In the recent Canadian federal election the Liberal Party suffered a major implosion, losing more than 50% or their already weak number of seats in the House of Commons. While much of the reason behind this failure can be attributed to the crucifixion of their leader, Michael Ignatieff, much of it also came from weak policies and their inability to capture the hearts of voters.
I don’t believe that an institution as long standing as the Liberal Party is doomed because of one single meltdown. The party is in rebuilding mode right now and has a lot of work to do. To their credit, they are attending the policy and structure issues before bothering with a new leader.
What does the Liberal Party have to offer the voters of Canada? On the Right you have a strong Conservative Party, solidified by the amalgamation of their moderate and extreme factions. On the Left you have the newly successful NDP, champions of social democracy, but vulnerable because a significant amount of their success rested on the back of the late Jack Layton. In the middle is supposed to be the Liberal Party, representing moderate, left wing liberals and having a shot at moderate conservatives. But, as John Geddes points out in a current Macleans article “In the Muddled Middle”, extreme views tend to activate supporters, while supporters of moderate views have a history of being less active.
It makes sense. Those supporting the more extreme policies of the Left, such as Union supporters, participate much more actively in the political process, driven by an ideology. Similarly, those on the more extreme Right, such as religious social conservatives or gun lobbyists, are much more vocal about their positions. Those who are more moderate in their views tend to be less emotional, vocal and, unfortunately, active, thereby tending to leave the battleground (and the eventual spoils) to the extremists.
How can the Liberals define themselves in a way that may energize the centre a little more? In apparent desperation it seems that one of the ways they hope to do this, borrowing a page from Ron Paul, is by proposing the legalization of marijuana. Whether one agrees with the policy or not (-and I feel there would be much to debate on that issue-) one can’t help but think this move just a little transparent.
A much better idea would be to be the party which is not afraid to take good ideas from both the Left and the Right in order to implement sound, balanced policy. As things stand now, just as is the case with the Republicans and Democrats in the U.S., our NDP and Conservatives each feel that the other can do no right. Polarized thinking rules, and to admit that the opposition might have a good idea is to admit defeat, which in turn weakens your political strength. As a supporter of Integral Politics, I understand that there are situation where Right wing ideas are required and some where Left wing ideas are better suited. Each political ideology is appropriate for various situations, and the best position from which to enact that kind of policy is from a balanced centre. If you look at Ron Paul’s position in the Republican party, you can see that he is, in a very awkward way, trying to do that, which is why he will never succeed.
In Geddes’ article he quotes Justin Trudeau as advocating something called “evidence based policy”, which sounds like a great idea. This would involve the creation of policy based on research and evidence as opposed to ideology. For example, when deciding to build more prisons one would actually look at crime statistics and at any studies about the effects of incarceration on statistical trends, (-which, of course, is exactly what the Conservatives overtly avoided). When looking at free needle distribution programs for drug users, one would look at research findings and statistics that indicate whether this actually reduces illness and criminal activity, and also whether it encourages drug us. When looking at the introduction of sex education in schools, one would look at statistics about teenage pregnancy and the impact of abstinence only education on the actual stats of sexual activity amoung young people. Right now many of these policies are decided by ideology and emotion rather than reason. Such issues are often decided, not by whether they are effective or ineffective, but rather by whether God would approve or some other such purely emotional appeal.
Conservatism tends to be often equated with anti-intellectualism. The scrapping of the gun registry, done with such emotional thoroughness and satisfaction, and the elimination of the long form census are good examples of an apparent fear of facts. On the extreme Left there often is also emotional fanaticism, the culprit here often being the misplaced liberalism of multicultural relativism (i.e. “all cultures should be respected, so there is no right and wrong”). Here is definitely an area where the Liberals could capitalize and probably win over some conservative in addition to liberal moderates. In doing “evidence based policy” it would also enable them to cherry pick their ideas from both Left and Right Wing ideologies, balancing the two as circumstances demand. It would have the potential of becoming an Integral Party, responsive to a variety of needs and world views, but without having to call itself that.
Extremists deserve attention as they often have innovative ideas. They deserve representation and respect as well. But the vast majority, especially in Canada, are more central and moderate in their views. They deserve a strong party to represent them. With some careful work, perhaps the Liberals can be that party.