We need parties, don’t we?
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.