Parties and Democracy: A Critical View

Feb 10, 2009 | Comments 1


“… parties are inevitable. No one has shown how representative government could be worked without them. “ (Bryce, 1921, 119)

“… parties have consistently and universally been accepted as the only tenable alternative, as a working system, to tyranny. “ (Goodman, 1960, 607)

Claims that democracy must be based on a system of competing parties abound in the literature of political science. While parties have eased the transition from autocratic government to the form we have today, they are now blocking progress toward a more democratic and responsive political system. Viable alternatives to parties could be developed if the elites controlling our political life were to act on the aspirations of their constituents.

“Democracy” is the people’s ideology. Individuals must be persuaded to accept the ideologies of liberalism, conservatism, and socialism. Each rationalizes a form of elite rule and the interests of a particular class. Democracy, however, springs virtually unprompted from people’s hearts and minds, reflecting their desire for dignity, security, and self-realization. Translated into a political system, democracy is “government by the people.”1

To be realized, this form of government requires political institutions that encourage citizen participation. But political parties frustrate rather than support “citizen” politics. They are “fighting” organizations that exist to advance the interests of certain segments of society in electoral politics. A party seeks to mobilize the citizenry to march to the party’s tune, not to help people recognize and realize the aspirations they have in common.2 As Max Weber wrote, “The management of politics through parties simply means management through interest groups”(Gerth and Mills, 1958, 94).3

The domination of political life by parties denies people the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship and the responsive government that can only flow from their exercise. If we are to break free from “partyology,” we must see these organizations and the role they play in our political system realistically. We must see through, or past, the theorizing which asks us to accept the oxymoron, “party democracy.”

Responsible Government: Rule by Competitive Elites4

The fundamental character of Canadian politics was established in the mid19th century. To deal with instability in its colony, the British bowed to pressure for responsible cabinet government. This proved to be a form of government that the rival factions, the conservative “ins” and the restive liberal “outs,” could both support. With responsible government, an elected prime minister and party leader replaced the British governor as the central figure in the network of power. The prime minister inherited virtually all the powers of the British governor These were reinforced by the ability of the new “monarch” to claim a popular mandate and by his control of the governing party team.5 The reformers who pressed for responsible government “… did not wish to reduce executive power; they wished to take it over and exercise it” (Stewart, 1986, 30). Responsible government empowered Canadian elites; it did little to change the power relationship between those elites and the citizenry.

The new form of government established a relatively level playing field on which Tories and Grits could compete for control of the state. Citizens who already had the right to elect the assembly, or were later to get the vote, would decide only the outcome of the party competition. The citizens’ electoral participation would be used by the winning party to support its largely mythical claim to have a popular mandate to implement its program. In office, a party would have the opportunity to impose its vision of society, to maintain the political order that had rewarded it, and, most important from its perspective, to reward its supporters with patronage of various kinds (Simpson, 1988).

The democratic values held by many Canadians were exploited by the liberals who demanded responsible government in their name, but those values were not reflected in the new institutional arrangements. As S.D. Clark observed,

What has been thought of in Canada as an orderly process of adapting political institutions to changing circumstances has actually represented an effort to hold in check the kind of democratic forces which were growing up from within the Canadian community. Responsible government developed in reaction rather than in response to the true democratic spirit of the Canadian people (1962, 208).

Those “democratic forces,” championed in Upper Canada by William Lyon Mackenzie and others, had been repressed by force in 1837 and discredited. The political leaders of the time made no claim that the system was democratic (Stewart, 1986, 30; Hodgins, 1967, 83-91).6 Indeed, they saw democracy – “mobocracy” — as a dangerous Americanism only supported by the unpatriotic. Elites, organized in factions that evolved into parties, were, from the beginning, firmly in control of the new system and have remained so. With the franchise extended to include all Canadians over 18, and some minor changes, this 19th-century pre-democratic political model remains in place.

Responsible government was a step toward popular rule in that it put control of politics in the hands of Canadians and established a political structure that might someday house a popular democracy. But at the same time, this step forward was offset by legitimating and reinforcing a system of executive/party dominance and continuing to restrict the role of citizen to choosing between candidates (soon party candidates) for office.


“You can’t put a sign on a pig and say it’s a horse,” claims an old Czech aphorism. But posted often enough such misleading signs will, at the very least, confuse people.

Relabelling 19th-century elitist parliamentary government as parliamentary “democracy” or, on the hustings, as simply “democracy,” took place at the end of World War 1.7 During the war, the masses were called on to sacrifice — many to make the ultimate sacrifice — with the promise of a democratic social order once the war was won.8 As the war came to an end, however, political leaders would agree only to extend the franchise to women-even that required much public pressure. Rhetoric was proffered as a substitute for the democracy promised during the wartime crisis. The word “democracy” was now to trip lightly from the tongues of politicians.

A great deal of effort is required to promote and maintain even a weakly held belief that a pig (the existing political system) is a horse (democracy). Many political scientists have helped by qualifying, distinguishing, and stretching the concept of democracy. A host of terms — liberal, pluralist, procedural, etc. — has been developed to describe what are alleged to be different forms of democracy.

These terms and concepts do make important theoretical distinctions that facilitate a serious discussion of political systems. At the same time, however, they tend to obfuscate and even trivialize essential democratic values. It is made to seem that with the appropriate modifier almost any system can be “democratic.” Parties are easily made “inevitable” in a democracy by simply defining “democracy” as a political system characterized by competing parties. Those objecting to this depreciation of the democratic ideal are themselves depreciated.9

The cause of democratic development (and clear thinking) would be better served, as Charles Lindblom advises, by “not confusing hope with fact” (1977, 131). To refer to the system as a “democracy” or even a “liberal democracy” is to “confuse hope with fact.” Both “competitive party model” and, Sartori’s term, “partycracy,” are used here to refer to the Canadian political system. Let us turn now to an examination of why parties and democracy are incompatible.


Ideally, in a democratic system citizens, individually and collectively, would speak for themselves. However, in large states it was impossible even to imagine all citizens meeting together to discuss their common interests — at least until recent developments in communications technology raised that possibility. Citizens would have to depend on a few representatives to act for them in the political arena. How this representation is organized is of crucial importance. If it is done in such a way that the “authentic” voice of the people is heard clearly and authoritatively where public policy is made, then, despite its representative character, the system could properly be called a democracy. The government would be the agent of the people carrying out its wishes. One could expect to find politicians and citizens working closely together to accomplish shared goals.

When, however, the system of parliamentary government based on competing parties was relabelled “democracy,” those dominating political life gave no thought to reorganizing the system of representation along democratic lines. The elite who controlled the parties had no intention of sharing power more widely with the citizenry and reforming the representative system to make this possible. However, more emphasis would now have to be placed on the parties’ claims to represent the public in order to legitimate the system.

How could parties, the means that elites developed to mobilize support in their struggle for power, possibly be “passed off” as agencies that represented the people? The finesse was made easier because virtually all the means of communication were controlled by elites, and no serious effort had been made to raise the political consciousness of the public.

Political leaders insisted that competitive party elections allowed ample opportunity for democratic expression. Through elections citizens could choose directly a constituency representative from candidates nominated by parties and, indirectly, as a result of that choice, a party team to form the government and its program. No further public input was needed or desired.

The citizen’s position was seen as analogous to that of the consumer who, on entering a supermarket, was faced with two or three shopping carts full of groceries. She could choose only one and was asked to believe that on the basis of this choice she was, indirectly, controlling the grocery industry. It takes only a little thought to realize that while the consumer is not without some power in this commercial interaction, far more control rests with those who determine what products will be put in the carts.

This analogy has some explanatory value but it exaggerates the power of the citizen/voter who is in an even weaker position than the consumer. To mention just two of several ways why this is the case: the voter is “buying” promises that are difficult to assess, and the “store” has a policy of no refunds.

Allowing parties to continue to dominate the representative system-to fill the carts-frustrates genuine democratic representation in several important ways.

Forming Citizen Interests

Before their interests can be properly represented, citizens must comprehend them. They then must be motivated to contribute their understanding to the community’s pool of ideas.

It is easy for the average person to identify most pressing personal needs. It is, however, very complex and challenging to consider those needs and others in a broad social context. An individual’s knowledge and social awareness is always incomplete. However, a central feature of a democratic system must be to enhance the citizens’ political sophistication to the greatest degree possible. This is the only way to guarantee that the interests they want represented are their own.10

Is the development of aware, articulate citizens a fundamental concern of the parties? Hardly. They exist to persuade people to accept their definition of what is good for the community. As Maurice Duverger puts it, “Parties create opinion as much as they represent it; they form it by propaganda; they impose a prefabricated mould upon it …” (1962,422).11 It is consistent with their indifference to the ideas of their constituents that parties as governments devote few resources to political education.12

This lack of party interest in discovering the real needs and aspirations of those they purport to represent is obscured since, in order to win votes, they must make an effort to appear sympathetic to whatever concerns citizens do have. A host of “motherhood” issues will be supported rhetorically by all parties in order to get into office and implement as much of their own agenda as they can. The public’s ability to hold the parties to these commitments is minimal. Frequently, parties will not even mention publicly the causes that are of primary importance to them. Supporters of the party know where it is coming from. It may be counterproductive, in terms of mobilizing electoral support, to advertise the party’s priorities to others.

This lack of party interest in helping citizens discover and articulate their own interests may be admitted. Supporters of partycracy argue, however, that interparty and intraparty debates and discussions do help the citizens who listen to them get a better fix on their own interests. This might be the case were it not for two features of that debate.

First, party battles on the hustings and in the legislature-just different phases of never-ending party warfare-are generally uninformative to the point where they even disgust the players.13 The parties must pitch their message to the “audience” they do so little to inform, i.e., they must pitch it low. There are often more votes to be obtained by unrealistic promises, appeals to ignorance and cupidity, and the exploitation of social divisions and prejudice, than by a balanced presentation of issues.

While elitists insist that this audience should leave “acting“on the political stage to the qualified few, it has never been made clear how this poorly informed mass can be expected to identify quality political leadership.

Second, the parties fail to raise many socially important issues. We do know a little more about the strengths and weaknesses of market systems because of the debates of the parties. It has been economic interests — establishment and counter-establishment — that have had the resources and incentive to support successful parties. But on a whole range of vital community interests the parties have been silent until interest groups have, usually very belatedly, forced them to at least show concern.14

Native issues were neglected for so long that aboriginal peoples have given up on the system and want self-government. Further, the problems of abuse, domination, and lack of opportunity for a group comprising over 50 per cent of the population have only been discovered by the parties in the last 30 years; the female franchise, no more empowering than the male, was insufficient to force the parties to address the particular concerns of women. The environmental movement is still working intensely to persuade the parties to heed ecological problems (Lyon, 1992). No party presses strongly for the development of a more effective world authority to regulate conflict between and within states. The public wants a more participatory political system (Canada, 1991). Parties scarcely want to discuss the matter.15

According to theory supporting partycracy, when the main parties ignore the concerns of enormous numbers of people, new parties will emerge to represent them. The dominant parties, however, use their power to prevent that happening.

Listening to the rhetoric of competing parties will do little to help citizens determine their own interests. The parties also interfere with political learning and expression by inhibiting political participation. They encourage people to be politically lazy and irresponsible. The fundamental conflict between parties and democratic citizenship was clear to M. Ostrogorski, one of their earliest critics.

The first problemwhich arises in democratic practice is the following: how to so organize political action as to develop spontaneous and regular impulse, to stimulate individual energies and not let them fall asleep. The party system offered its solution: Let the citizens choose a party, let them enlist in it for good and all, let them give it full powers, and it will undertake to supply the required impetus. Put forward with every semblance of political piety, this solution found favor with the citizens, and enabled them to sink, with an untroubled conscience, into their habitual apathy they raised political indifferentism to the level of a virtue, and this aloofness has combined with the ignorance of the masses to repress public spirit (1964 [1902J: II, 332-33).

Accepting the beguiling party invitation — “leave it to us” — has harmful consequences since most people learn much of what they know through doing. In addition, only by participating can citizens express those views they do have so that they can be represented. Further, people come to care about the polity, to be motivated to learn about its needs, through active participation. As de Tocqueville wrote: “I maintain that the most powerful and perhaps the only means that we still possess of interesting men in the welfare of their country is to make them partakers in the government” ( in Broder, 1972, 262-63).

Ignoring demands for a more participatory system, the parties insist that voting occasionally for one of them is all the formal, public political input that is desirable.16 For those who insist on being more involved, party leaders recommend joining a party, equating such membership with good citizenship. Only a tiny portion of Canadians accept the invitation, and, for some of us who do, it is a less-than-satisfying experience. For principled, practical, and power reasons, party leaders pay little attention to the policy ideas of members of their party — especially when they are in office. Party members are primarily involved in choosing leaders, nominating candidates, and running campaigns. There is a significant qualitative difference between these activities and the exercise of democratic citizenship. One is devoted to defeating “the enemy,” the other to building a vital community.

Recognizing the limitations of party membership, citizens determined to share in making public policy, or merely to find a better way to protect and advance their political interests, join interest groups or adopt other means of influencing policy from the “outside.” Dalton Camp, a man with vast party experience, supports their decision.

There remains… some primordial ambition that lurks in the heart of a few citizens to participate in the formulation of policy through the party apparatus. I would advise them that if they insist on doing so, not to join a political party. The very least they should do is join a para-political pressure group. The very best thing they could do is join the civil service (1981, 150).

These non-party forms of participation are not a good substitute for democratic citizenship either. They have some of the same drawbacks as party activity, and others. At most they can only give the person using them influence rather than power and responsibility. The insiders, elected politicians and bureaucrats, mayor may not choose to listen to them.

Parties are, then, a major barrier to representative democracy because their desire to dominate and control leads them to discourage thoughtful responsible citizenship. Without such citizenship there can be little of substance to represent. In summarizing empirical studies of the politics of the people who are, in one dimension, the product of partycracy, John Wahlke concludes:

  1. Few citizens entertain interests that clearly represent “policy demands” or “policy expectations,” or wishes and desires that are readily convertible into them.
  2. Few people have thought-out, consistent, and firmly held positions on most matters of public policy.
  3. It is highly doubtful that policy demands are entertained even in the form of broad orientations, outlooks, or belief systems.
  4. Large proportions of citizens lack the instrumental knowledge about political structures, processes, and actors that they would need to communicate policy demands or expectations if they had any (1978, 75).

Articulating the Views of Citizens

The major parties compound the damage they do to a system of democratic representation by supporting institutional arrangements that permit the citizenry only the most narrowly circumscribed formal opportunity to express its demands. The 19th-century first-past-the-post electoral system continued, after the “relabelling,” to be the only formal means of public political expression. But since “free and open elections” were now the main support for the system’s claim to be democratic, their importance as a means of citizen empowerment had to be vastly inflated, if not misrepresented.

Politicians frequently infer in their speeches that voters have the opportunity in periodic elections to express themselves on a variety of issues. But their claim does not hold up to even the most cursory examination. Citizens are supposed to be able to:

  1. choose the best candidate to represent the constituency,
  2. choose the party that will best govern the country,
  3. indicate which of the party leaders would make the best prime minister,
  4. hold the local MP, government, and Opposition accountable for their respective performances during the years between elections,
  5. pass judgment on the programs of the parties,
  6. use the election as a kind of referendum on highly salient issues like free trade, and so on.

Use of the ballot to make a statement on anyone of these issues usually makes it impossible to express an opinion on others that are equally important. The conscientious citizen is so constrained that, frustrated, she tends to vote more out of a sense of duty than any expectation of influencing policy outcomes (Edelman, 1964,2-3). Political pundits have a field day after the election trying to interpret the results because, inevitably, voters were “saying” widely different things with their ballots. The parties’ freedom to put their interpretation on the voters’ behaviour is a major source of power for them.17

In theory, partycracy should not constrict the ability of citizens to express themselves as much as it does. As already noted, where existing parties fail to articulate effectively a strongly held body of opinion, a new party should form to do so — just as new companies emerge to exploit overlooked market opportunities. Parties and businesses, however, have a strong vested interest in restricting competition. In the case of business, government regulations limit the ability of corporations to choke off competition. But parties control the only body-the government-that can regulate them. The major parties tacitly agree to maintain a system that restricts competition (voter choice) and distorts that choice.

The party oligopoly is maintained in part through the first-past-the-post or plurality system. It discriminates in favour of the dominant party and against minor parties that do not have geographically concentrated support. This feature of the system makes it extremely difficult for new parties with fresh and widely supported ideas, like the Greens, to become credible competitors. The public resents the limited choice.18

With enormous consequences in terms of public alienation from government, the same electoral system seriously distorts the already limited and confused message that can be drawn from election results. For example, a majority, neoconservative government was elected in Ottawa in 1988 with 43 percent of the popular vote in a contest billed as a referendum on the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement or, more extravagantly, on the future of Canada. The opposition Liberal and NDP parties, holding down the centre-left on the ideological spectrum and strongly opposed to free trade, won a majority of the popular vote.19 However, these opposition parties, longtime supporters of the system, could not seriously challenge the Conservatives’ claim to have a mandate to enact free trade and impose a neoconservative agenda on the country. When they formed governments they made similar claims and expected the opposition parties to accept them.

Not content with the advantages meted out to them by the biases built into the electoral system, the main parties have found a further means of reinforcing their competitive advantage. Over the last 20 years they have provided themselves with more and more funds from the public treasury through grants and tax deductions for people contributing to them. But they have made it difficult for the candidates of minor parties to secure the partial reimbursement of election expenses available to the “majors” by requiring that a candidate first get more than 15 percent of the popular vote in order to qualify.

As presently organized, elections are, as Michael Parenti states,

more a surrender than an assertion of popular power, a gathering up of empowering responses by the elites who have the resources for such periodic harvestings, an institutionalized mechanism providing for the regulated flow of power from the many to the few in order to legitimize the rule of the few in the name of the many (1978, 201).

These criticisms of our electoral arrangements from a democratic perspective are commonplace. What needs to be emphasized, however, is that the parties’ support of them is totally consistent with their basic function. While the aim of a genuine representative democracy would be to see that the authentic views of citizens were articulated, parties want to muffle those views so that their own can dominate. In allowing parties to dominate the representative system, we virtually ensure that government will be unresponsive and weak.


Limited Authority: Pusillanimous Government

We are encouraged to blame the party and individual office-holders when we object to particular government policies. Part of the responsibility does belong there. But here we want to investigate what there is about the competitive party model that results in unresponsive government regardless of which party is in office. The power of systems to determine behaviour, because it is somewhat abstract, is too often neglected.

To be responsive to the citizenry a government must have authority.20 Only with authority can government meet its responsibilities in the face of opposition from powerful vested interests and survive at the polls.21 Without it, governing parties, fearful of the electoral consequences of coercing compliance, will be pusillanimous where they should be strong. The major source of government authority is the people, and its strength varies with how they feel about the legitimacy of the political system. As David Easton writes,

if demands are to be processed into binding decisions… without the extensive use of coercion, solidarity must be developed not only around some set of authorities themselves, but around the major aspects of the system within which the authorities operate (1965, 157-58).

Signs that the system is not vesting government decisions with adequate authority are everywhere — from widespread smuggling of cigarettes to rejection of constitutional proposals, to the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) phenomenon.

Supporters of partycracy urge public support for the major aspects of the system. But it is crucial to note that these vest government with only limited authority. In other words, even if we were all enthusiastic boosters of the political status quo, of partycracy, that would not necessarily ensure the governing party politicians the authority they need to discharge their responsibilities. They would have more authority than they do now when support for the system is so low, but their clout would still be limited.

We have already discussed how the representative system as presently constituted ensures that government cannot be experienced as a collaborative venture of citizens and their elected leaders. The agenda of government is that of a party, not the people. That limits the authority of government. The structure of party government reduces it still further.

The small-“l” liberal elites of the 19th century compromised on a political arrangement that assured each a chance to compete for power and to protect its supporters while out of office. Weak government was a requisite of such an arrangement. Competition could not be maintained if, for example, the Conservatives could hold office for four years and during that time promote their supporters’ interests so vigorously that it would then be impossible for any other party to challenge them at the polls.

The desire to limit government power and keep the system competitive was, of course, consistent with the dominant political ideology of the 19th century. Both Liberals and Conservatives believed in small government where most public policy was made by “private” interests.22 At the time, the power of those private interests was not as great as it is today, and the government’s need for authority to control them was, therefore, less.

Institutional arrangements were biased in several ways in favour of keeping competition open and government limited. The party in office would only hold power temporarily. It would have to give the other party an opportunity to replace it every five years at the latest. While it waited its chance, it would be seated across from the governing party and enjoy the special status of his (or her) majesty’s loyal Opposition. The system legitimated questioning, debating, challenging, posing alternatives, and, generally, weakening the legitimacy and authority of the government. The incumbents were further restrained by the knowledge that what they did to their opponents might later be done to them, and that their policies might well be reversed after the next election.23

The social and economic world has changed dramatically since the 19th century, putting heavy new demands on government and creating blocs of private power well able to resist state direction. These limiting 19th-century liberal institutional arrangements have remained in place, however. No other large organization in modern society has chosen to govern or manage its activities in the way that partycratic government does. Imagine how much careful long-term planning would be done, and how much authority would be exercised, in a major corporation if the management’s jobs were subject to renewal every four years and in between the executives were subject to constant heckling, challenge, and obstruction from a paid opposition determined to replace them.

Partycracy and Pluralist Ad Hockery

Partycratic governments have a number of characteristic weaknesses. They have difficulty planning or even coordinating the work of their various departments and agencies. Policy-making is usually ad hoc and often driven by partisan considerations. Organized interests are given disproportionate power. Response to public needs is usually tardy and inadequate. There is a tendency to abdicate or delegate responsibilities. The interests of bureaucrats and politicians are too often placed ahead of those they are supposed to serve. This list is far from exhaustive.

These weaknesses result in large part from both the failure of the representative system to deliver a clear public mandate to policy-makers and the tentative hold on power of the governing party. Without “instructions” from the citizenry that all the participants in government respect, including interest groups, policy-making becomes a pluralist power game. It is legitimate for every interest in and outside government to fight for policies that benefit it or its clients, all the while claiming to be acting for the public. The governing party brokers these competing interests using the power of the state to advance those it supports. Policy outputs command limited support because the policy-making process through which they are developed is so lacking in democratic credibility.

The absence of a binding public mandate enables the parties and party leaders to “do what comes naturally.” Decisions on whether to tackle problems, and how, are heavily influenced by prospective short-term party gains or losses in the ongoing partisan struggle. These are normally calculated in terms of the response of powerful organized interests and their ability to mobilize resources in support of or against the party in office.

The personal values of the prime minister/party leader are strongly reflected in public policy. A case can be made for the proposition that the government is more responsive to the prime minister than to the millions it claims to represent. Brian Mulroney, for example, was able to recast the Progressive Conservative party to reflect his neoconservative and continentalist values despite widespread public hostility.

The apparatus of the modern state is vast, encompassing innumerable power centres, each of which enjoys some, and in many instances considerable, autonomy. Partycratic government’s authority and management abilities, weakened by continuous party conflict, are insufficient to get this far-flung bureaucracy to pursue common objectives with commitment.

With the example before them of the nation’s leaders engaged in constant competition to maximize their interests, all other participants in the policy-making process, including individual civil servants and branches of government, feel justified in doing the same.

Working for party government is like employment in the private sector, with employees exhibiting roughly the same mix of conscientiousness and self-seeking. Would it be otherwise if civil servants were implementing an agenda that they and other citizens had drawn up?

The argument that the present system produces weak government seems to be refuted by the fact that occasionally governments take very strong actions. Analyzed carefully, however, these actions support the weakness thesis. For example, governments are now taking strong action on debt reduction. But they are only able to do so because, after failing to check the dramatic growth in public debt in a timely fashion, they have allowed a fiscal crisis to develop. Now they can appeal for support from a wide range of interests, who would usually withhold it, to buttress their normally weak position.24

Crisis management of this sort is, of course, very costly in human and economic terms. It may, however, appeal to some politicians because it allows them to cast themselves as heroic-standing fearlessly between the public and disaster. It is more exciting than the hard work of analyzing problems and building a consensus behind long-term solutions to them.

Consider another, somewhat different, example. The government acted decisively/authoritatively in implementing free trade. But note that here the government was able to add the authority of the business community, which may exceed that of government, to its own. There is no question that when this uniquely powerful special interest and the government team up, the concentration of authority is substantial. But what of situations where the government ought to challenge the business agenda?

Considering what might reasonably be expected of democratic government, we find partycracy a weak “underachiever.” Others, using softer standards, would be more charitable. However, the assessment that really matters is not that of academics but of the general public whom the system exists to serve. Its support for the system is vital if government is to function effectively.

Instead of support/authority, interacting features of partycracy – the representative system, the structures and output of government — produce high levels of public alienation.

Attempts are often made to present this alienation as a passing phenomenon related to the recession, the mishandling of constitutional issues, the insecurities surrounding globalization, and so on. All feed it, but dissatisfaction with the competitive-party model and the government policies it produces has been present (and successfully repressed) throughout Canadian history.25 As Parenti notes: “It is time to consider the possibility that if millions are disillusioned with conventional politics, it is because conventional politics are disillusioning”(1978, 204).

Can there be a more damning indictment of the system than the ability of neoconservative politicians and business leaders to convince millions that an amoral, impersonal market, that has failed spectacularly in the past to advance many vital human needs, is more worthy of their trust than their “democratic” government?26 The cycle of alienation leading to an erosion of government authority, weaker government, more public disillusionment, and further erosion is likely to continue until the system is reformed.


Do Canadians have to put up with partycracy, as elites who equate it with “democracy” insist? The amorphous public cannot itself articulate clearly an alternative political order. When citizens do manage to make themselves heard, however, they show that they are not taken in by claims that party MPs speak, in a roundabout way, for their constituents. Overwhelmingly, citizens demand that the person they elect to represent them do so.27 Isn’t this a reasonable request, one that is totally consistent with the democratic values virtually all of us endorse?

There are, however, two major but rather easily resolved problems that must be tackled if the public is to be represented as it wishes. First, the majority viewpoint of the MP’s constituents must be clearly established. Second, if that opinion is to be worthy of representation and respect, it must be informed and socially responsible.

Currently, it is impossible for the MP to reflect community opinion, even if the MP wants to do so, because on almost every issue this opinion is diverse and disaggregated. Scientific polling or referenda could overcome this difficulty and determine what the majority believes. That would not resolve a second more significant difficulty, however. Democratic representation must involve far more than just carrying forward the off-the-cuff, out-of-context, policy reaction of the majority.28 As Joseph Tussman observes, such representation means bringing to bear on public policy the best advice of the citizen acting as “… agent of the body politic, a ruler, … with all of the duties, obligations, and responsibilities that go with that role” (1960, 118).

For citizens to assume the role of “rulers” they must have the information and stimulation needed to think clearly and reach socially responsible decisions. A new institution, specifically designed to accommodate the democratic aspirations of citizens, must be established to provide these. The most suitable, we believe, would be an elected part-time assembly or “community Parliament” in every one of Canada’s 295 constituencies. Its members would participate in regular, ongoing deliberations with their MP on all the major political issues of the day. The local assembly would define the community’s position on public questions. The MP would then be faced with the clear choice between representing constituency or party when the two differed on issues. Few ridings would continue to elect MPs who consistently ignored those they professed to represent.

With community Parliaments operating, political life would focus on the continuous consideration of public issues at the national and local levels. No longer would there be any pretense that elections were the means by which citizens offered an opinion on issues or were empowered. They would merely be a rather low-profile opportunity for people to pass judgment occasionally on the calibre of the representation they were receiving from their MP.

A network of community Parliaments would allow the government and citizens to talk directly to one another, bypassing the mass media. They would jointly draw up and share responsibility for implementing a national program. “Self-government” would be a giant step closer. A major source of political alienation would be removed, as the system functioned more as its democratic rhetoric suggested it should.

Citizens acting through their community Parliaments could consider what further political reforms were needed. They would have a rational, orderly process through which to decide constitutional questions, whether to change the electoral system, how Parliament should be reformed, whether and on what issues referenda should be held, if political parties should be publicly financed, whether there should be a recall procedure, and other issues. .

It seems likely that in the new (community Parliament) order, MPs would elect and dismiss the executive — the cabinet and prime minister — as most democratically structured organizations now do. If so, the current myth that the cabinet is responsible to the House would become a reality.

Even with community Parliaments, the system would remain dependent on representatives. The number of citizens directly involved in the political process would, however, be dramatically increased.29

Power would be shifted from remote party elites to easily accessible representatives-members of the community and national Parliaments. Those who might be alarmed at the prospect that community Parliaments would significantly expand citizen participation in policy-making might find it more reassuring to see them as a vehicle to enlarge the elite running the country. Both perceptions are defensible.

Community Parliaments are a natural and logical step toward a fuller form of democracy and more effective government. They are not a political panacea. They would, however, break the current political stalemate by meeting the long-ignored demands of 20th-century Canadians that those purporting to represent them actually do so. Further, they would provide a means through which a close working relationship between citizens and their government could develop. Politicians and citizens would be able to work together on an agenda they jointly authored.

Where would parties fit into this more democratic model? Perhaps they would retain a place.30 Perhaps they would prove redundant and atrophy, going down in history as a useful organization that served, for a time, to facilitate the transition from autocracy to a closer approximation of popular democracy.


Max Weber wrote: “Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible”(Gerth and Mills, 1958, 128). Our forebears reached out once, and the present system, the best yet devised but very far from what we need or are capable of today, was the result. It is time, past time, that we pressed on.

Yet there is a significant concern that may inhibit even strong democrats from promoting change. If empowered, will the masses curb the liberal freedoms that are the essential foundation of the democratic project?

It was, in part, the denial of individual liberties by autocratic regimes that led to the liberal revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Liberals came to defend a system of fragmented and contained public authority as necessary to guarantee those rights against either a renewed autocracy or the intolerant masses. In the 20th century, when democratic values also came to command the loyalty of liberals, they argued that these guarantees were essential to democracy. Partycracy, which in one century was a bulwark against mass power, was represented as its friend and guarantor in the next.

But supporting a competitive-party model of politics that blocks democratic progress to protect liberal freedoms is a fundamentally misguided approach. It is an orderly, responsible expansion of democracy, not its containment, that is the best guarantee of political liberties. Containment, and the poor quality of both government and citizenship it requires, may cause an outpouring of public frustration and anger that will sweep aside essential liberties. However, movement toward a more democratic polity has, historically, been accompanied by an ever stronger commitment to individual rights. Involvement in political life strengthens the individual’s commitment to the rights and liberties that make possible meaningful political involvement in a peaceful community (Pateman, 1970, 105; McClosky and Zaller, 1984, 48).

While, ultimately, it is the politically active citizens’ support that is the crucial guarantor of political freedoms, additional “backup” support, not present in the 19th century, is now available through the legal system. Rights are protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and provincial rights codes. Such limited and costly guarantees as partycracy offers are increasingly redundant. From liberal, as well as from democratic and responsive government perspectives, the competitive party model is archaic, not inevitable.


1 Democratic ideology prescribes a particular kind of political organization: “The essential feature of a democratic polity is its concern for the participation of the member in the process by which the community is governed. It goes beyond the insistence that politics or government be included among the careers open to talent. It gives to each citizen a public office, a place in the sovereign tribunal and, unless it is a sham, it places its destiny in the hands of that tribunal. Here is the ultimate decision-maker, the court of last appeal, the guardian of the guardians, government “by the people” (Tussman, 1960,105-6). ^

2 As Kay Lawson describes them, “Parties … are agencies for the acquisition of power, not selfless political versions of the Red Cross, to whom citizens may go crying in time of need” (1980,23). ^

3 Gerth and Mills, 1958, 94. For a discussion of parties as interest groups, see Lyon (1983-84). ^

4 By “elite” we are referring to a “minority of individuals whose preferences regularly prevail in cases of differences in preferences on key political issues” (Dahl, 1958, 464). The dominant political elite includes more than professional politicians, although they are its core. The elitist nature of Canadian politics is commonly accepted. Manzer writes, “An upper-status group possessing position, expertise, and wealth is firmly in control of economic and political power, lessening the potential for an authentically democratic polity” (1985, 3). ^

5 The Governor General retains only some discretion in deciding who shall be asked to form a government when no party has a majority in the House of Commons. ^

6 There was substantial practical justification for elitism when this style of politics was established-lack of communication, striking differences in mass and elite education, deferential mass attitudes. ^

7 Typically, politicians now only emphasize that we still have a system of parliamentary rather than democratic government when there are demands for public involvement in policy-making, by means of a referendum, for example. Then the parliamentary character of the system is used to rationalize rejecting such demands. See Boyer (1992,40-45). ^

8 See Naylor (1991) for a full discussion of this promise and betrayal. ^

9 As Robert Dahl states: “As long as the professionals remain substantially legitimist in outlook … the critic is likely to make little headway. Indeed, the chances are that anyone who advocates extensive changes in the prevailing democratic norms is likely to be treated by the professionals, and even by a fair share of the political stratum, as an outsider, possibly even as a crackpot whose views need not be seriously debated” (1962, 320). ^

10 The inability of citizens to sort out their own interests in the present political system is widely acknowledged. “It is one of the world’s most extraordinary social phenomena that masses of voters vote very much like their elites. They demand very little for themselves” (Lindblom, 1977, 209). ^

11 For a Canadian elaboration of this point, see Brodie and Jenson (1980, I). ^

12 For a series of articles discussing this point, see Pammett and Pepin (1988). ^

13 See, for example, Walter Pitman, “It’s time to end insulting campaign,” The Toronto Star (April 21 1972) , 9; Bob Rae, Premier of Ontario, assesses the process more generally, “Politics is a tough business. People have to be prepared to live with it. Everybody who goes into public life knows it’s going to be tough. All kinds of allegations get made, many and most of which are completely unfounded.” Richard Mackie, “Rae tastes his own medicine,” The Globe and Mail (April 20, 1992). ^

14 The “belatedness” is not the fault of the interest groups. Having elected representatives and financed the political system, citizens are entitled to expect that important issues will be raised in the political arena by the politicians. It should not be necessary for people to form interest groups to pressure representatives to do their job. ^

15 These criticisms of the parties are shared by the majority of the public. When political life is dominated by agencies that the public sees as performing badly, alienation from the system and the governments it produces is the inevitable result. See Clarke and Kornberg, 1993. ^

16 Is this conviction weakening or is it merely that party rhetoric is adjusting to public demands? In a response to a question about whether his attitude toward referenda had changed, former prime minister Mulroney replied: “… it has changed from some years ago. I always thought, quite frankly, that under the British parliamentary system that a referendum was a kind of abdication of responsibility. I’ve changed my mind over the years. I’ve come to recognize that in a modern, pluralistic society like ours, people do indeed require a much greater degree of participation than a kick at the can every four years. And they have proprietary rights in respect to the constitutional document. And that indeed there should be public consultation, and the ultimate is that in a referendum.” Edited transcript of interview with editors, The Globe and Mail (October 23, 1992). ^

17 For a discussion of the obstacles standing in the way of generating a clear mandate, see Clarke et at, 1984, 181-82. ^

18 “Canadians just do not have much confidence in those whom they elect. One source of this dissatisfaction appeared to be the feeling that they simply do not have enough of a choice. Political parties are perceived to engage in too much unproductive squabbling and to confuse the issues rather than provide a clear choice on them. Along with stricter regulation of electoral finances, the findings suggested that a party system which posed fewer barriers to new political parties could help restore some degree of confidence.” Andre Blais and Elizabeth Gidengil, “Making Representative Democracy Work,” Institute for Social Research, Newsletter8, 1 (Winter 1993): I. ^

19 For a full discussion of the results of the “free trade election” and whether it produced a mandate, see Doern and Tomlin, 1991,238-42. ^

20 “It [authority] exists whenever one, several, or many people explicitly or tacitly permit someone else to make decisions for them for some category of acts. Once I give permission to someone else to make decisions for me, then all that he need do in order to control me is to make his wishes known” (Lindblom, 1977, 17-18). The possession of authority is of crucial importance to partycratic government because parties cannot rely on coercion and power to govern and win popular electioI1s. If they do not have authority, dysfunctional behaviour results. ^

21 Dealing with the powerful business community is, of course, the primary challenge to government authority. For a full discussion of this, see Lindblom (1977). ^

22 Public policy can be defined as policy that has an impact on the community, whatever its source, e.g., government, private business, professional organizations or, more narrowly, as policy made by public (government) agencies. ^

23 Lindblom summarizes the evolution this way: “… all historical and contemporary examples [of partycracies] are, in their anxiety over the conventional liberties, marked by a separation of powers and other devices to prevent a great mobilization of authority in one person or organization, even for what might be thought to be legitimate national purposes. Polyarchies [partycracies] are systems of rules for constraining rather than mobilizing authority. They grow out of a struggle to control authority rather than to create it or make it more effective … They practice decentralization, diffusion of influence and power, and mutual adjustment so that individuals and small groups rather than national collectivities can strive for whatever they wish” (1977, 165). Words in brackets have been added. ^

24 A long-time Swedish minister of finance summed up the problem of trying to make economic policy in a partycracy this way: “In economic policy, I’ve learned, when things are due to be done for economic reasons, it’s very often too early for political reasons. The crisis is not manifest, not obvious. When the crisis is there, the things you have to do come at the wrong time.” Cited in David Crane, “Sweden at the Crossroads,” The Toronto Star, (May 16,1993), A12. ^

25 Long before the recession of the early 1990s and the constitutional crisis, we find reports like this one common: “The political process does not seem to be, in the public’s mind, a satisfactory way of resolving the many problems and conflicts in the country today In general, the parties and politicians are regarded with … distaste by most of the public we are struck by the tendency to turn away from the political process, its methods, and its practitioners” (Clarke et al., 1980,2930). ^

26 Polling regularly indicates the lack of confidence in government. For example, a Gallup poll found: “Fifty-one per cent of Canadians look upon big government as a greater threat in the years to come than either big business or big labor. Twenty-one per cent thought big business was the biggest threat and 17 per cent thought big labor was the top threat. Eleven per cent said they didn’t know which was the greatest threat.” The Toronto Star (September 10,1990). ^

27 Asked, “How should your member of parliament vote on major. issues?” Canadians responded: according to the majority view in your riding, 71 percent; according to his or her own conscience and beliefs, 21 percent; according to the policies of his or her party, 7 percent, Maclean’s (January 4,1993), p.19. This is only the latest expression of a popular demand dating back to World War I, if not earlier. Representations to the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future (The Spicer Commission) supported this poll result and carried it further stating, “ … since election campaigns do not constitute a vote by the people on these policies, and since elected representatives seem to have little or no influence or freedom to represent constituents’ views, there is a perceived need for mechanisms which will (a) require members of parliament to consult their constituents on major issues; and, (b) either give them more freedom, or require them to vote according to their constituents’ wishes” (1991,21). ^

28 Joseph Schumpeter, no friend of participatory democracy, set out the challenge that must be met: “If we are to argue that the will of the citizens per se is a political factor entitled to respect, it must first exist. That is to say, it must be something more than an indeterminate bundle of value impulses loosely playing about given slogans and mistaken impressions” (1950,253). ^

29 I propose that one community Parliament member be elected for each 1000 voters. This would mean that, across Canada, 18500 ‘Junior parliamentarians” would be actively involved in governing. For a somewhat more detailed sketch of the community Parliament model, see Lyon, 1984,43-45. ^

30 For a discussion of this point, see Macpherson (1977, 112-15). ^


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