Doug Saunders has an interesting piece in the Saturday edition of the Toronto Globe and Mail called "Why did all the West's big centrist parties go down the drain?"
Before we go anywhere with this, ponder on that headline for a while, especially on the word "centrist"
Okay, got that? Now let's read the list of examples of centrist parties that have suffered sharp decline that Saunders provides in his article
The Liberals in Canada. The Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in many European countries. Labour in Britain and the Netherlands, and the Socialists in Spain and France.It's odd, don't you think, that all those "centrist" parties are all actually "left wing" parties. For Saunders, being in the centre actually means being on one side of a political debate. Except that that isn't surprising at all because almost everyone defines "the centre" as the place where they are standing. Social conservatives are equally convinced that they are the centre and that the other guys are the radicals.
Once we allow for Saunders' bias, I think we can see that he is still on to something important:
The big-tent parties functioned, during their glory years in the postwar decades, as the paternal overlords of protected, closed national economies, engaging in brokerage politics whereby the fruits of growth could be spread out among clients and beneficiaries on the left and right. The big political parties were like family heirlooms, their loyalties kept for life and passed on between generations – badges of personal identity, like Ford and Chevy, Coke and Pepsi, Apple and Microsoft. Membership had its benefits.That, I think, is largely correct. I'd only make the slight correction that the slogan is "membership has its privileges" not "benefits". Then again, Saunders has already tacitly acknowledged this by speaking of "brokerage politics whereby the fruits of growth could be spread out among clients and beneficiaries".
One of the reasons I don't do partisan politics here is because the supposed differences of partisan politics are often a lot less interesting than the deeper similarities they conceal. For what the paternalistic left and social conservatism have in common is that both take for granted a strong centripetal force pulling everyone towards “the centre”.
Where did that assumption come from? My guess is that it is a consequence of the conditions after the Second World War. Conditions that were bound to change with time and have changed with time.
But if "partisan politics" tends to conceal deep similarities, it also tends to conceal deep differences. For if we try to define the centre we discover that there isn’t much agreement about where the centre is and that different people locate it in wildly different places.
I'd like to wrap up pointing out that as far as something like new urbanism may seem from partisan politics, this particular dead end is exactly the same one Raymond Hain ends up at:
It looks like all this is only possible if enough people agree on the end, the general shape of human happiness as a whole, and this agreement on what matters most shapes and makes possible all the other integrative activities of our community. But what if we no longer agree on this (and, frankly, this seems exactly the situation we face today)?For the thing that social conservatism and paternalistic leftism share in common is that there is a single correct answer about how to best pursue human happiness and that that answer is knowable and known. But was it ever different? Or, to put it another way, are paternalistic lefties, social conservatives and new urbanists all driven by the same false nostalgia for an era when it only seemed like everyone shared the same understanding of human happiness?