‘The reality of mass politics makes parties absolutely necessary’

by Aaron Wherry

Andrew Potter defends the existence of political parties.

Nenshi also pointedly refused to affiliate himself with any particular party. He re-emphasized that line while giving a speech in Toronto last week, saying in the Q&A after the talk that the absence of parties is the one thing he likes best about city politics. Parties, he said, are of interest to academics, to the media, and to politicians themselves, but to the average citizen they are useless.

Like almost all popularly held views, the only problem with this is that it’s wrong, and based on a serious misunderstanding of what parties are for. Most people think that parties are supposed to advance a specific ideology, like left-wing egalitarianism or social conservatism. Some parties do this, but that is mostly just a side-effect of their primary role, which is to translate popular support into political power. They do this by delivering a cohesive and disciplined block of support sufficient to sustain a government for an extended period of time.

See previously: In defence of partisanship




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‘The reality of mass politics makes parties absolutely necessary’

  1. One big difference is that Mayors are elected directly rather than holding office by confidence of the council.  Even at that being a member of the Mayor’s fold doesn’t come without some measure of compromise.

  2. Every so often, I read a piece by Potter that I really like, and this piece is one of them.  He drives his point home elegantly and persuasively.

    • No, elegantly and persuasively would have been if he could have made his point so that the names Chuck Cadman or Andre Arthur didn’t immediately show it as false.

      • The existence of a few Independent MPs doesn’t weaken Potter’s argument in any way.

        • No? His argument is that political parties exist to deliver a “cohesive and disciplined block of support sufficient to sustain a government for an extended period of time”

          Indpendant candidates being elected, multiple times in a row, show that they aren’t necessary unless you dislike government being driven by local constituent concerns, and governance having to be done as a set of compromises among all representatives.

          That’s what the parties do, after all, they divorce the candidates from the local constituency.  And yeah, if that’s what you’re going for then they’re absolutely necessary.

          • Independent candidates who get reelected don’t “show” that parties are unnecessary.  You’d have to point to a functioning political system, at a national level, that consists mostly of elected representatives who are unaffiliated with any party in order to make that case.

            Independent MPs are extremely rare outliers.  Currently, there are no independents at all. Some independents, like Mr. Arthur, were informally affiliated with political parties and voted with them most of the time.  Most other independents broke off from political parties.

            You may dislike political parties, but surely you understand that pointing to a tiny handful of former independents doesn’t prove that our parliamentary system can function without political parties at all.

          • I think political parties are very necessary, but that we’re using them the wrong way.  I think political parties are to be used to craft policies, from the people, that the vast majority of the parties’ MPs can get behind.  But not every MP can or even should get behind every policy, because they are there to look after their constituents interests, keeping the whole of Canada in mind.  Anyway, political parties can gather the fundraising, create the election campaign and all that.  The MPs can look after their constituents and advocate for the bulk of the policies created by the people of their party.

          • Actually, it does prove exactly that. It *can* function without them.

            Is it likely to? No. Political parties are simply far too convenient an arrangement, allowing people to leverage economies of scale at the political level, and simplifying the choices for the majority of voters who don’t care to actually examine their candidates thoroughly

  3. I think it’s possible to agree with many of Potter’s specific points without buying into his overall conclusion.  He correctly cites some of the benefits or upside of having political parties, but he doesn’t pay enough attention to the downside.

    To me, one of the biggest downsides of political parties in Canada these days is that, owing to the tiny number of people who actually belong to them, you often get a huge disconnect between what “the party” wants versus what the masses would actually want.  One of the starkest examples of this comes in connection with party leadership races.  Many times we have seen a particular person elected as leader of a party not because there’s any great groundswell of support for this person among voters at large, but rather solely because of byzantine intra-party dynamics.  Many of our worst and most spectacularly unsuccessful party leaders have become leaders of their parties as a result of this phenomenon:  Joe Clark being elected PC leader in 1976 (because of anti-Mulroney and anti-Claude Wagner sentiment), Ed Stelmach being elected Alberta PC leader (largely because Jim Dinning was from Calgary), Stephane Dion being elected LPC leader (because of anybody-but-Iggy and anybody-but-Rae catfighting), Audrey McLaughlin being elected NDP leader, etc.

    The US has had similar issues for decades in selecting Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, again with the result being that the ultimately successful candidate has navigated the byzantine, Macchiavellian world of internal party politics yet this doesn’t necessarily have a thing to do with whether this person would be the most successful person to put forward as candidate for President.  The Democracts have a history of producing spectacular duds in this regard:  Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern (big time), Jimmy Carter in 1980, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and most recently John Kerry.  The Republicans haven’t done as badly (mainly because they’ve had fewer troubles historically with party unity and infighting, though this current election cycle may be a doozie, what with the tea party), but still consider Barry Goldwater, Gerald Ford and Bob Dole, all of whom basically had “guaranteed loser” stamped on their foreheads the moment they won their party’s nomination.

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