Sunday June 18, 2017

Want to fix politics? Strengthen the parties.

U.S. President Donald Trump jokes with French President Emmanuel Macron about their handshakes in front of NATO leaders in Belgium.

U.S. President Donald Trump jokes with French President Emmanuel Macron about their handshakes in front of NATO leaders in Belgium. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Listen 8:18

When Robin Sears looks at U.S. President Donald Trump and France's President Emmanuel Macron, he sees some striking similarities.

"They both smashed the political establishments of their countries."

Sears says, despite the fact the two leaders are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the political upheaval they symbolize is an important lesson for partisans of traditional political parties. 

Macron… did it in a way that is even more astonishing than Trump in that he smashed the entire political establishment from left to right with the exception of Marine Le Pen, whereas Mr. Trump simply took over the shell of the party that is the Republicans. - Robin Sears

Sears, a strategist who worked with the federal NDP for 20 years, thinks such disruptive takeovers are a symptom of weak political parties — and that they're a threat to democracy itself.

He says democracies depend on their political parties for stability, and that an opposition party with a strong and dedicated following is the best defense against governments who come into power simply because they have more money or are more violent.

Robin Sears

Robin Sears, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and a Broadbent Institute leadership fellow, says the kind of political upheaval that Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump have accomplished cannot be ignored. (provided)

"Once that goes, it becomes very easy for very bad people to gain power," he said.

While Sears doesn't believe Canada is at immediate risk of an election that looks more like a revolution led a Trump or Macron-like figure, he does see the seeds of vulnerability in our parties.

Sears says partisanship is on the decline in Canada--but don't mistake that with party membership.

Although parties like the federal NDP may have boasted record membership highs, Sears says the number of engaged people on the ground who commit time, effort and money consistently is nothing like it used to be.

That leaves us susceptible to takeover when you look at how many people come out to party meetings at a riding level, he says.

"That means you've got 10 people in a riding association, which means you and your brother-in-law and a couple of corrupt friends could take over a riding association in an evening's work," Sears said.

He places the blame squarely on parties themselves for failing to stay relevant and appealing to Canadians. In his day, Sears said he was enticed to join a party by meeting girls, having a good time and getting access to jobs. That's no longer the case, he says.

The parties… really need to give their heads a shake about what they need to differently to make it interesting for a young millennial to commit time to sitting in a riding association meeting... It ain't getting an email every six weeks demanding more money. -Robin Sears

Sears has some advice for parties, though: acknowledge the problem, reach out to people under 30 and borrow strategies from environmental organizations who have mass followings of engaged supporters.