Sunday, June 5, 2011

What to Make of the Ideology of "Centrism"?

I'm going to attempt to be very careful in this blog about not overgeneralizing anything, so forgive the many digressions and such throughout. I also apologize in advance if I still overgeneralize, and I welcome criticisms or calls for clarification if I make any point that doesn't seem right or doesn't seem clear.

A couple of disclaimers: First, this main body of this blog is not meant to be specific to any one party, though I will address some party specifics at the end. Second, this blog is not meant to cover the various complexities of our political systems, including political strategy. It is meant to focus solely on the political ideology we know as "centrism" and the effect it has on our political process. Some of these such parties refer to themselves as being in the centre of the political spectrum and others claim to transcend the political spectrum. Both claims mean the same thing to me. And I'm pretty sure I've heard leaders of each of these types of parties in our province and country refer to their parties as both.

Although this blog is not going to be about any one party, I should name the parties I believe fall into this category. In Alberta, we have the Alberta Liberal Party and the Alberta Party, and nationally we have the Liberal Party of Canada. These three parties fit best, in my opinion, into the category of "centrist" parties. Though I do think, particularly with the rise of the Wild Rose Alliance, one could even include the Alberta Progressive Conservatives as centre-right. After all, they do attract a number of followers for the sole reason that they are the party that wins every election, and if you want to be close to power, you better buy your PC membership. Either way, it's not all that important whether we're including them or not.

I do not believe "centrism" is an absolute term. Within every party, there is a certain level of diversity. And typically the bigger a party gets, the more diverse its membership (both party membership and elected members) becomes. For example, the ideology of the NDP in Saskatchewan tends to be relatively centrist (one might identify it as "centre-left", but now we're getting very subjective). The Saskatchewan NDP has been in government for the majority of the past 65 years, and Saskatchewan is a province where there are only two major political parties. The NDP in Alberta is relatively small compared to its Saskatchewan relative. It also exists in a province where there are five political parties represented in the Legislature. While there is a certain amount of diversity of views within the Alberta NDP, I (and I think most people) would consider it on the left of our political spectrum. Part of that is subjective as well. It is easy to classify the Alberta NDP as "the left" because there are four other parties very clearly to the right of it and none further left. The NDP at the federal level has arguably moved to the centre of the political spectrum, or centre-left, though I would still argue it is the furthest to the left of any major party in our country.

Anyway, I digress. On to the main topic. I've been thinking about this concept of centrism quite a bit lately. Those who are regular readers will know that I was a federal Liberal for a few years before ending up in the NDP, so I've experienced what it is like to be in a centrist party. In Saskatchewan, where I was at the time, the federal Liberal Party is quite small, and I've found that settings like that tend to make a party quite malleable at the local level. So when I was a the Vice President of my Liberal riding association in rural Saskatchewan, I didn't really run into ideological disagreements with the membership or even the candidate at the local level. However, the bigger picture is quite different.

When we are talking about a much larger membership in a "big-tent" party, there tends to be, as the term would imply, a large amount of diversity of views. Party policies are determined by their membership in one way or another (I think differences in policy development between parties is outside the scope of this blog). So when policy is developed within a party, it is subject to being pulled to the left or to the right, depending on a number of factors, including the relative size of each "side" within the party and also often how organized each "side" is coming into a policy convention. That is not to say that each member of each party is necessarily on one "side" or the other. I use the term more as a reference point that could be looked at policy by policy, where most of the time it is easy to determine which side (the "yes" or "no" side) is the more progressive of the two on that given policy matter. That is also not to say that party members voting on policy at conventions determines how that party acts in the real political world. Party leadership and elected members have a great deal of liberty they can use within the bounds of their party's official policy, which is why we get accusations of "x" leader pulling a party to the left or to the right.

Okay, let's start getting to the meat (or tofu for you veggies out there) of it. One of the key tactics a centrist party will use to attempt to grow themselves is to tell everyone at any given place on the ideological spectrum they are welcome within the party. Their tent is large, so they have room for people who lean conservative, as well as people who lean progressive. If it is true that people at the far left as well as the far right felt welcome in such a party, it is possible for that party to grow quite quickly. Usually what happens is one side or the other gains the upper hand and pulls the party in one direction or the other, and the other side feels alienated and begins to leave for another party that better fits their views.

Now here is what has really got me thinking over the last little while. Let's assume for a second a "big-tent" party maintains its welcoming nature for people at every point on the political spectrum. The party becomes attractive to everyone, so much so that people begin leaving every other party to join this "big-tent" party. The party grows so large that it dwarfs all others on both the left and the right. The party wins a large majority government and leaves the parties on either side of it with few seats.

In my opinion, this scenario brings with it some problems. One of the major problems it brings is that the policy debate that would normally be much more vigorous in the Legislature or Parliament between larger caucuses of elected members with varying views is moved down to the party level. To be clear, I'm not saying the party would shut down Question Period and bill debate in the Legislative building and send it behind closed doors. However, if the large group of people within this "big-tent" party who are on the political left had elected a much larger caucus from a leftist party and likewise on the political right, political debate would matter a lot more in the Legislative building and a less within the party in question. That is not to say that every or any party is necessarily secretive about their policy development process. Party memberships are available to all Albertans and Canadians, and aside from financial barriers (not to downplay those; in some parties they are quite significant), party policy development processes are generally open to anyone who really wants to be a part of it.

However, the party policy development process is not the same, nor is it meant to be the same, as policy debate in a Legislature or Parliament. The large majority of Albertans and Canadians to not belong to any political party and probably won't for the foreseeable future. Instead, they count on electing people from election to election to represent their views in a Legislature. Most Albertans and Canadians have no idea how party policy processes work and are largely unaware of when or where they take place. The problem is not that people can't get involved in those processes. It's that they aren't (even if it is by choice) involved in those processes.

Party policy conventions, particularly for governing parties, become Legislatures unto themselves, only one does not need to be elected by anyone to be a part of it (at least not in the traditional sense). Instead of MLAs or MPs having determining policies of the government, that power is given, though not absolutely, to the delegates of the policy convention. It also, despite my earlier comment on the topic, can cost a fair number of dollars to attend these functions. When major policy debate moves primarily from a Legislature to a convention floor, it inherently becomes less democratic.

So what do these things have to do specifically with centrist parties? Don't all parties do this? After all, if the NDP won a majority government after Harper's 4-year reign of terror (perhaps a bit hyperbolic), wouldn't the government's policy debates be shifted, at least somewhat, to convention floors? Sure. However, these problems are less and less of an issue the narrower a party's political ideology is. When there is less diversity in the political views of both the membership and the elected caucus of a political party, or to put it another way, when there is broad agreement within a party of what that party stands for, the debate shifting from the public Legislative building to the party's convention floor becomes less of a problem. When it is a bigger problem is when a party has different camps along a large range on the political spectrum. As I mentioned earlier, policy debates on convention floors are often subject to complex factors that don't always result in an outcome that the majority of the party agrees with. Furthermore, major policy decisions can often be quite polarizing, and unless some kind of compromise solution is formulated, it can be a "winner takes all" affair.

Centrist parties usually distort the political views of the province or country in which they exist.
For example, when I was a member of the federal Liberal Party, my political ideology wasn't much different from what it is today. I was very clearly on the far left of the Liberal Party. However, my party was the same one that had started the war in Afghanistan I was strongly opposed to, and it was also the same one that pulled Canada away from supporting a just settlement in Israel-Palestine (yep, it started with Paul Martin - not Stephen Harper - if you check the UN voting record of Canada on General Assembly resolutions relating to Palestine). However, I continued to support the party, despite the fact that the New Democrats were clearly more representative of my views. I simply joined the Liberals because they were Canada's second-place party and in my view (in my early days), they were the only viable alternative to the Conservatives (of course, we all know better now). So I was out campaigning for a party that did not best represent my views. If the Liberal candidate in my riding won because of my efforts, then I would have helped elect someone who I clearly didn't agree with on what I personally see as two of the most major political issues in our country. I could have instead been helping to elect a New Democrat, with whom I would have been much more likely to agree on more issues with.

The point of everything I've said is this: centrist parties, particularly when they begin to gather momentum and grow, tend to distort our political system. As they gather more momentum from people on the left side of the political spectrum, they take away from parties that represent leftist views consistently. They do the same for the right of the political spectrum. I am not saying that no one belongs in a centrist party. There are some people who truly do not feel comfortable sitting themselves on the left or the right of the political spectrum. Centrist parties are probably good places for these people to be.

(Sidenote: The question then becomes this: what is the purpose of such a party? If the party does not want to necessarily represent progressive or conservative views, then why does it exist? Or is its raison d'ĂȘtre simply the pursuit of power? And if it achieves that goal, we run into the same problems I mentioned earlier.)

I suppose, since I call this a progressive blog and I would love to see a more progressive Alberta and Canada, I should now write about what I think all of these observations and musings mean for progressives. I believe the existence of centrist parties, particularly when we have a number of them, offers a huge opportunity for progressives. And I don't mean that in the sense that we should have non-compete agreements with them or merge with them or any other such, in my opinion, silly ideas. What progressives need to do in order to make the most of the opportunity centrist parties provide is convince the progressives who are a part of or support or are thinking of supporting such parties, to instead join a party that better represents their political views. That would do two things. First, it would increase the potential for real progressive parties to win more seats in the next election. Second, it would push those centrist parties further to the right. When the progressive voices begin to leave, as I believe happened to the Liberal Party of Canada between 2004 and 2011 and is probably still happening, the debate within the party necessarily gets more conservative. That's how Liberals can have a leader like Michael Ignatieff and not have major dissent (at least publicly) within their caucus or party leaders or activists.

Politics is a complex process, particularly in a place like Alberta, where right now no one has any idea what kind of results the next election will bring. The effect that I have just mentioned is happening to many parties. The Alberta PCs are bleeding support both left and right (which is part of why I think we need to include them as a "centrist" party in this sense, even though they are very clearly on the right). They have lost not only a lot of members, but also many key party activists and even some MLAs, to the Wild Rose Alliance. They have begun losing some of their "red" Tories to the new Alberta Party.

So what has this done to each of the parties? The PCs I think are being seen by some Albertans as moderate, in the relative sense. With the Wild Rose on the right, they are trying to ride a fine line, as centrist parties often need to do, on some policy points. The Wild Rose desperately wants to introduce more privatization into our health care system. The PCs, ironically, are half-resisting it. What the PCs have often done is given lip service to public health care and privatized it bit by bit. They are continuing to do that, but it isn't enough for those on the far right who would like to see the "free market" take hold of our health care. Interesting scenario it is.

The Alberta Party has attracted primarily "red" Tories and "blue" Liberals. It is difficult right now to see what effect, if any, they will have in the next election. And I mean that as I say it. They could have a relatively significant effect, or it could end up amounting to little or nothing. Time will tell. Either way, the ideology they are sticking to seems very Liberal-like. There are very few things on which they are willing to take any firm stand on. On most issues, it is very difficult to tell what they would do. That poses its own problems for the party. Not begin able to tell the public where you stand on many issues does not make campaigning easy. Though Barack Obama was able to pull it off...

The Alberta Liberal Party seems less relevant with each passing day. The conclusion of its leadership race will give Albertans a much better picture of what approach they will take in the next election. Raj Sherman has already made it quite clear that he would pull the party to the right and attempt to compete for the same ground the other right-wing parties (yes, I know I just called the PCs "centrist") are gunning for. I've heard he is looking back to the days of the Decore-Klein battle as a model, where the Liberals and PCs were competing for who would be willing to make the most cuts to the province's budget. If Sherman is successful, that makes my proposal even more necessary. With the right being more crowded than ever in our province, it is time for progressives to unite under the only true banner we have: the Alberta NDP. I am not going to make the case that this is the path to a majority progressive government in Alberta after the next election. However, I do believe that a progressive flock to the NDP in our province (not just in terms of votes, but also in terms of activists and donors) would be the best way for progressives to increase our collective voice in the Alberta Legislature. We can leave those indecisive ones and those on the right in their centrist parties to fight for that ground and focus on electing people we know we can agree with on the large majority of issues. If we do that, I think we'll have a very significant NDP caucus in the next Alberta Legislature. And if the impact of the current Alberta NDP caucus of two is any indication, a much larger caucus could give progressives a loud and clear voice in Alberta. Time is short between now and the next Alberta provincial election, so now is the time to start.


  1. Hi Joel,

    I'm new to your blog... it looks great though! i look forward to reading more of your insightful posts.

    I enjoyed this post; I learned quite a bit about the Alberta political scene that I didn't know before, and I found your analysis very interesting and thought-provoking.

    I wonder, though: it seems like what you're expressing is less a contention with centrist ideology specifically, and more with the phenomenon of big-tent parties in general. To be sure, you certainly hint at the problems that you have with centrist parties in your 'sidenote', but the main thrust of your piece seems to be that when large parties try to appeal to multiple segments of the political spectrum, many people end up voting for them whose views could be more accurately represented by another (albeit smaller) party. But I would argue that this phenomenon is not particular to centrist parties. For example: couldn't one make the same argument about the current Conservative Party of Canada? I would argue that the CPC is just as 'big' a party as the Liberals were, in terms of the diversity of political views it currently represents (from as far right as it goes, to 'red tory', to 'I'm progressive, I swear, I just don't like Layton or the Liberals!'). True, it is unlikely that a tried-and-true progressive would ever vote for the Conservatives, but by the same token, it's quite unlikely that an extreme right voter, or an extreme left voter, would ever vote for a centrist party. So while a large centrist party, like the Liberal Party of Canada in the 90's, can trick left-leaning and right-leaning voters into voting for them to the detriment of the truly left- and right-parties, but will never really succeed in attracting hard left or hard right voters, likewise a large right wing party (like the current CPC) can trick huge numbers of centrist voters into voting for them, at the expense of the truly centrist party (which, as we know, was practically obliterated in the recent election), though they will never succeed in attracting the hard left, or even left-leaning, voters. It seems to me that a party's chances of benefitting from the bleeding of votes from other parties is just proportional to the party's size, and not necessarily its proximity to the political 'centre'.



  2. Hey Joel, thanks for the post!

    Yared covered many of my thoughts, but I'll expand.

    1.) It appears you're conflating brokerage parties with centrist parties. Even if the liberals have historically been both, but you can't conflate them or criticize centrist politics on the basis of a particular party having historically been both centrist and brokerage.

    2.) Why is it the case that a centrist party has a broader set of views within it than a left or right party? In fact, a centrist party in some cases may have a narrower set of views, as it only needs to appeal to the "center", where as parties on the left and right must appeal to both their left/right base and try and pick up centrist
    voters. I imagine there is an analogy in politics to Hotelling's Law.

    3.) What is inherently wrong with a big-tent party that tries to find compromise, rather than a narrow ideological party? You seem to be
    implying there is.

    4.) "What is the purpose of such a party? If the party does not want to necessarily represent progressive or conservative views, then why
    does it exist?" Political positions are more complex than just progressive or conservative views. Thats why centrist parties, or parties like the Green Party, exist, and it's not just to take power.

    5.) "Centrist parties usually distort the political views of the province or country in which they exist."
    How so? You seem to be saying that because a centrist party takes votes away from a left or right party, that is distortion of a political system. That's not "distortion" that's just people voting for a different set of views. Politics doesn't have to be divided into just a polarized right and left camp.

    6.) "One of the key tactics a centrist party will use to attempt to grow themselves is to tell everyone at any given place on the
    ideological spectrum they are welcome within the party."
    Not true. Eg remember Ignatieffs statement on I.A.W? That sure alienated me.
    All parties try to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters. In this regard the NDP is no different than the Liberals. Because a party is appealing to voters on the both the "right" and "left" does not mean it is necessarily appealing to a broader spectrum.


  3. Yared,

    I don't make a distinction between "centrist" parties and "big-tent" parties. I state explicitly that I believe they are the same thing.

    I do acknowledge that there is diversity within each party. That much I think is obvious anyway. That's why there are debates at policy conventions.

    I want to make a couple of points that I think will clear up some things:

    1. My target audience with this blog is progressives. I am also writing to and about Albertans who are very politically engaged. These are people who are involved or may get involved in the electoral process beyond just voting.

    2. The reason I am targeting what we might call "activists" in this way (and not general voters) is because if you asked the large majority of voters where they sit on the political spectrum, they would have no idea. If you went further and asked them their political positions on the policy issues of the day, then asked them how they voted in the last election, you would likely be wildly surprised at how little correlation there often is. Many Conservative voters from 2008 did vote NDP in 2011, and vice versa. As nice as it would be if we could just strategize by picking parts of the political spectrum to target, politics is much more complex than that (which is why this blog is targeting such a narrow segment of the population).

  4. Alastair,

    I'll take this point by point (in the same order you did):

    1) I made the same point both to Yared and in the blog itself, but I take "centrist" and "big-tent", as well as "brokerage", parties to be the same thing.

    2) I don't think a centrist party inherently have a broader range of political views than other parties either.

    3) Let's do this in point 5.

    4) George Lakoff would disagree. Try reading his book "The Political Mind". I've never referred to anything as a "staunch centrist". I don't believe they exist. There are people who are indecisive and also people who think progressively on some issues and conservatively on others (Lakoff calls them "biconceptualists"). However, their values are very hard to define, which is why they float in the middle of the political spectrum. Lastly, I agree that political views are very complex (refer to my reply to Yared).

    5) My main point is that I believe progressives would be best to advocate for progressive policies within progressive parties, rather than centrist parties.

    6) My point was not that centrist parties never take firm political positions. Of course they do that. If they want anyone to vote for them, they need to. They will even deliberately target certain segments of the population from election to election. Ignatieff targeted Harper when he first became Leader, and when that didn't work, he began targeting Layton's territory. Perhaps that's why he failed so miserably. He couldn't really make up his mind. My comment was more about the big picture, and I believe in the big picture, centrist parties do try to pull in everyone and anyone, regardless of their views. I believe the Liberals say "Come on into the big red tent."

  5. Joel,

    Thanks for the response. Still a few questions though:

    I can't seem to find where in your post you state explicitly that you believe centrist parties and big tent parties are the same thing, though you are certainly drawing an implicit link between the two. But I'm still left wondering, what about the case of the CPC? Would you consider them 'centrist', because they are a 'big tent' party? Or would you not consider them a big tent party? Or would you not consider them centrist? To be clear: my argument is that the CPC IS a big tent party, but that it is NOT a centrist party. The point of me making this argument is to challenge your claim that big-tent parties are a solely centrist phenomenon. And the purpose of me challenging that claim, is ultimately to suggest that centrist parties are no more or less valid, or legitimate, or ideologically grounded, than left-wing parties or right-wing parties. And your second comment to Alastair -
    "I don't think a centrist party inherently have a broader range of political views than other parties either." - seems to contradict your earlier claim that centrist parties are inherently 'big-tent' parties.

    Sorry, I know you said your focus was on Alberta politics. I was just intrigued by your argument, and wanted to engage with it - I assume that because you include federal parties in your discussion, that my questions about the CPC are fair game. Plus, I'm a progressive - if not an Alberta party-insider - so I'm at least partially your targeted demographic, right?


  6. In the second paragraph I say, "Some of these such parties refer to themselves as being in the centre of the political spectrum and others claim to transcend the political spectrum. Both claims mean the same thing to me."

    I wouldn't consider the CPC centrist, but it is definitely diverse. I think the "right-centre-left" trichotomy is relative. Because the CPC is the furthest right in our system, I don't consider them centrist. Likewise with the NDP on the left. If the trichotomy was objective, it would be much more difficult to analyze. After all, I would argue that the Democrats in the US are at a similar point on the political spectrum to Harper's Conservatives (if not further right). So what does that make the Democrats?

    I just think when you've got a party that is stuck in between two other parties ideologically, it creates for much more complex strategic decisions than one would see in a dichotomous system like the American one. That's what I was trying to analyze, and my goal was to exploit it for the progressive cause.

    As for my comment about the relationship between "big-tent" parties and "centrist" parties, I see it this way: Centrist parties always TRY to be big-tent. When they shrink down to a small enough size, I think the extent to which they accomplish that goal is quite limited. Maybe that makes more sense?

    To be honest, this blog was kind of a "write-as-I-go" piece, so if it's not the most cohesively-written thing I've put out, I'm not 100% surprised. ;)

  7. The fact is Harper never believed in red toryism and said it was essentially watered-down conservatism. I think the merger was all about giving blue tories the main keys to the party and red tories are not given a voice at all. there needs to be a new party between the liberals and conservatives for business liberals and blue liberals, red tories or moderate conservatives and old progressive conservatives and there needs to be a place for the purple tories who believe in small government, some privatization while at the same time wanting to keep the social order. that is the direction a new party should offer. also a new party between the liberals and conservatives must try to win over the people i have listed but try to form policies on a strong law and order policy. therefore, the party must liberal conservative in nature to win over liberals and conservatives and make sure it governs at the centre to centre-right to gain the people in the spectrum who want strong economic policies, social progressive policies, and social conservative policies but not abolishing gay marriage or abortion and law and order policies that are truly balanced. if a party used these policies then i feel people would turn away. also in the most recent election atlantic canadians and quebeckers are not being given a voice since harper just wanted to win ontario and the west so they would not be given a major voice. i think we need a moderate conservative voice for those in eastern canada with no voice in this government.

    This has to be a future or the Conservatives will dominate Canada forever so there needs to be a party of business liberals and red tories with a compassionate sense of government or the Conservatives will do what they please without any checks and balances.

    Therefore a party replacing the old PC party is needed to bring balance to the system.

    There is currently no party on the centre to centre-right on the political spectrum. I have done a lot of research on this and found that Harper's party is far-right while the NDP and Liberals are centre to centre-left with no centrist to centre-right party in Canada.