Even for someone as brilliant as Charles Darwin, it took a while to figure it out. He had chafed at the iron rules of scientific societies, feeling that they were populated by elite patrons who would only verify certain scientific advancements and discoveries that came through established channels. But he was about to face a new experience that challenged even his own thinking.
Sailing on the Beagle in 1835 provided him with an entire new series of revelations. Alighting on the Galapagos Islands broke his thinking wide open, however. The diversity and uniqueness of species he discovered in his brief time there formed the germ for what would later become his Origin of the Species. None of the species he found existed anywhere outside the region, but what shocked him was the variety within the islands themselves. He not only found new species but also discovered that those same species varied on each of the islands – they had adapted to their local surroundings in ways that made them different from their cousins on the other islands not far away. The same was true with the plants he found. Though it took him some time to figure out, he finally concluded (rightly) that each island had its own ecosystem. It came to be known as “speciation”.
This is a far cry different from the “group think” referred to in an earlier post. We considered at that point the book The Best and the Brightest about the smartest men in the country and how they ended up creating the debacle that was the American Vietnam war effort. President Lyndon Johnson had placed around him people of great expertise, including former Ford Motor president Robert McNamara. Indeed it was a great plan. Unfortunately a system was established that made sure any divisions or separate points of view were kept from the president. Over and over again, McNamara harmonized their advice before they approached Johnson, insuring he only received one point of view. Vital details and problems were filtered out and Johnson hardly knew what he was descending into. There’s no need to continue here; we all know the rest of the story.
These two examples provide insight into so much of what is going wrong in Canada’s politics. Things are decided “from the top” and little dissension is permitted. The party becomes everything while diverse constituencies are left the morsels at the end of the meal. In the modern setting it’s hard for the individual MP, or even top-level bureaucrats to really matter. Even as far back as the Nixon era, politician Elliot Richardson alerted his nation to what was really happening in Washington D.C.: “There is an increasingly pervasive sense not only of failure, but of futility. The legislative process has become a cruel shell game and the service system has become a bureaucratic maze, inefficient, incomprehensible, and inaccessible.” He might as well have been describing modern-day Ottawa. By extension, if the individual MP is inconsequential except for his or her use to the party, the ridings are even more insignificant. As each year passes, there remains no clear-cut direction as to how to overcome our great challenges – we are merely getting by. Group think has seized Ottawa in its clutches and refuses to relinquish its grip.
This is the setting in which the Liberal Party is trying to find its footing for the way forward. It has existed for so long practicing variations of the McNamara model that it struggles at reigniting its grassroots. And that will remain a problem as long as it views constituencies as recruiting stations for its own designs.
Far better, and indeed more timely, would be the Darwin model – speciation. No two Liberal ridings are alike but among them the diversity is impressive, in part depending on which part of the country they function. My own riding association is undergoing a renaissance of its own as it learns to be innovative outside of just regular party operations. It’s coming to terms with its own maturity and strengths – something that might not have been discovered in previous years. And, above all, it’s learning that small “l” liberalism is far more essential to rediscover than its larger “L” cousin. In fact, the latter can only follow the former.
There are literally hundreds of riding associations across the country and they are all different from one another. It’s time to stop trying to unite them through uniformity to party central but rather to unify them through the diverse manner in which they apply their common love for this country. There might be only one Liberal party but there are thousands of roads going to and emerging from that destination. It’s time to evolve instead of conforming.