The Party’s Over: Without Ideology, We Lack Leadership

Elections are no longer contests of ideas but rather competing marketing campaigns to see who gets to control the state’s levers of coercion

By Ray Pennings, Executive vice-president, Cardus

HAMILTON, Ont. / Troy Media/ – The bedrock of traditional party politics is crumbling. The end result could be devastating to western society.

For political junkies, presidential nominating conventions are destination television. It’s ritualistic theatre as, almost without exception in living memory, the presumptive nominee has been confirmed. Officially winning warrants breaking news alerts but the conventions are more about marketing than decision-making.

The 2016 U.S. presidential conventions had a different sort of intrigue because the two nominees are as much distinguished by their unpopularity as their credentials. Internal party opponents telegraphed their intentions to disrupt the conventions but the discontent was mostly managed. Outside the conventions, relatively few celebrated their preferred candidate as a virtuous choice.

But beyond whether you dislike Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump more rests a bigger question: How did we get here? Are they really the best alternatives that can be provided in one of the world’s leading democracies?

There’s valid debate about the strengths and weaknesses of the party and primary system, but no apparent mention of how the effectiveness of the political party structure is being challenged in several western democracies. In Great Britain, both leading parties faced internal divisions relating to the Brexit vote. In Australia, party squabbles have produced four prime ministers in six years. Even in Canada, while the intensity and consequences are of a very different degree, the Conservatives are engaged in leadership and identity soul-searching while the Liberals are doing away with their historic party structure, getting rid of memberships and trying to market the party as a movement rather than an institution.

While the degrees and consequences of these circumstances differ widely, is the incapacity of the political party to survive the absence of coherent foundational ideas at least part of the problem? Canadian journalist Susan Delacourt wrote a book a few years back documenting the shift from thinking of political parties as families – held together by a certain bond even if they sometimes yelled and fought – to thinking of them as marketing organizations. Politicians are “shopping for votes” and democracy has been reduced to voters engaging in a quadrennial shopping expedition. The political party, then, is a very different institution than it was a relatively short time ago.

Is this a logical consequence of our post-ideological age? For the past generation, the debate has shifted from differences in ideas to identity politics. We no longer engage as conservatives or liberals in political debate. Instead, we are dividing more along the lines of a progressivist-nativist continuum. That leads to an us-them mindset. Progressivist purists aren’t very accommodating to those they view as intolerant, while the nativists are very stark about excluding people, even if that means building walls and imposing blanket bans. Where the political party once served as a mediating institution coalescing diverse opinions into a manageable set of coherent options for voters, identities can’t be mediated in the same way.

In this context, the political party becomes impossible. Real dialogue between those who disagree is inconceivable. Elections are no longer contests of ideas but rather competing marketing campaigns to see who gets to control the state’s levers of coercion.

Institutions like political parties are important. Societies are not just collections of individuals with opinions but also of structured platforms where a thesis is countered by an antithesis, which leads to a synthesis, which becomes a new thesis, and so the dialogue proceeds. This method has a long history of contributing to people of difference living together civilly and learning from each other.

Trump and Clinton didn’t just happen. Their nominations reflect a dilemma that challenges Democrats and Republicans, Americans and Canadians, and all those who are part of western democracy. In the midst of the muddle that is the 2016 U.S. presidential election, we can hope that the cracks in the secular are exposed and we are led to ask ourselves: Is this the best our system can offer?

We won’t be able to answer without revisiting what we understand about such basic concepts as freedom, tolerance, law and order.

If we don’t turn our attention to this over the next decade, we may discover that the party is over and what takes its place is less than pleasant.

Ray Pennings is executive vice-president of Cardus, Canada’s leading Christian think-tank.

© 2016 Distributed by Troy Media