Guest Commentary

Elizabeth May, MP

Political Parties

If I were inventing democracy from scratch I would not invent political parties. The power of parties to dominate and control every single candidate is disastrous for democracy. It increases public cynicism. It creates outrageous hyper-partisanship.

In the United States, the range of choice is controlled by a very small cartel comprised of the Democratic and Republican parties. The price my American cousins pay for this system is diminished democracy in a system that is increasingly dysfunctional.

In Canada with five parties in the House there is a freshness of ideas. We have a wider variety of political cultures. When you have just two choices, both sides know eventually they will win regardless of whether they have new and compelling ideas, or inspired leadership.

I was born in Hartford, Connecticut. I have ancestors who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Both my parents were registered Democrats.  I voted Democrat in 1972, in the only ballot I cast in the U.S. before our family moved to Cape Breton.

My mother Stephanie volunteered as a Democratic fundraiser and campaigned against the Vietnam War, and wound up on Nixon’s Enemies List. On the wall of my parliamentary office is a framed watercolour of the White House that Franklin Roosevelt autographed for my grandfather.

Then there is the South Carolina branch of the family, all unrepentant conservatives. I love my Charleston relatives; when I called a cousin to report I’d been elected to Parliament, she said: “Hold on, I’ve got Rush Limbaugh on the radio.” Whenever we visited as children my mother would warn us: don’t mention politics!

Do you know what party George Washington belonged to? He didn’t. Washington was against political parties. The U.S. was never designed as a two-party system – not at all. Yet today Democrats and Republicans have a vice grip on their democracy.

In Canada you must pay money and obtain a membership to become “affiliated” with a party.

In the U.S., when you register to vote, you are asked: are you Democrat or Republican? The apparatus of the state asks you to declare your affiliation.  This is an extreme level of integration of partisanship into the mechanics of an electoral process that excludes other parties.

I think people are hungering for intelligent representation that doesn’t pander, that isn’t all spin and attack ads. I think the direction of U.S. politics is dispiriting; there is a “me-first-ism” to partisanship.  And now it contaminates Canadian politics, too. I fear there are people who would love to see a two-party system in Canada.

Any party system where a legislator must vote the interests of party, not of constituents and country, is unhealthy.

(Editor’s note: the author is leader of the Green Party in the House of Commons, and MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C. Ms. May’s commentary was originally published May 3, 2016)

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