WHEN THE CENTRE CANNOT HOLD…

It is impossible to create or maintain a democratic nation in which the citizenry differs fundamentally on more issues than those upon which they agree.  Indeed, that is the very nature of nation-building; constructing constitutions that delineate the fundamental principles by and upon which all are willing to abide if not actually agree, and by which all agree to consent to the assertion of political authority over their affairs. However, the expression of common purpose and principle upon which nations are formed are always challenged by the polar and often tribal nature of the democratic process.

The basis of divergence is nearly always the same.  The applications of principles of liberty that are the bedrock of constitutional democracies soon come into conflict with the status quo.  The more progressive of the citizenry argue that the application of constitutional principles trumps all other considerations, including the preservation of the social structure in which they were first articulated.  The more conservative, meanwhile, argue that constitutional principles can never be fairly applied to undermine the social structure that they were designed to reflect and protect.   In short order, the electorates in democratic nations invariably form parties of the political left and right between whom lie ideological gulfs that are seemingly irreconcilable.

Notwithstanding this theoretical and demonstrable shortcoming, constitutional democracies have proven to be capable of effective governance for the bulk of their histories.  The US, dominated from its inception by a two-party system, has managed to maintain a level course through oscillations to the left and right by the electorate that have been reflected in reasonably even distribution of Republican and Democratic representation in both the Legislative and Executive branches of government.

But not so lately.  There can be no denying the increasingly polarized nature of American politics, and it is often pointed to as the harbinger of the end of democracy as a functional form of government.  Ironically, it is the perfection of democracy itself that has created this existential threat.

Politicians of both the Left and the Right wistfully long for the good old days, when men (and they were men, and financially comfortable white men to be specific) could find enough common ground to garner bipartisan support for what has been by any measure an incrementally progressive political agenda.  And they could do that because, for all of their political differences, they were, after all, all financially comfortable white men.  Those on the Left could be trusted by their counterparts on the Right to bring forward social change, and those on the Right could be trusted to not only maximize but also redistribute wealth and opportunity, in each case at a pace that would not result in an abrupt disruption of the social order.  After all, that social order had long been good to financially comfortable white men of both the Left and Right

North American democracies are no longer dominated by financially comfortable white men, and the most ardent adherents to the politics of the Left and the Right no longer have any interest in maintaining the social order.   On the Right, older working class citizens see the root of their disenfranchisement in the progressive trade and immigration policies that have undermined their already tenuous position in the social and economic order.  On the vanguard of the Left is everyone else who isn’t a financially comfortable white male, and they see in the incrementalism of the history of North American progressivism the paternalistic maintenance of privilege.  There is seemingly no place or voice for those in the centre of the political spectrum who are sympathetic to the reasonable concerns of both camps, and who want to see leadership that will redirect the engine of economic growth to ensure that both the benefits and costs of that growth are distributed more fairly and responsibly.   This reality has led to what seems to be an irreconcilable impasse in both the tone and effectiveness of American politics of which Donald Trump is a result not the cause.  It is a stark and ominous political landscape.

The picture in Canada may be no more inspiring, but it is considerably less ominous.  Canada is in the early days of a federal election in which there are four major parties fielding candidates nationally.  On the basis of their stated platforms, all of those parties agree that climate change is an issue that must be addressed by public policy, that women have the right to choice as it relates to childbearing, that people should be free to marry whomever they please, that immigration is not only welcome but essential for the continuing prosperity of the country, that economic opportunities are critical to the maintenance and expansion of freedom and that redistribution of the fruits of those opportunities is critical to social cohesion.  The party of the Right asserts the paramountcy of economic opportunity and the freedom that it offers above but not to the exclusion of all other considerations.  Both parties of the Left would place environmental and redistributive policies above the goal of maximizing economic opportunity.  The party of the middle would attach a roughly equal priority to those two interests.

The choices offered reflect an electorate that is only moderately differentiated on principle.  The approaches are ones on which reasonable men and women can differ.  It is a menu of political choice that highlights common principles and nuanced differences in policies.  And it is so not because Canadians are a wiser, more moral or homogeneous population.  It is so only because of the existence of more than two viable political parties that enhance rather than disenfranchise the centre of the political spectrum.  And as W. B. Yeats foretold, when “the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”.

It was back in 1961 that actor Kiefer Sutherland’s Grandpa, Tommy Douglas, established the NDP as a viable third party in Canadian federal politics.  It seems that Canadians have more than socialized medicine to thank him for.

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