CNN had a comic named Mo Rocca roaming the floor at the Democratic convention this week, mocking it. It wasn’t exactly Mission Impossible. These events send themselves up. Political parties are inherently stupid, shallow institutions and it’s never clearer than at conventions. I saw concert pianist Anton Kuerti, who has recorded all Beethoven’s sonatas, at the PC convention last year. He was standing on a chair screeching the name David (Orchard), and pumping a sign. And he’s an NDPer; he’s even run for them.

Party members themselves spend much time griping about how useless or gutless their parties are. Many Democrats say John Kerry sounds too much like George Bush. Ontario Tories say Ernie Eves sold out the Harris legacy. NDPers fret habitually about deserting socialism. The old Reformers in the new Conservative Party worry it will toss out their social conservatism, the ex-PCers fear the same on the other side. Everyone worries that their party has given up or will give up its principles, just to attain power.

I include myself as a lifelong mocker. In first-year poli sci, after a lecture on parties, I asked: “Who joins these stupid things?” It infuriated me when the Chrétien Liberals morphed into Mulroney Tories by blithely embracing the free-trade deals they had denounced. But can parties really be so stupid and laughable? It’s too easy, it makes me uneasy. Might they be furtively serving some useful democratic purposes?

Well, to govern, those wanting power must claim to represent their whole country or society. If not, they will lack the minimal legitimacy that prevents things from breaking down due to small-scale surliness, like refusal to pay taxes. Whether you think national societies are a good or bad thing is irrelevant. Most people believe in them and they remain the basis of all political systems.

Old-style parties, with their windy, hypocritical claims to represent the nation — think of all the gas in Boston about what America is — at least make the claim. Parties that claim less, including those founded on deep ideals, such as the Bloc Québécois or the old Communist Party, can represent a region or a class. But they can never govern because they do not claim to represent their whole society. The Bloc would be embarrassed if it won the most seats in an election and was asked to form a government.

Furthermore, to win votes, parties must discover and voice whatever people feel defines the nature of their society at the moment, its Zeitgeist, or spirit of the times. Voicing this mood is far more important than articulating some vision of its own that the party has. I would argue, for instance, that the Roosevelt New Deal succeeded because it recognized the Zeitgeist of the 1930s: capitalist breakdown, socialist challenge, the rise of unions — and embodied all that in the New Deal.

Similarly, Pierre Trudeau reflected, but did not create, the mood of the 1960s: youth culture, resistance to imperial control, etc. This is why parties are always carefully, obnoxiously, putting a finger in the air, polling, trying to catch the Zeitgeist and capitalize on it. It’s a self-serving, socially useful exercise.

Why are there usually just two main parties? Because that is the minimum needed to allow everyone ambitious for power to feel they have an imminent shot. If you’re in, you’re in; if you’re out, the wait line is short.

Why do the main parties sound so alike? Because both are trying to capture the same Zeitgeist. There is room for differences, but if those grow too large, there would be little tolerance on the part of the outs, for those who are in. Political stability, Hannah Arendt says, is based less on the majority held by those in power than the loyalty of those who are not. If you held a deeply oppositional view, why on earth would you be loyal?

Could there be other ways to run a democratic national political system? Sure, but the Zeitgeist has not yet favoured them, though it may be edging toward proportional representation, a clear challenge to our current, not entirely irrational, not totally ludicrous, two-stupid-party system.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.