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Time to Drop Left, Right and Centre

May 5, 2012

Words have power. Canadian politics is undergoing a realignment and the old words we use to describe  the ‘political spectrum’ are becoming more a hinderance than a help in trying to understand the change and what can come next. There is an idea that all political ideas all fit neatly in boxes on a spectrum between Left and Right with some choosing the reasonable Centre. This has always been an oversimplification but it has also been a trinity in Canada, one box for each third of the spectrum; this happened to coincide with the three major federal parties. When we encountered new parties like the Reform/Alliance, which were to the right of the party supposedly in the Right box, everything got thrown out of whack. We still can’t integrate parties like the Green party because they aren’t just on the Left all the time and besides, that box is occupied already isn’t it?  The Liberals have had trouble maintaining a consistent image because they are thought of as the party that occupies the Centre box by definition.

We should all stop using the words Left, Right and Centre to describe parties or ideas. It’s not the right way to think about it at all and it’s actually distorting debate. Here’s another way to think about it that admittedly, is still an oversimplification but I think it is a more useful one. Imagine two ingredients that are measured out in some proportion so that in total they fill up the entire political landscape. Each party has bits of each ingredient to a greater or lesser degree but the total space in the bowl is the same in the end.

The two ingredients that seem to at play right now in Canadian politics are progressivism and conservatism. That is, the difference between the idea that we can build a better future, that a different Canada could be a better Canada versus the idea that most of what is wrong with the country is because we changed something. The progressive approach values more knowledge, education and consultation with the public to improve our society through change. One important part of that is the belief that this goal can be most efficiently reached by working together, pooling resources, collaborating widely and trusting that a society is bigger than the sum of its parts.

The conservative approach assumes the ‘common sense’ answer must be right and that no further discussion is needed, thus education and consultation are only going to slow down progress towards the goal. The goal is unlocking the existing potential of citizens and private industry which is being held back by over-thinking bureaucrats, taxes and inefficient attempts to run everything centrally.
All of this takes away the choices of upstanding citizens and couldn’t possibly provide any benefit.

These two ingredients don’t mix very well, they are like oil and water. Yet they show up to some degree in every debate on every topic and they are a natural part of every party. When we view it this way the artificial boxes of Left, Right and Centre vanish and we are left with proportions, mixtures of the oil and water to describe each party. The NDP has historically been almost all progressive water while the Conservative Party is revealing itself post majority to be almost exclusively composed of oil (come on, you saw that coming…). Meanwhile the Liberals are a party that pragmatically tries to whisk water and oil each election to provide a salad dressing for the country. The now dead Progressive Conservative Party used a similar approach for years. It’s not easy but people like it when it works.

This may seem like an irrelevant distinction, it’s still a spectrum after all; but the words we use deeply affect how we think about possible outcomes. Words can even limit what possible outcomes we can imagine.

There is some evidence that this continuous spectrum of two ingredients is a more accurate way to understand things. Witness the growing voice of citizen organizations such as the Council of CanadiansLeadNowThe Manning Centre, which are not partisan in the old three-box sense but are unabashedly progressive or conservative.

As oil and water something like the collapse of the Liberal party is not hard to understand and will not leave a gaping hole in the political landscape. All it means is that there isn’t one party explicitly trying to mix up a salad dressing with delicate little bubbles of progressive water floating in a bit of conservative oil. Maybe the Liberals can find a new whisk and claim that balance once again between progressivism and conservatism. However, for that to work there needs to be a desire from the electorate for a third box. This is difficult when everyone knows from the past 30 years of experience that our voting system does not reward those who vote for the third box.

Maybe, as Andrew Coyne suggests, the Liberals will redefine themselves relative to the other parties on an some entirely different spectrum. Even more importantly they will need to convince voters that this spectrum is relevant. A hard task when the media insists on calling anything that can’t be explained with small words in under 30 seconds ‘complicated’.

Perhaps it’s even a good thing that it will now be easier to see the divide between oil and water with ‘The Natural Whisking Party’ so weakened. The divide is certainly stark at the moment after a fortnight including such events as the conservative government attempting to quickly and quietly pass one huge budget bill that reverses many progressive policies of our country in one sweep. Not to mention the complete disrespect the Conservatives showed for the opposition NDP and it’s supporters as human beings by their attack that the NDP were soft on the Nazi’s (On that topic this fantastic article by Gerald Caplan about the vote in 1939 should be the beginning and end of all discussion of the matter).

The question is: as a progressive in the broadest sense, in other words if you like any water in your oil at all, when faced with such pure conservatism why on earth would you restrict yourself to three boxes, only one of which can win?

The current parliament is much more conservative than the electorate because of this artificial trinity. All parties that want to claim some degree of progressivism need to eject their old ideas and focus on what is really important – getting more water into parliament.

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