Why Ideology Generates Bad Policy

Since the current federal election campaign began, and the CBC, University of Toronto & Université de Montréal unveiled their Vote Compass tool, more than ever before I’ve noticed just how partisan people can get when you’re not even talking about policies. Though the Liberals seem to be taking a bit of support from the NDP and Greens early on, we all know that “the right” is fairly unified beyond small fringe parties like the Christian Heritage Party.

What I have never personally been able to understand though is people who support a party, and therefore that party’s local representative, with blind faith. They identify themselves as small ‘c’ or capital ‘C’ Conservatives, and therefore feel like they need to fall into line with their Dear Leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. No doubt he maintains an iron grip on the party and most of its communications, but I think we’re starting to see an increasing number of people, thanks to the aforementioned Vote Compass, start to question themselves and their allegiances (or at least the Vote Compass).

And regardless of your politics, you must be able to actually rationalize your support. I’ve had several online discussions with regular people asking them to justify statements like, “North Centre, its time to be rid of Pearson. Vote Susan Truppe!” By all accounts prior to this, I’ve heard Glen Pearson is a terrific MP, regardless of whether he’s a Liberal or not. When I asked the woman who originally said this, plus the two people that retweeted her, why they wanted to oust Mr. Pearson… well, let’s just say none of them came up with a valid reason.

The way I see it, ideology in politics gets in the way of reason just as much as religious ideology does. Always identifying yourself as a Conservative, therefore implying that you believe in a fiscally and socially conservative government, ignores the fact that most people are indeed centrists.  There are, no doubt, supporters and members of the Conservative Party that are in favour of same-sex marriage. And though the Conservatives say they have no plans to re-visit the issue now, they were indeed against the idea when it was made legal in Canada.

In the same vein, there are probably Liberal supporters and members who support the purchase of new F-35 jets and superprisons. Should these people suddenly identify themselves as Conservatives? Surely not. Historically the Liberal Party is a centrist party, and welcome all who feel they belong into “The Big Red Tent.”

So what happens? People who identify themselves as wholly left wing or right wing ignore the fact that there will always be good ideas coming from the other end of the political spectrum that they can get behind. I can get behind a corporate tax cut to 16.5%, but not now when the federal government is still running a massive deficit. I’m also a fan of high speed rail, but I fully recognize that it’s an expensive endeavour that has to be fully costed and paid for without putting a massive amount of debt on the backs of taxpayers, whether individuals or businesses. All avenues have to be explored to make sure any idea is feasible.

And there’s the problem. When you see yourself as purely Green or NDP, and the party proposes a set of policies you don’t like, they fall out of favour with you. You feel like they’ve turned your back on you. It happened to me when I donated money to the federal NDP back in 2006 and, suddenly, I was literally a card-carrying member of the New Democratic Party of Ontario. I didn’t ask for a membership or card, but I got one nonetheless. When Mr. Layton, and the party, started leaning further left than I’d like, I felt a bit betrayed. It’s silly, but true.

And while I would love to argue for an end to partisanship, I know that’s just blue sky thinking. Instead, what I would like to argue for is a respectable, sensible debate over representatives, policies and platforms. Look at the facts, look at the people, then make up your mind. Feel free to go into an election not wanting to vote for the incumbent, but don’t tune out all of the other options just because you don’t think you could ever vote for, as an example, the Pirate Party. It’s not easy, and I’m certainly guilty of keeping the blinders up at times, but it’s well worth the effort in the end.

If you’re the type of person who eventually wants to run for office, you and I both know that independents rarely get elected. There’s a case to be made for spending some time raising your profile in your community by, earnestly, attending philanthropic events, participating on committees, volunteering your time to various causes and, therefore, making enough of a name for yourself that running as an independent is worth your while. It wouldn’t be an inexpensive affair, but it could certainly be worth it if you thought you had a decent chance of winning without a party affiliation.

This whole notion of ideology generating bad policy gets far worse at the top of the party. These are the people who are so in the trenches that all they see is the ideology. They sit there day in, day out strategizing, polling, and trying to figure out how to get their party into power. I can’t think of a worse career. The stress these people must go through, I imagine, is tremendous. They’re tasked with crafting ideas and costs that may get them praised or simply booted out the door.

The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, and now the Conservative Party of Canada, illustrate just what a bad idea it is to let ideology dictate how you run the country. Former Premier Mike Harris started Ontario down the road of the Common Sense Revolution. As Naomi Klein shows us in a column written in the fall of 2001, it didn’t exactly make Ontario a better place to live. And really, isn’t the goal of public service to make the place you live better for everyone, or at least most of us? If not, shouldn’t that be the goal?

Prime Minister Harper likes to harp (ha ha, get it?) on the fact that the Liberals will raise taxes if elected. Yes, they will… one tax. They’ll undo the recent corporate tax decrease, moving it from 16.5% back up to 18%. What Mr. Harper likes to ignore is the fact that the Liberals decreased the corporate tax rate by 10% while they were in power during the 1990s, led by Mr. Jean Chretien. But again, ideology blinds us from even giving a pat on the back to the other guys for doing something good and smart for Canada when we could afford it.

The real problem is that these men are very idealistic. Once in power, they have done everything they can to lead Canada down one road that isn’t led by a vision, but by an ideology.

In recent history, we’ve seen time and time again where ideologies like “free market” and “regulated market” fail miserably. They don’t allow for a balanced and fair approach somewhere in between that not only allows businesses to thrive, but to compete and drive innovation, increasing choice and competition for consumers in the process. There is a place for regulation, and also instances where red tape must be removed. To argue otherwise is to blind yourself to the possibility of a middle way forward that benefits all parties involved.

Maybe that in itself is an ideology… that there is a middle way between the extremes. I would argue that it isn’t – that the middle way is simply an amalgamation of the best ideas from all sides of an argument. And even if you could make the case that it was an ideology, I would still argue that it’s likely much better than the extreme left or extreme right on any issue.

My point is, following a particular ideology leads you to create policies specifically geared towards meeting that ideology. You don’t end up taking into account the needs of all stakeholders, and anyone with an iota of knowledge on how to run any organization will tell you that’s a bad thing. You may end up ignoring a large part of the population, which then leads to the types of revolts we’re seeing in the Middle East and North Africa now. Clearly things aren’t the same here in Canada, but much of this entry has been about extremes.

So I ask you to take the blinders off and don’t simply dismiss an exercise that tells you you actually align better with the policies of another party. Is that really so bad? If the Vote Compass tells you you align with the Conservative Party’s platform and policies, shouldn’t you at least take a moment to investigate whether it’s true? Most everything you need to find is available in the same way you took the Vote Compass – on the Internet. Look up this opposing party’s website, read the platform, talk to the candidate in your riding. You may discover something about yourself you didn’t know, and, as long as you’re being true to yourself, that’s probably not a bad thing.