The Life and (Rumoured) Death of the Modern Political Party

TeddyBoy via Flickr
TeddyBoy via Flickr

Our current culture of political analyses, with many polls considered, has created a space for frequent declarations proclaiming the death of one political party or another. Such political foretelling happens so often and so quickly that it is now a convention of sorts. Of recent memory, a noticeable example is that of one Canadian scribe, who was clearly way off beam with his hasty offering of the Liberal party obituary. Of course, one could argue context, especially given the national environment wherein such declarations are made, or the “trend” of the day.

Yet political life is a funny thing. Political winds shift quickly; for example, in 2008 many politicos declared that the Republican Party in the United States would have to spend years “in the wilderness” before being competitive again, yet two years later they controlled the House of Representatives with a clear majority. In other words, it can be deceiving, if not evading the  analytic eye. Thus, the locating of the political pulse is never a task to be undertaken lightly. It takes many a turn, many a scandal, many a thought, many a voice and skill.

In politics, what might appear to be on its death knell today could have a fully reinvigorated life tomorrow. Therefore, it is imprudent to make premature political obituaries. Unfortunately, the pattern of declared political mortality endures. For example, given the current Canadian Senate crisis, there are observers who are already declaring Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government dead, with no return. Political shovels are readily held, to bury the current government.

The death of a major political party, such as the Liberal Party of Canada or the Conservative Party, cannot be declared so lightly. It will take great depth to finally see haunting damages, which would indeed suggest the collapse of the entire political party and its machinery, and the possibility of the bespoken death. Indeed, scandals will emerge, particularly at the tip of a political reawakening, a major election. That has especially been the case in the last decade. Political scandals are not new to Canada. Thus, declaring a major Canadian political party dead, or suggesting a permanent power shift of the political centre, known as the Overton Window, might not be an easy practical conclusion to draw, though somewhat sound in writing.

The death of a major political party requires the absence of a number of key factors, the collapse of the pillars that support the structure of a party machine. The most obvious but significant one of these factors is money. Without a constant flow of cash, a political party will inevitably fall behind, unable to pay for advertising, additional fundraising, or professional management necessary to co-ordinate a modern political campaign. There is a lot more to add to the mix: population shifts, both psychological and demographic, the extent political participation and public engagement, policy, the presence or absence of charismatic leadership, the national (and global) economy, the media narrative of the day, and domestic and international affairs.

Stephen Harper, if one looks to history, is a good political chess player, possibly ranking among the top Canadian political chess greats. He knows his base, the general populations’ political and economic priorities, voting patterns, and has established his political narrative -with the Conservatives as the only reliable stewards of the economy in the face of years of global stagnation- as the dominant one. Simply put, he is very good at what he does. Therefore, emerging declarations of a dead Conservative Party are premature.That is not to say the man is immune to defeat; far from it. Nor should detected weaknesses suggest the end of his party; all parties have weaknesses along with strengths. Dwindling leadership, perhaps, but not the party structure in its entirety. A good political chess player may play and lose a game, but they will leave their political structure behind for new occupants.

In the face of the approaching Trudeau tide, Conservatives still have time and a range of tools on their side. Of course things could get worse and leader removed, but the death of the Conservatives is ridiculous. If anything, when danger is detected, party establishments tend to quickly render that “dangerous” leader of theirs as political refuse, as with Michael Ignatieff; whom they will, without a doubt, dispose of. As for the Liberal Party, they are reclaiming their needed support base. The Liberals, under the wing of a new charismatic and popular leader and heir to a political dynasty, Justin Trudeau, have seen a major jump in fundraising, a problem since their defeat in 2006. This would seem to be on a very promising path to 24 Sussex Drive, if not something resembling Lazarus following their defeat in the last election.

The pulse of the modern Canadian political process has been missed repeatedly, and that might be the reason Harper has been so often victorious over the years; could he have located this political pulse? He might have come closest to it. In the meantime, formulating modernized political instruments, which are fully, if not somewhat, capable of capturing this pulse is a necessity. There are small but significant indicators that, in their rush to make political sense, many observers miss. Instead of declaring the death of a party whenever a scandal emerges, consider taking the broader view. A political party, particularly one immersed in history, exists as an historic structure, a structure existing as if it was long declared an historic site, a structure whose only major change will be that of its occupants, who will come and go. Yes, the house might fall, but not so easily. It is still too soon to declare these parties dead. Their occupants? Maybe not. It is dangerous to declare a party dead, just as it is to declare it the “natural governing party” of a country. With the revolving door that is electoral politics, parties rise and fall, but rumours of their deaths are very often exaggerated.