We need par­ties, don’t we?

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY DAVID BUL­GER David M. Bul­ger of Cornwall is Ad­junct Pro­fes­sor (re­tired), UPEI

I once re­marked that there is more in­de­pen­dence of thought in most churches these days than in po­lit­i­cal par­ties. Ob­serv­ing the bark­ing, flip­per clap­ping and ta­ble thump­ing of the trained seals that make up our par­lia­ment, I would have to con­clude that in­de­pen­dence of thought is still markedly ab­sent among those whose cur­rent task in life is the un­think­ing sup­port of a po­lit­i­cal party.

Party is, as the great po­lit­i­cal thinker Jean Jac­ques Rousseau put it, the "en­emy of democ­racy."

And there are good rea­sons for reach­ing this con­clu­sion. Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists who study par­ties have iden­ti­fied a form of be­hav­iour which they term "The Iron Law of Oli­garchy." What they say is this: no mat­ter the party, no mat­ter its goals and prin­ci­ples, no mat­ter whether it is "grass roots" in na­ture or more con­cen­trated in struc­ture, there will be an in­ner, core elite which is, in ef­fect the party. The rank and file may have the il­lu­sion of par­tic­i­pa­tion, but the real pol­icy and strat­egy de­ci­sions are made by this core group.

The au­thors who iden­tify this "law" base their find­ings on re­search. But sim­ple hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence sup­ports the con­clu­sion. We see core groups in churches, ser­vice clubs, ath­letic leagues - vir­tu­ally any­where that hu­man be­ings are gath­ered to­gether in or­ga­nized as­so­ci­a­tions.

And the range of be­hav­iours as­so­ci­ated with core groups can run from al­most self­less ded­i­ca­tion to "the or­ga­ni­za­tion is me," and en­ti­tle­ments can range from the ser­vice is thanks enough to hefty ex­pected ben­e­fits.

Do the elites of po­lit­i­cal par­ties ex­pect ben­e­fits?

Well, I would guess that the an­swer would turn on the an­swer to another ques­tion, namely: who are the mem­bers of these elites?

I can't claim to know, but I would bet that we would find a lawyer or two, maybe a road builder or two, a devel­oper or two, some other pro­fes­sion­als. Now I'm sure that the mo­ti­va­tions of these in­di­vid­u­als might be en­tirely al­tru­is­tic, ser­vice for the sake of ser­vice, but on the other side of the coin, it is not im­pos­si­ble that a road builder, for ex­am­ple, might favour gov­ern­ment pol­icy that would pro­mote ex­pen­sive round-abouts as a form of traf­fic con­trol. Round­abouts are things that road builders build.

It is im­por­tant to re­al­ize that all par­ties - all par­ties - have these elites. I lived in On­tario when the David Peter­son elite ‘fat cats’ were swept out by the Bob Rae win. But fat cats did not dis­ap­pear. The stripes sim­ply changed. The like­li­hood that things will get bet­ter if we sim­ply change the party in power is very small. But as long as our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is dom­i­nated by par­ties, that il­lu­sion will be pro­moted. Af­ter all, ev­ery loyal op­po­si­tion con­sid­ers it­self a gov­ern­ment in wait­ing.

Real democ­racy is in­com­pat­i­ble with party elites, and can't hap­pen un­less we get the par­ties they con­trol out of the elec­tion process and out of gov­ern­ment.

But is it even pos­si­ble to have gov­ern­ment with­out po­lit­i­cal par­ties? The an­swer forms the sub­ject of another ar­ti­cle.

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