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Watching the American political debates, especially the increasingly vituperative and acerbic Republican debates, reminds me again why I am a political agnostic when it comes to party politics. I simply cannot believe that any single political entity, any party or person, has all the answers or can dig us out of whatever hole we’re currently in.
And America, with its rigid, two-party system, has seen its electoral options, choices and opportunities reduced to caricature status. On one side, a group of frighteningly racist, homophobic, xenophobic, gun-fanatic Christianists. On the other, a woman with no clear policies but a sense of entitlement.
And then there’s Bernie Saunders, who is the closest thing to an independent I’ve seen in years. He’s the best and brightest hope American politics has seen since JFK. And unlikely to be chosen as the Democratic candidate by a political system in which both parties are built on money, graft, corruption, corporate lobbying, and catering to the lowest common denominator.
Party politics remind me too much of bureaucracies and corporations: hidebound, slow to change, inflexible, suspicious, and stubbornly resistant to new ideas and technologies.
Party politics are also belligerently and divisive. They deliberately polarize the voters, often with conflicting and contradictory claims that are often outright lies. They spin, fabricate and lie about the other candidates and party (or parties). Campaigns based on ad hominem attacks and fear tactics don’t encourage me to belong to that party.
But that’s not unique to the USA. It’s done in every democracy. Just look at the recent elections in Canada and the UK.
And far too often party politics become personality cults, centred not around issues, policies or practices, but around the leader. That leader takes on a godlike status: unable (or at least presented as unable) to do wrong; omniscient, omnipotent and highly autocratic. Critics of the leader are dismissed, shoved out of the party, harangued, heckled and belittled – if they are in nations where they are even allowed to live.
I simply cannot subscribe to this thought (or rather, thoughtless) process. It’s too cult-like for me. I cannot see any real, significant difference between the personality cult of, say, Kim Jong Un, and that built around Steven Harper. Yes, in the latter case, it eroded rapidly when he lost the election and resigned. Our democratic system saved us from it getting worse. And, unlike Kim’s alleged opponents, Harper’s kept their heads, if not always their jobs.
A similar cult was created around Jack Layton, who might have risen to prime minister on it, except for his untimely death. I worry that a similar cult might build up around Justin Trudeau, souring his election victory. We saw personality cults grow around Mike Harris, too, as they did around other provincial leaders.
Look south of the border and see the candidates of both parties, each frantically trying frantically to build their own personality cults, using celebrity endorsements and me-me-me promotional advertising and events.
It’s bad – very bad – for the nation when any party gains an absolute majority in parliament. The whole country becomes the plaything of the leader (in the US, look what happened when the republicans gained control of the two houses: a moral, social and fiscal morass).
We saw what happened with Steven Harper’s cult – he demanded that media and civil servants refer to it as The Harper Government, not the Conservative Government. L’etat c’est moi. We’re seeing it with Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals in Ontario, albeit not as nasty, closed, secretive or autocratic as Harper. But differences in degree don’t make it a better system, just somewhat less toxic (except, of course, for the undemocratic and potentially disastrous sale of Ontario Hydro…).
One of the reasons I hope to see proportional voting implemented here is to see the party structure weakened. No, not dispense with it, but rather change our current, rather un-democratic system so that it allows more shades and subtleties of politics to be represented. Smaller parties will be able to have seats and their say in the process, coloruing the nature of governance.
I also hope it will lead to more minority or coalition governments. I prefer these because they mean no party – therefore no leader – can dictate terms to the nation. Rather, parties have to compromise, find mutually acceptable solutions actually do politics rather than merely dictate. They have to do some give-and-take.
Leaders under such systems are less likely to become bullies because they have to practice diplomacy to keep power. Play nice.
I like to think that I go against the popular grain when I vote, and vote for something, for someone, instead of against whatever I don’t like. Not always, of course. Elections and politics are never quite that simple. I try to vote for the person who will best represent us, best work for the greater good, rather than the party.
Last federal election, for example. I voted against Steven Harper – like millions of other Canadians – because I never like a party governed by an absolutist ruler. Delusions of grandeur don’t win me over (they didn’t when I was on council, under an absolutist mayor, either).
I wish I could cherry-pick from the policies and platforms of each party; take from the social policies of the NDP and Liberals, and the fiscal policies of the conservatives. Mix-and-match a government that conformed to my broader ideas, not along rigid and narrow party lines.
But since I cannot, I put my faith in the promise of electoral reform that will help us widen our democratic representation and help us escape the problems created by the mix of party politics and leadership cults.
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