Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Choosing a Liberal candidate: an outsider's view

While I was busy with more mundane things, Liberal bloggers were all a-twitter over Maurizio Bevilacqua's decision to drop out of their leadership race and support Bob Rae. Jason Cherniak was "shocked," Calgary Grit called it "a big coup for Rae," and Any Idiot Can Have a Blog snarked: "kudos to Maurizio in retaining his strong right wing values, where money talks and personal values walk."

Miles Lunn went so far as to speculate that "Rae promised him something in return if he is elected," and while he may well be right in this particular case, there are other explanations as well. There is, after all, a longstanding tradition in the Liberal party of supporting a particular candidate for reasons other than ideological ones. A Touch Left of Centre characterizes himself as "a centre-left Liberal and a strong supporter of Michael Ignatieff," who's anything but centre-left. Jason Cherniak, on the other hand, refers to himself as a "blue Liberal," but he's supporting centre-left candidate Stéphane Dion. Pragmatism ("can this candidate beat Harper?") and personal factors ("does this individual have the charisma necessary to gain a following beyond True Grits?") seem to weigh more heavily than ideology into many Liberals' decisions. So maybe Bevilacqua was promised something, but maybe he just thinks Rae's going to win and wants to jump on his bandwagon while there's still a seat available.

Over at the Tory blog Political Staples, there's been much sneering over this sort of pragmatic decision-making. "Policy and platform always takes second place to power with these guys," says one commenter, and another says that this is an indication that Bevilacqua "believes in nothing in particular, but merely adopts policy positions and backs candidates purely out of political expediency." There's another way of looking at this, though, and it's at least somewhat less cynical: many Liberals seem to go into a decision-making process like this with the assumption that because Liberals are all centrists, they're already ideologically close enough to any of the candidates for their own comfort. And once you've taken that on as an underlying assumption, it's much easier to support a particular candidate because of other factors such as personal charisma and ability to win elections. To those of us on either the left or the right of the political spectrum, this can look unprincipled, but maybe it's just a different ordering of the same priorities all of us have.

The reason for this difference is clear--it's simply less threatening for Liberals than it is for either the NDP or the Tories to choose candidates on a more pragmatic basis. For the NDP, for example, the purely pragmatic decision would always mean always picking the most centrist candidate possible. This would throw off the balance in a party that has members ranging from the far left to the centre left, and would disenfranchise a large portion of the membership. The Liberals, on the other hand, will always be able to lay claim to the middle, so whether they tilt a little to the left, a little to the right, or land dead centre doesn't make nearly as much of a difference to their internal makeup.

I'm an American who always used to choose the furthest-left candidate in any primary election, and so I find this to be a foreign way of thinking. But at the same time, I do see the logic in it. And I also have to wonder whether the parties that are closer to the edges of the spectrum might not benefit from some small element of this logic as well. Choosing between members of your own party should mean balancing ideology, electability, and one's own personal affinity for the candidate. I'm not convinced that the Liberals are on to the right mix of those three factors, but a choice based
solely on ideology doesn't make much sense, either.


Radical Centrist said...

Given that the Liberals aren't hampered by strict ideological lines the way other parties are, as you say, ideology simply isn't really a major factor. While other parties have to work within the box of their ideology, the Libs benefit from more of a Venn diagram approach - they can straddle the right and left.

I know many see this as being "unprincipled" - i just see it as being the only sane way to be.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Well, I don't completely agree with you--I think pragmatism can be taken to a point where it is unprincipled. And when ideology becomes completely irrelevant, I'd say that's well into that range. Still, there's a big difference between saying "I don't agree with this candidate about everything, but I'm still supporting him for x and y reasons" and not knowing or caring where you stand. I think we on the edges of the spectrum can sometimes miss that nuance.

Also: the "only sane way to be," eh? Well, I hope you enjoy my insane ramblings, then. *grin*

Maritime Liberal said...

I actually would consider myself an ideologue first. Policy matters most to me followed closely by leadership ability. Ideologically I see almost directly eye to eye with Ignatieff on everything.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Interesting. Perhaps it's our definitions of "centre-left" that differ, then. Or do you regard Ignatieff's positions on, say, the erstwhile decision for the U.S. to invade Iraq, or his current position on Israel, to be "centre-left" positions?

Kuri said...

There's also the possibility that the vocabulary around ideology has become so watered down, so twisted and spun, that many (including but not limited to Liberals) really have no clue what constitutes "left", "right" or "centre" anymore. Witness Ignatieff's "Empire-lite" brand of foreign policy being trumpeted as some kind of "new humanitarianism".

bza said...

A favourable and interesting look at the Liberals way of thinking. Great post!

Maritime Liberal said...

First of all I would label his domestic and economic policy as centre-left in nature. Unfortunately all of the spotlight gets focused on foreign policy and his views taken out of context. On my blog, in responding to an anonymous commentor on four foreign policy issues, I refuted them. In essence when you look at the principles he used they are fundamentally small-l liberal in nature and fit very much in the centre-left of the political perspective.

Your point about defining centre left is a good one. Such definitions are unfortunately rather subjective in nature. If we want to pursue this further then perhaps a common understanding of "centre-left" that we both agree upon is good and then we can analyze Ignatieff (and I guess myself) further. However, defining it cannot be a list of what centre-left is not. We need to approach it from a more philosophical approach breaking it down into at least three areas: the economy, foreign policy, social programmes.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Well, as you know, I have no dog in this fight, so it's entirely irrelevant what sort of impression Ignatieff has made on me. That said, he certainly seems like the most right-wing candidate of the bunch, especially now that Bevilacqua is out of the running.

Do you see Ignatieff's ideologies in the three areas you name as being further to the left than those of the other candidates? I'm not being snotty, just curious.

Phugebrins said...

The Liberals lack the socialist links that the social-democratic parties of Europe enjoy, and they lack the consistent liberalism of most liberal parties. It's not just that they're a middle party, they actually have no unifying ideological principles. While you could say that this means they're more policy-focused, you can hardly say the Liberals are the clearest or most predictable of the major parties on their policy platform. And without some goal or commitment to principle, a centrist party will inevitably be a collection of people whose only common ground is that they want to be in the cabinet.

West End Bound said...

Being a relative new-comer to Canadian politics - as I am in the process of immigrating - is there any one of the Libs running for the Leadership who is the most "left-leaning"? Listening to the only US-televised debate on CSPAN Martha Hall Findlay impressed me the most. Any thoughts?

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

west end bound,

Not really, at least not by my standards. People have said that Gerard Kennedy is supposedly the furthest left of the candidates, but I went to see him speak in the spring and walked away shrugging.