I remember back in the early 1950s, when we lived on a small farm in British Columbia, in what is now a major suburb in Greater Vancouver, that we bought a TV set. It was a big deal back then. I think we got two channels: one, CBC no doubt, from Vancouver and another from Seattle, Washington. Anyway, I recall seeing the American political conventions that nominated Adlai E Stevenson and Dwight D Eisenhower to be the presidential candidates. I know, for sure, that I watched nearly gavel-to-gavel coverage in 1956 (I was 14) ~ it went on well past midnight and into the early hours of the morning ~ and I think I saw a lot of it in 1952, also. Anyway, the conventions made an impact. Memory says the Republican convention in 1956 was a cakewalk, a mere formality for Eisenhower but there were contenders for the Democratic nomination and they held a “brokered” conventions where deals were made and votes were traded “behind closed doors” and in “smoke-filled rooms” by the political elites, some of whom were, to my young Canadian eyes were very colourful caricatures ~ sort of Foghorn Leghorn brought to life. It was, in a way, very exciting.
All that to say that Robert Kaplan, the distinguished American journalist and author and, now, managing director of the Eurasia Group, says, in an insightful piece in the National Interest, that the trend away from brokered conventions with their smoke-filled back rooms and to primary elections where the “grassroots” speak for themselves, means that in America in 2020, “it is possible that we will face a choice between the vulgar, populist right and the radical, populist left … [because] … the steady adoption of a primary system to select party nominees … weakened the leverage of party bosses in so-called smoke-filled rooms and played to the most partisan emotions of each major party. For decades the bosses had selected safe, moderate candidates: not always inspiring but usually responsible. It was the bosses who essentially gave us Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and so on. Eisenhower was scouted by the bosses of the Republican party while he was still in uniform. The system we have today might never have selected him. Though an exceptional analyst, organization man, and war hero, Ike wasn’t especially charismatic. Neither was he an especially compelling speaker or photogenic.” The key phrase, it seems to me, is that weakening the “brokers” has “played to the most partisan emotions of each major party.” We might, many of us, anyway, like to describe ourselves as “moderates” or “independents” but it appears that those amongst us who take an active part in politics are increasingly partisan and many of us wear political blinders, too that make it impossible for us to see, much less consider alternatives. The upshot, Mr Kaplan believes, is that it is likely that Elizabeth Warren ~ his “radical, populist left” representative will face off, in November 2020, against Donald J Trump ~ the candidate of the “vulgar, populist right” and the moderate majority will have no one to speak for them.
“Smoke-filled rooms,” Robert Kaplan says, “may sound squalid, but they fulfilled the spirit of the Founders of the American Revolution, specifically James Madison, who preferred a republic; not a democracy … [because] … In a republic, the masses rule only indirectly, through an elite that they can change every few years. Democracy means more direct rule … [and, he adds, that’s] … given to rage and passions … [which is] … nowadays amplified by social media. Here is where the filter of the party bosses and the discipline of the print-and-typewriter age – which encouraged complex, analytical thinking from media organs dedicated to centrist objectivity – conveniently merged to guide us through the Cold War and keep us a republic.” That’s not what most people want to hear, including here in Canada where, as we parrot our American neighbours, too often uncritically, we, too, are getting farther and farther away from “brokered” leadership conventions. That is why, I would argue, we have Justin Trudeau rather than, say, Marc Garneau who is, in every respect except ‘charisma,’ a much superior person. There was, some will argue, more “brokerage” at the 2017 CPC leadership convention and that may be why Andrew Scheer defeated the more charismatic Maxime Bernier.
What bothers Mr Kaplan is that the grassroots appears to be far less moderate and pragmatic than are the political “professionals.” But, I think there are three problems:
- First, and most significant, the political “mainstream” has almost dried up, the “moderate middle” has lost interest ~ it no longer believes that anyone is listening. (I talked about that just a few days ago.). If that’s true then “the centre cannot hold;”
- Second, the void left by the “moderate middle” has been filled by loud, shrill, aggressive partisans of the more extreme left and right; and
- Third, the information revolution, especially social media, has amplified the extremists’ voices, further discouraging the (still large) “moderate middle.”
While, like Robert Kaplan, I would like to see a lot more “brokerage” come back into our political processes, I do not want to exclude the grassroots, nor do I want to disenfranchise them.
But, I believe that in Canada and in the USA the grassroots should be about the Party, writ large, and policy, and the professionals should deal with the politics.
Now the first objection is that the grassroots have seized control of the US system and made it worse. It is certain that a few grassroots organizations will, indeed, seize control of a few riding associations and will select hard right, social-conservative or hard-left, ultra-progressive delegates to attend national policy conferences. But most riding associations, especially in suburban ridings, will be in the hands of “ordinary,” mostly moderate people and they will select even more like-minded delegates and, at those policy conventions, the political professionals will have ample opportunity to persuade the delegates from the riding associations to adopt moderate, vote-winning policy proposals rather than the populist ones.
The business of selecting candidates should be in mixed hands:
- The primary agency should be the local riding association; but
- As now, the Party’s Parliamentary Leader should be required to sign each candidates nomination papers.
The business of selecting the Parliamentary Leader should change. While the grassroots (riding associations) should have some votes, the majority of the votes should be in the hands of parliamentary caucus members and candidates. As a general rule, when the election writs are dropped, usually 35+ days before the actual vote, the parliamentary caucus should be required to confirm its support for the Parliamentary Leader. This should be a private vote but it is important that the Leader knows who does and doesn’t support her or him. It is an indicative vote, only, for the Party and the Leader’s benefit. Immediately after an election, even if the party wins a majority, the parliamentary caucus (winning candidates) and the just defeated candidates should, once again, vote on the leader. That second vote should also be indicative, not determinative, and should tell the leader if (s)he does or dos not have the full support of her or his caucus.
I prefer the Australian and British models where the parliamentary caucus can actually toss out the Party leader, even when(s)he is serving as prime minister in a majority government, when the caucus ~ the people we elected, individually, riding-by-riding ~ decides that the Party leader is, either, deviating from the Party’s stated positions (platform and promises) or is acting in a way that will lose the voters’ confidence and cost the Party the next election.
I have not discussed Party financing at all, but I believe it should be, almost 100%, in the hands of the grassroots, and they, not the Party leader, should elect members to oversee all financial matters, including fundraising, expenses for the Party leader and paying for election campaigns.
In my opinion, the Conservative Party of Canada, which will select a new leader in June, in Toronto, needs to listen more closely to the pragmatic political professionals ~ the despised political elites ~ and less closely to the easily excited grassroots.