Post-partisan politics?

As a continuation of my last article, which dealt with developing participatory democracy, I want to address my feelings on a phrase that’s tossed around progressive circles like I mentioned (Reboot Alberta, Alberta Party and CiviCamp), and that is “post-partisan politics.”

First off, let me say that I don’t like the phrase. Partisan activity is roughly defined as activity that supports a cause, usually political. It doesn’t have to mean a strident supporter of one political party or another, advocating for any policy changes can be considered partisan.

What people who use the phrase tend to mean however, is getting past rhetoric and all-or-nothing loyalty to traditional party/ideological brands. However, maybe I’m being a stickler, but I think that words become meaningless if we continually use them improperly.

With that said, I think there’s a lot of value in a non-dogmatic approach to politics that the phrase attempts to capture.

The biggest criticism I have seen from partisans and academics regarding statements from Reason Vancouver tend to focus on how any political movement needs an ideology to proceed, and how you just can’t do politics without basic, traditional, left-right assumptions. They argue that we must decide if we’re pro- or anti-big government and whether as a rule we should favour tax increases or decreases and then go from there.

And until very recently, I probably would have agreed.

I mean, the NDP is obviously left-wing, wants to grow government and raise taxes, while the Conservatives tend to be right-wing, want to shrink government and lower taxes. Meanwhile the Liberals ride the middle and do a bit of both, mainly when it’s politically convenient.

With this approach it’s easy to characterize the Alberta Party as the Alberta Liberals in new clothes, or Reason Vancouver as doing nothing but splitting the middle on every policy position.

But what I think I’ve come to realize is that politics doesn’t work like that – even within existing political structures.

Sure, almost every current party has a strict ideology that they try to steer toward. The federal Conservatives want to promote traditional values, hence cuts to women’s rights programs and support for ‘tough on crime’ and pro-gun legislation. But I don’t think that’s really why most people actually vote for a party.

This guest post at Daveberta really emphasized for me how people actually vote. People may have different beliefs about government, but generally they want a group of politicians that is not corrupt, is competent at leading, has a vision and has their interests in mind.

People usually settle for just a couple of those criteria, and hence you get ‘progressive’ Toronto electing Rob Ford (the candidate that seems to represent a change from what was seen as a non-working city hall) and ‘conservative’ Calgary electing Naheed Nenshi (who looked competent and had a vision).

So the move toward post-partisanship represents trying to actually connect with the electors, make their interests the party’s interests and maintain as open and accountable a structure as possible to counteract the corrupting tendency of power.

This quote from the Daveberta article sums it up perfectly:

What attracted me [to the Alberta Party] was the coming together of people from diverse backgrounds.  We may not always speak the same language.  We may not always see the world in the same light.  We may sometimes differ about the best options for Alberta.  That’s all ahead for us.  However, it is the spirit of working together, being respectful of good ideas wherever they come from… and above all the chance to build an Alberta we can be proud of again.

Every ideology has some useful ideas, the left has given us health care and regulations that kept our banks afloat through the crash, while the right’s emphasis on deficit/debt reduction is just good long-term planning.

Call it centrism if you want, but I think there’s more going on then simply cutting policy down the middle. I want to support and build parties that take the best ideas from anyone and put them forward.

This is why the Reason parties that I want to see move forward must be both open and evidenced-based and must eschew traditional ideological dogmas.

Participatory democracy

I had originally written this article for Canadian Atheist as a way to start branching out beyond atheism, but given that I’ve already scheduled two posts for tomorrow and already have one up today, I’m going to post this here.

I want to comment today on a political movement that I watched start to emerge in Alberta just before I left, which has since begun to really take off, but also put it in perspective with a post that I read at POGGE.

The latter frames it as “participatory democracy,” and outlines a system where traditional top-down political parties and decision making is replaced with a bottom-up approach that calls for individuals to contribute ideas to the system and to suggest multiple alternatives, and shuns simple yes-no dichotomous voting.

I’m not sure if a subscription is required, but this paper in the European Political Science journal looks like it also tackles a portion of the problem.

In Alberta, as with most of Canada, citizens are becoming increasingly disenfranchised with existing political parties, and especially the young are eschewing the entire process. Even the upstart Wildrose Alliance is only appealing more to the rich and elderly-curmudgeon crowd. Voter turnouts are drastically down.

But some smart people started getting together in Alberta a couple years ago, first for Reboot Alberta unconferences, and soon for Renew Alberta unconferences. At the same time, an unconference called ChangeCamp was held in Calgary, which began the path to the mayor’s office in Calgary for Naheed Nenshi.

For those who don’t know, an “unconference” is a participant-driven conference where the barrier to admission is set extremely low (the events are typically free), and average attendees provide most of the content in short, interactive presentations.

Each of these events focussed on slightly different areas, but they all had in common a commitment to bringing progressive values back to politics in Alberta. Of course definitions on progressivism range from socialism to soft-conservativism (i.e. fiscal, not social conservativism), but nearly all participants agreed that the present model in Alberta wasn’t working.

Renew Alberta moved quickly after its first couple events and merged with the remaining shell of the Alberta Party (which was a right-wing fringe party) and gutted the existing infrastructure. The rebuilt Alberta Party ejected all its policy and set out on a quest to do something revolutionary in politics – listen to the public.

With their “Big Listen” project they held small meetings in kitchens, community centres, or wherever was comfortable and simply listened to what mattered to Albertans and what they thought should be done about it. The party took no positions and simply compiled notes.

They then compiled all these notes and presented them at their policy conference a few months ago, which resulted in a policy document that they are using not as a final say, but more as a first step toward further consultation and idea generation.

And I must admit, I was quite skeptical initially that the wisdom of crowds wouldn’t be all that much and that what they generated would be a vague and vacuous document. Instead, I’m quite impressed that what exists is a relatively forward thinking position that balances many competing interests.

Add to this, the electoral win of Naheed Nenshi who is actually given credit for running “the campaign in full sentences,” and I think there may actually be a chance for this sort of system to succeed.

I think that’s enough for today, but I do also want to explore the concept of non-partisan politics (and why I’m warming to the concept but hate that phrase) and how these systems can be incorporated into an evidenced-based party like Reason Vancouver.