Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Tyranny Of Conformity

Yesterday, KirbyCairo wrote another of his thought-provoking posts, this one on the current plight of the federal NDP and its search for renewal. That prospect is dim, Kirby says, unless the party can break free from what he calls the top-down party structure and its inability to address issues that matter to Canadians. It is a plaint that was also echoed, but with a different emphasis, in a piece by Thomas Walkon in yesterday's Star. And now, the former NDP candidate for Toronto Centre, Linda McQuaig, writes about the tyranny of conformity imposed upon political candidates.

First, some background. You may remember this moment of frankness from the last federal campaign, (start at the five-minute mark on the video) and the fireworks that ensued:

In her column today, McQuaig discusses why she entered the political arena:
I ran (unsuccessfully) as the federal NDP candidate in Toronto Centre in the 2013 byelection and again in 2015, with the dream of putting into action progressive ideas I’d championed as a journalist. In jumping into politics, I realized I was giving up some of the freedom I’d enjoyed as a columnist and author to become part of a team with a collective message.
What conclusions did she draw from those experiences?
... it strikes me that the iron hand of party discipline — by which all three of our major political parties keep tight control on their messaging — can also have the effect of limiting debate and discouraging independent thinking, to the detriment of our democratic system.
It was a fact brought home to her by her experience depicted in the above video showing how her honesty was used against her:
Out of the blue, ... [Michelle] Rempel was trying to goad me into saying something negative about the oilsands.

I knew I was supposed to “pivot” — that is, deftly switch to something in line with party messaging.

Host Rosemary Barton sided with Rempel and pushed me for an answer.

So — to pivot or not to pivot? If I didn’t pivot, I knew I’d be stepping into a trap laid by Conservative strategists to portray the NDP as anti-development. But if I did pivot, I felt somehow I’d be betraying the planet.

After a split second in which I saw my political life pass in front of me, I decided to side with the planet, saying “a lot of the oilsands oil may have to stay in the ground if we’re going to meet our climate change targets.”
The ensuing ado included being predictably pounced upon by Harper, as well as other Conservatives and Liberals, including future prime minister Justin Trudeau, who denounced my “extreme” position.

Others recognized it as a mere statement of fact, but, of course, facts seem to have little relevance or value in political campaigns.

Citing Susan Delacourt, McQuaig says the experience
seemed to reinforce the case for tight political messaging based on the rule, as reported by Susan Delacourt in her book Shopping for Votes: “Do not talk of sacrifice, collective good, facts, problems or debate.”

In other words, avoid complexity and controversy — or anything else that assumes the voter is capable of accepting the responsibility of citizenship.
Much to her credit, the journalist questions whether this is the right way to go.

The pressure to conform and adopt a 'group-think' mentality is one of the chief reasons I have avoided being involved in groups for most of my life. I am glad that Linda McQuaig recognizes that such constraints are not for her. Her voice is much stronger, more appreciated and more effective as a journalist seeking to be a constructive contributor to some much-needed national debate than as a mouthpiece for a political party. We are all the better for it.


  1. McQuaig faced the central test all politicians face, Lorne. She passed. She refused to sell her soul.

    1. You've nailed it, Owen. Clearly, McQuaig is not fit to be a politician. She is much better than that.