Poly-partisanship: Why you should vote for party leadership

Matthew Casselman

People are joining the Conservative Party of Canada – many for the first time. They are joining ahead of a leadership race that involves a juxtaposition in vision so large that the party’s future direction is highly uncertain. This article will explain why this is happening, why this is legitimate, and why it is really good for democracy. 

Is the idea of joining to vote in a leadership or nomination race new?

The most pivotal party leadership races involve candidates who have highly contrasting views. Benoît Hamon recently won the French Socialist Party Presidential primary election by mobilizing the left against a more moderate Manuel Valls. Bernie Sanders very nearly clinched the Democratic nomination, which would have resulted in a large shift in positioning for the Democrats. His victory might have even changed the outcome of November’s presidential election.

consIn Canada, the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada’s final leadership election resulted in its merger with the Canadian Alliance, establishing the present-day Conservative Party of Canada. Each of these races mobilized people and motivated them to get involved in a party – some for the first time. There is nothing novel about shifting allegiances or getting inspired to join because of a particular candidate.

The focus of new membership in the 2017 Conservative leadership race is primarily on ‘progressive’ Canadians who are joining to vote for a more progressive candidate, like Michael Chong, or to strategically vote against other candidates in the race. However, some people are also becoming members to vote for candidates who fall farther to the right of the political spectrum. Some are supporting Pierre Lemieux, who is speaking out against abortion and LGBTQ rights. Others are supporting Kellie Leitch, who is speaking out against Muslims and the Islamic faith. There may be fewer of them because the political space on this side of the spectrum is smaller, but they are still joining.

What are parties and who do they represent?

Political parties are coalitions of people who come together to contest elections and form government. Parties are not monolithic and they do not have a fixed agenda. Parties shift along a spectrum that is relative to the political context, their leadership, and the preferences of their current coalition of members. Naturally, people also have beliefs that can change over time. These shifts explain both fluctuations in voting habits, and the large pool of undecided voters.

Parties shift along a spectrum that is relative to the political context, their leadership, and the preferences of their current coalition of members.

Leadership races are a time for reflection and renewal. People join a party when they are inspired by one of the competing visions in leadership. These visions might differ vastly and could mean that the victor will alienate some of the party’s current supporters. However, no single group is entitled to determine the party’s overall direction, and you do not need to be a previous supporter to ascribe to a possible vision for the future of the party.

Hyper-partisanship is a characteristic of a first-past-the-post system that discourages cooperation and encourages a fixed political identity. Even the voting system treats party preference as absolute. You can only vote for one candidate, which assumes an equal rejection of all other ballot options. Elections under this system create dogmatic affiliations, and spread the assumption that voters must make a definitive choice and should only associate with a single political entity. This is a false narrative and we should be weary of efforts by parties to inculcate a sense of ownership over our votes.

Are you saying that everyone should join all parties?

Many people who criticize others for their decision to join a new political party to vote in a leadership or local nomination race have a fundamental misunderstanding of what political parties are, who they represent, and what their function is in a democratic system.

If there is any possibility that you would consider voting for the political party in question under a particular leader, or on the merits of a local candidate, then you should get involved and express your preference. Section Two of the Conservative Party of Canada Constitution lists central principles that they expect their membership to agree upon. It reads:

[The CPC is founded upon] a belief in a balance between fiscal accountability, progressive social policy and individual rights and responsibilities. The goal of building a national coalition of people who share these beliefs and who reflect the regional, cultural and socio-economic diversity of Canada.

Their constitutionally enshrined principles offer the Party a great deal of space to maneuver under the policy agenda and vision that each leadership candidate is offering. It also means that many Canadians could identify with these principles and agree enough with the future leader to vote for them. Demonstrating a willingness to explore other party options reduces the power of dominant parties and their habit of taking for granted the votes of certain demographic groups.

Why is this phenomenon good for democracy?

A decreasing number of Canadians are participating in formal political engagement through membership within political parties. However, political parties are still the coalitions that nominate candidates and elect Members of Parliament to make decisions on our behalf. The decision to not associate with party structures leaves an increasing cross section of Canadians out of the conversation and out of Parliament.

The normalization of party membership will lead to increased introspective evaluation of the views we hold, and a re-evaluation of these views as new critical junctures or leaders emerge. It will also lead to decisions that are less influenced by elite brokers of power and extreme or dogmatic voices. These voices often seem louder when others choose to stand down or look away.

Recent examples remind us that the most powerful accelerator of the politics of fear and hate is apathy. Passive citizens consent to that rhetoric and vision through silence being misconstrued as indifference. Political parties, whether you like them or not, are powerful vehicles for change. You should impact their ethos – If not for you, then for others.

Matthew Casselman is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance. Matthew also holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Wilfrid Laurier University. He is an avid volunteer, policy wonk, and is currently the President of the Green Party of Ontario. 

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