant, but at the end of the day, survival…

  9. No, not a 'code of values'….a direction, a goal, a vision.

  10. The term "brokerage party" was taught in political science 100, when I went to university. Isn't it anymore? Is it so novel nowadays? Or is it the way it's described in this particular book that's noteworthy?

  11. yuck!!

  12. EEEeeeeeeeewwwww…


  13. While I suppose it is impossible to avoid "parties" in the sense of forming up about an interest, issue (or vision?) I personally think we would do better without parties in the permanent sense. In fact they are born, grow and then die because the people's heart is no, longer in them. The Social Credit party is an example: it was founded on nonsensical economics deep sincerity, and populism, was given a certain amount of semi -religious fervour particularly under Ernest Manning in Alberta and WAC Bennett in BC and until with new leaders and time they eventually fragmented and morphed back into their right-wing roots.

    I would prefer a structure (like the article) which was not so doctrinaire and where each member really represented those who elected him/her, was not required to respond to a party whip, and where rthe executive was separately elected as in the US. The right time to rethink things would be before the present monarch leaves the scene

    . . Very few parties have really long range goals except the very general – freedom, economic prosperity, but the real issues are dealt with pragmatically as they come up. I would like to see more of a balance of power within the constitutional structure. I think the US has done very well with that concept. Human nature is such that those sort of safeguards are necessary.

    But of course doing that would require a new constitution which you would never get out of our parliament or a revolution and that is not on the books. Maybe we should re-think. a lot of this stuff. But then we might wake up to the fact that the planning horizon for all politicians is the next election. Good systems of government evolve, unlike those established after revolution, like the US.. But then theirs has evolved since hasn't it.

  14. No, the US hasn't evolved one iota. That's the problem.

  15. No it's still taught – but as a current Poli Sci undergrad I will attest that (at least at SFU) a) most students are minimally interested in Canadian politics, if at all; and b) most students pay little attention in class, if at all.

  16. (Metaphorically speaking, of course.)

  17. I feel like this was attempted by Stéphane Dion… and soundly rejected – but there were a whole host of other factors that probably lead to his defeat.

  18. More than a century ago, French political scientist Andre Siegfried published the most profound analysis of Canadian political life in 'The Race Question in Canada', including his analysis of brokerage parties in Chapter 19:

    "Canada, we know is a country of violent oppositions. … Now this is exactly what is feared by the prudent and far-sighted men who have been given the responsibility of maintaining the national equilibrium. … That is why they persistently apply themselves to prevent the formation of homogeneous parties, divided according to race, religion or class … . The clarity of political life suffers from this, but perhaps the existence of the federation can be preserved only at this price."
    "In this sense the existing parties are entirely harmless. The Liberals and the Conservatives differ very little really in their opinions upon crucial questions, and their conception of power seems almost identical. Both parties are made up of heterogeneous elements … . In these conditions any attempt to assume an explicit attitude toward burning questions would shatter them into atoms, and they are able to preserve their unity only by dint of extraordinary compromises."

  19. Evolved — yes — into a cancerous organism, immune to the penicillin of common sense.

  20. I can't argue with the concept that political parties are not bound by positions or actions they have taken in the past, obviously. Nor can I argue that they approach each election anew. But how does this reality equate to the family dynasties or 'safe' seats that is also part of Canadian politics?

    Has the electorate NEVER been paying attention?

  21. Great excerpt. I'm sold already. This is exactly the reason many of us dispute the "logical" underpinnings of the "coalition" or the cure-all of "proportional representation". We already have brokerage in our political system, through our parties themselves, and it's preferable to the brinkmanship version for which others have recently advocated.

    The other reason brokerage parties have been successful, is that Canadians (outside of Ontario, anyway) adhere far more to parochial interests than to ideological ones, which must be properly brokered to achieve electoral success. The recent emergence of the Conservative party is less an indication of an ideological shift amongst Canadians, but a natural re-balancing of our brokerage politics with the emergence of Western Canada's political clout combined with the effect of the Bloc effectively taking 40-50 seats out of the political equation in Quebec.

  22. So much for my possibly twisted homo-erotic fantasy of the two of you reading whilst sharing a bubble bath.
    LoL – I just couldn't resist. The phrase is like silk…

  23. ". . Very few parties have really long range goals except the very general – freedom, economic prosperity, but the real issues are dealt with pragmatically as they come up."

    The problem with taking on something specific and new is that it is difficult to find consensus.
    Few parties are willing to take a stance on anything if it risks dividing/losing donors/votes.

  24. The sports/Leafs analogy best explains the dynasties/safe seats.
    For many – politics is a sport where what happens in the game is nada – it is all about die hard loyalty to the team, no matter what.

  25. Sure.

  26. Wouldn't that be homo/amphibian-erotic?

  27. I live in a federal riding (Peter MacKay's) that has always had a pattern of genetic voting.
    Q – who's your father ? Oh, you're a Tory!
    After a bit of gerrymandering with the riding which placed the bulk of the population in Peter's
    home area, the future of the riding seemed secure. It still seems that way.
    The puzzling part … there are four provincial ridings within the federal riding area. All are
    currently in the trembling hands of the provincial NDP. Probably a very temporary situation but
    puzzling to me.
    Disclosure:- My wife ran against Peter in his first campaign ( I was her campaign manager, media guy,
    logistics, writer, er … staff). She took the percentage from 7% to around 20% .. don't remember the exact
    numbers. Things can change.

  28. I'm curious about what you mean by "gerrymandering," since riding boundaries in Canada are determined by a non-partisan commission rather than by the ruling political party.

  29. Hahaha….

  30. I find that amusingly appropos–since it was Peter MacKay's riding I was thinking about when using the words "family dynasties and safe seats"

    Good for you and your wife! And thanks, we never say it enough to those who run and don't win.

  31. There is form. And there is substance.

  32. "Rubber Duckie, you're the one,
    You make bathtime lots of fun,
    Rubber Duckie, I'm awfully fond of you;

    Woo woo be doo

    Rubber Duckie, joy of joys,
    When I squeeze you, you make noise!
    Rubber Duckie, you're my very best friend, it's true!!"

    Wrong show, but close enough… ;)

  33. Speaking of history,

    remember Shiek Khalid Mohammod, the mastermind behind 9 11?

    Remember the fierce moral urgency to have him tried in civilian courts conra the eeeeeevil Bush's doctine of military tribunals?

    Funny how that whole reality thing is intruding on Obama's plans such that the good ol mass murdering sheik appears to be on the path to a military tribunal under….gulp…..Obama.

    Funny the lack o world wide protests that.

    Funny, also…bit by bit, Bush is vindicateed on his policies baseed on good old fashioned…what do we call it now…oh yeah…reality?

    To state the obvious: the left is always wrong.


  34. "devolved" might better described what's happened there…

  35. Thank you for another valuable contribution to the discussion chet.

  36. Huh?

    Back on the meds, boy!

  37. I beg to differ. Canada's relationship with the United States was long a defining issue in Canadian politics (it became less so after 1988). While the Liberals and Tories ultimately reversed positions on the issue (and very late in the game – Mulroney said he opposed free trade as late as the 1984 election), it provided clarity to Canadian politics. While our parties are mercurial about things with a left-right divide, they are less so on issues that speak to regional identities that undergird our politics:
    -federal-provincial relations
    -free trade (which benefited some regions much more than others) and US-Canada relations generally
    -french-english issues
    -energy policy (because we have producer and consumer regions)

    On the other hand, our main parties have not had consistent positions on taxes, deficits, abortion, gay marriage, etc. over time. This is why we need a distinctly Canadian narrative from pundits, and not one imported from the US.

  38. While I'm a PR opponent, PR parties do engage in brokerage – ACROSS REGIONS. That is the real PR-FPTP question – do you want parties/governments that will engage in ideological/class brokerage or regional brokerage?