The Mythical Middle

by Glen

The parliamentary cycle begins once again and already the Liberal Party is getting its fair share of pundits offering advice on how it should renew itself. Time and again we hear of how Liberals must begin the process of finding the “centre” or the “middle.” I understand the allure of it; after all, it was the Liberals themselves who held the middle ground during many recent decades. Yet one wonders if there is a point to such a pursuit anymore.

Let’s just state at the outset that there is no such place as a static “centre” of the political spectrum – it moves with the times. Jean Chretien’s middle ground was far to the right of Lester Pearson’s, just as Mulroney’s was to the left of Harper’s. Provincially, in Ontario, Dalton McGuinty’s policies are much more akin to those of Bill Davis, and Tim Hudak’s to Mike Harris. To those in power the centre has been a moveable feast; to those outside of it, it’s been more like a moveable target.

Put succinctly: the centre is whatever the government in power makes it. The longer it retains the reins of administration, the more it cements in place its own version of the political centre. As long at Stephen Harper could only reside over a minority government, the political centre remained a difficult reality to nail down. With four years of majority ahead of him, the PM will get his chance to define that advantageous position.

All this is just to say that the Liberal Party should talk less about recapturing the centre and locate a more permanent position to concentrate its still considerable expertise. Chasing after voters when they say they want one thing and then vote in a fashion that gets them the opposite is a dangerous political proposition at any time and a rather precarious way of putting out good public policy.

Then again, the political dynamic has changed so much in Canada that it’s not about healthy competition between parties but rather a steady state of war to either retain power or overthrow it. “War,” as Herodotus put it, “is the father of all things.” It is likely true that no single phenomenon throughout history has produced so much upheaval as war itself. There are economic and social cataclysms as well, but neither contains the sheer ability to overthrow, maintain, or alter states as war itself.

Whereas politics in Ottawa was once a very serious set of contests, it has now become the political equivalent of war on a 24-hour basis. In such a setting the political centre isn’t the place of most effectiveness in public policy but the pyrrhic strategy for maintaining power at all costs. Democratic institutions, cheques and balances, voter accountability – all these become obstacles to a political party desiring power at all costs because they limit its ability to wage an all-out campaign with little ethical consequence.

As long as Liberals opt into such a campaign, the reduction of the public space will only follow their efforts. The old Hebrew prophet mulled over the question all Liberals should be asking: “Thoughtfully I pondered what goes on within this world whenever men have power over their follows.” Indeed. No moral test can have such dire consequences as the temptation to misuse power over others, and that is especially true of governments, given the resources as their disposal. Like it or not, holding power is tantamount to a massive ethical burden, for it opens the door to self-indulgence. Power’s possession only creates the thirst for more of it. When the only way to get and retain power is to undermine, even repudiate, those democratic institutions meant to protect society’s overall health, then we suffer national decline.

I witnessed it all first-hand in Ottawa. Power has the pervasive influence to harden people’s hearts without them being aware of it. Those that have power find it remarkably difficult to understand the challenges average citizens actually face; eventually some even lose the capacity to care. It is just such manifestation of power that the great moral leaders of the ages renounced. If history has proved that reality repeatedly, there’s no point in Liberals mulling around the centre in pursuit of it.

One of the great mysteries of history is how the same conditions that can promote change, creativity and entrepreneurship can also activate abuse, inequality, injustice, and eventually social upheaval. Canada appears headed in that direction, albeit slowly, and Liberals will have to present a stronger alternative to such an outcome than just striving to possess the middle. The old admonition that “he that is greatest among you shall be your servant” hardly seems to apply to the government in our national capital and many of its members know it.

Liberals would be better advised to pursue the advantage of progressiveness instead of just the centre. It connotes the idea of moving on an evolving path that leads to the enfranchisement of all citizens and not just a few. Politicians have the power to help people or hurt them, to lift them up or cast them down to despair through sheer bad governance. It is time for the Liberal Party to embrace the high ideal – one that empowers all citizens and refuses to just see them in economic terms. The only cure for any struggling economic power is to make it work for all citizens, and that includes its cultural, educational, ethical, citizenship, environmental, and health dimensions. Liberals must build a new structure for Canada, based upon the empowerment of all individuals to pursue a collective life together that is progressive. It’s not about the variable power located at the centre, but the moral stamina to govern effectively in all our communities. If Liberals can’t establish it there, winning power in Ottawa won’t change anything.

Tomorrow: The Muddled Middle