Life of the Parties
A political history
Not so long ago, parties were the dominant engines of the political process in many democracies. They identified, recruited, trained, and nominated suitable candidates, then helped finance and organize campaigns for public office. This process was brilliantly analyzed decades ago by the French scholar Maurice Duverger, who described parties as “transmission belts.” More recently, after the 2008 Democratic primaries in the United States, four American political scientists summarized this traditional approach in The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations before and after Reform. But today the transmission belts of many democracies seem to have worn out. What has happened?
A complex process of societal transformations has brought fundamental changes that have weakened party institutions. These have included upheavals in the news media, specifically the decline of print journalism and local newspapers, and the increasing domination of cable news channels that are heavily devoted to partisan views. Whether online or on television, more and more people now consume only the news sources that confirm their existing views. And, paradoxically, the declining influence of “backroom boys” and the more prominent role of the rank and file in candidate selection (a change introduced in the name of a more democratic process) may have intensified the influence of celebrity culture and divisive personalities. The nomination and election of Donald Trump, in 2016, is the most obvious but by no means the only or even the most recent example of this effect.
Into this environment comes Partisan Odysseys: Canada’s Political Parties, by the well-known and respected political scientist Nelson Wiseman, of the University of Toronto. His book summarizes the emergence, successes, failures, and fates of almost two dozen political parties from the early nineteenth century to today, while illustrating their dynamic interactions with a “society permanently under construction.”
Partisan Odysseys is comparatively short but quite dense; it is intended, so the author writes, as a primer for non-specialists and general readers. Even so, it refers in synoptic fashion to countless political and social moments over the past two centuries — from pre-Confederation party formation to the Great Depression and today. How parties have responded to these events, and how their responses have in turn influenced the evolution of Canada, is Wiseman’s central theme. No doubt, this book will send some readers to their local library for more details on crucial episodes referenced only briefly here.
Across ten chapters, Wiseman describes the dominant ideas, concerns, and issues that parties have had to face from era to era, often in quite different ways. Consider Canada’s entry into the Second World War, which had a profound effect on the political landscape:
The war had built faith in the wisdom of government; centralized planning had proven efficacious, and government came to be seen as having more responsibility for the public’s health and welfare, for alleviating illiteracy, malnourishment, and homelessness. Canadians had accepted an expanded role for the state during the war and expected it to continue.
Among the book’s many pleasures are numerous conclusions about national governance that are not generally accepted or well known — including the fact that Canada has spawned almost twenty parties, most of which have come and gone. Yet two of the earliest to arrive, the Liberals and the Conservatives, remain dominant. And despite their apparent stability, each has, for at least short periods, come quite close to extinction.
The book also reminds us just how many minority governments Canada has had: more than a third of federal elections have produced them. Between 1957 and 1965, for instance, there were five national elections, four of which resulted in minorities. Two of three elections in the 1970s gave us minorities; and, of course, we have one now after having had three in the 2000s. These minority governments occur despite the widely held assumption that our first-past-the-post -system, with its single-member constituencies, is the most likely to yield stable majorities. (And it’s worth remembering how few coalition governments Canada has produced.)
Typically, party brand and party leaders influence voter behaviour more than local candidates do, and then there’s what Wiseman calls the social determinants of voting: religion, education, region, language, and economic class, each of which can push voters in various directions. Wiseman suggests some of these factors have weakened recently, and this weakening actually contributes to the volatility of the electorate. Indeed, the average Canadian voter is now more “changeable” than the average American voter. This “exceptional electoral volatility” is especially present in Quebec, a development that Wiseman partially attributes to younger voters who may be more likely to identify with ethnicity than with a policy position on the ideological spectrum.
The 2016 U.S. election helps illustrate the comparative changeability of Canadian voters. That year, 97 percent of incumbents contesting seats in the House of Representatives were re‑elected. By contrast, Wiseman shows, “the turnover of MPs in Canada has averaged more than 40 per cent in the twentieth century.”
Canadians are also less likely than Americans to have “party affiliations ingrained into their personal identities.” Our neighbours to the south actually go to the polls much more frequently than we do and have more occasions for their partisan sentiments to be mobilized: “Since many of their ballots are pages long, many voters just vote the party ticket, which voting machines allow.” Because Canadians are more flexible, we see a greater openness to supporting “upstart third parties” (a tendency facilitated, in part, by our parliamentary system).
One of the more entertaining aspects of the evolution of political parties in Canada is the extent to which they, sooner or later, adopt positions they once strongly opposed. Historically, for example, the Liberals favoured close ties with the U.S., while the Conservatives argued to maintain our imperial link with the United Kingdom. But in 1988, the Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney argued for free trade with the U.S., while the Liberals, who had supported it in the elections of 1891 and 1911, were now led by John Turner and against it. Of course, Mulroney got his way, with NAFTA. Then there is the welfare state, which the Conservatives began to describe as a “sacred trust” in the 1980s, after having opposed the introduction and subsequent expansion of what Mulroney once called “the tragic process of Swedenizing Canada.” But then, as the leader on the campaign trail, he “rejected means tests — investigating people’s financial circumstances to determine whether they are eligible for a social program — and claimed such programs were ‘a cornerstone of our party’s philosophy.’ ”
Those who know or know of Nelson Wiseman will not be disappointed by this work. If there is a revised edition, some readers would likely welcome the inclusion of tables that list the dates of federal elections and their outcomes; the names and dates of prime ministers; and the names, dates, leaders, and present status of all the parties mentioned in the book. The history and present impact of Canada’s parties remain of great importance, even if they no longer drive the political process the way they once did.