WORLD/ESSAY

IS THE PARTY OVER?

THE MERGING OF POLICIES LEAVES NOT MUCH TO DEBATE AND LITTLE CHOICE FOR THE VOTER

CARL MOLLINS April 13 1992
WORLD/ESSAY

IS THE PARTY OVER?

THE MERGING OF POLICIES LEAVES NOT MUCH TO DEBATE AND LITTLE CHOICE FOR THE VOTER

CARL MOLLINS April 13 1992

IS THE PARTY OVER?

WORLD/ESSAY

THE MERGING OF POLICIES LEAVES NOT MUCH TO DEBATE AND LITTLE CHOICE FOR THE VOTER

After an appearance at a grocers convention during his campaign for reelection, President George Bush suffered media ridicule for having shown amazement at a display of everyday electronic gear used at supermarket checkout counters. He thereby gained the title of technopeasant to go with earlier insults as an aged “preppie” and “a wimp.” A Democrat rival, William Clinton, has been dogged by scuttlebutt about “sleaze” in his past. In the run-up to this week’s general election in Britain, Prime Minister John Major has been pilloried as what Britons term “a Wallie,” a nerd. His loquacious Labour Party opponent, Neil Kinnock, has been dubbed “the Welsh Windbag.”

With attention rivetted on image, mannerisms and personal peccadillos, it is hard to hear much argument from either campaign over basic policy, let alone visionary ideas that look further into the future than the next few years. Jimmy Carter—altogether too piously earnest a president for majority taste in 1980, after one term in the White House—asked last week in Washington: “What issues have been discussed in this campaign so far?” His answer was, none that he could think of. In London, The Independent newspaper, for one, lamented “the sterile exchange of platitudes and mindless insults” demeaning the British campaign.

The dearth of any farseeing debate may be no oversight. Apart from superficial differences over details, to voters in the modern democracies there seems to be little left to dispute—or choose—among parties of the nominal left, right or centre in their fundamental policies and their approaches to governing. In the pioneer transatlantic bastions of capitalist liberal democracy—Britain, the United States, France—and

elsewhere, including Canada, politics converges on the centre. Its appeal is tailored to the middle. It depends on the middle-class majority. What is left to the voter is to decide which candidate is best suited—in both senses—to stay in the middle of the road.

Evidence for that is found not only in the American and British elections. In France last week, the Socialist Party government—dependent on the Communist party for its existence—jettisoned its prime minister of 323 days, Edith Cresson, who offended her more conservative party elders. Cresson, who battled on behalf of an army of unemployed citizens and for a shakeup of industry, was widely regarded as being too stridently partisan. She was faulted within the party for concentrating her campaign in regional elections last month against the ultra-rightist National Front. She was blamed, as a result, for losses suffered by her party in those local elections.

In Canada, despite early alarums sounded by the conservative business community, the three New Democratic Party provincial governments have taken pains to eschew any of that party’s radical social democratic legacies. In the eyes of many Canadians, including NDP partisans, on most significant policy matters the governments of Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia are comfortably indistinguishable from their Conservative and Liberal neighboring governments, as are each of those from the other.

Throughout the EuroAmerican world and beyond, conservatives, socialists, centrists, communists and many partisans on the angry radical right now appear to agree that capitalism, liberalism and democracy are the be-all and end-all of human society—in an old term with new currency, “the end of history.”

The notion that there can be a conclusion to the process of the human world’s development—an idea adapted from the early-19th-century works of German philosopher Georg Hegel—was popularized in the United States as the Soviet Bloc in Europe was beginning to break up in 1989. Francis Fukuyama, a former policy adviser in the U.S. state department and now a consultant with the RAND Corp. in Washington, argued in an article that summer that liberal democracy has conquered rival ideologies and is “the final form of human government.”

His argument provided academic support for the claims by Bush and others that the American way had not only won the Cold War, but now reigns supreme. The conclusion that U.S.style liberal democracy constitutes, in Fukuyama’s words, “the end point in mankind’s ideological evolution” may also have encouraged the reduction of political debate to “platitudes and mindless insults.”

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION

Britons traditionally vote in national elections in higher proportions than Americans. The percentage turnouts in the 1987 British general election and the 1988 U.S. presidential election:

Fukuyama now has expanded and elaborated his argument in a new book, The End of History and the Last Man. He suggests that the human impulse to excel will overcome any decline into what earlier philosophers describe as “the last man”—the world citizen resulting from the triumph of liberal democracy, who will be a spiritless consumer without ambition beyond promoting his own self-interest.

But Fukuyama’s implicit contention that the argument over political ideology is now complete may be no more durable than the older forms of organizing societies that the BritishAmerican-French model is said to have overcome. Indeed, Fukuyama’s ideas are already the target of attacks by political scientists and philosophers. Scholar Alan Ryan, a specialist in American liberalism at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., savagely assailed Fukuyama’s arguments in a recent article in The New York Review of Books as “a string of op-ed speculations.”

And even before that, Fukuyama’s 1989 article was dismissed by political philosopher Tom Darby at Ottawa’s Carleton University because it has become “an apology for a particular ideology.” In the 1990 edition of his study on the issue, The Feast: Meditations on Politics and Time, Darby shows no mercy for capitalist liberal democracy or any rival, stating that “there are no winners” and that “ideologies now can be seen for what they have been all along: fraudulent excuses for the use or abuse of power.”

There is other evidence that politics, despite its current low ebb and with or without ideologies, is not beyond fundamental future change. In Washington last week, Nancy Amidei, head of the Coalition on Human Needs, an alliance of antipoverty groups, remarked that “the tendency in this campaign is to talk about poor people as if they are the problem—there is a lot of welfare bashing, poor-people bashing.” The richest 2.5 million Americans now have almost as much income as the bottom 100 million. In Canada, according to the latest statistics, in 1990 the richest 5.4 million people share $43.30 out of every $100 in total personal income; the poorest 5.4 million of the population share $4.70.

The sternest threat to middle-class politics may well be impoverishment—deepened by economic depression—in the transatlantic world. Fukuyama himself acknowledges that stable liberal democracies have not been free of serious social problems, and he adds that they result from “incomplete implementation of the twin principles of liberty and equality on which modem democracy is founded.”

CARL MOLLINS