Political scientist and professional LinkedIn provocateur Ian Bremmer recently quipped:
I’m nowhere near confident enough about the universality of my political preferences to announce that I’m a liberal or a conservative. I wish more people felt that way. Not because it’s “right.” But because I think we’d be happier.
Mr Bremmer is, of course, right; we would be happier. But the quip belies a deeper truth: partisanship is killing the development of good policy.
Democracy is, to some extent, built on a marketplace of ideas. Ideas are formed, the principles are debated, the details are massaged, the framework is drafted into bills, and the laws pass through the legislature.
Partisanship stifles innovative policy thought; our ability to develop and pass creative solutions to complex problems becomes limited by whether it is associated with a particular agenda or party. Identity politics often play a key role.
Hyper-partisanship and petty point-scoring is a particular feature of the American system, but it is increasingly being felt elsewhere, from Britain to Brazil (though Brexit has been the exception which proves the rule, with ‘remain’ centrists from the Conservatives decidedly uneasy with the change agenda, and ‘leave’ socialists from Labour all-too-eager to be done with the European experiment).
So what is the remedy? Realistically, an element of partisanship is always going to be a feature of parliamentary or representative democracy. But incrementally shifting from purely partisan thinking in policy development should allow the space for better policy.
Think independently: Each of us can take a step back and consider ‘do I really think this, or do I think it because I think this is how I am supposed to think?’ (Sorry. Read that twice). Realistically, very few of us have views that are perfectly aligned to the party who we may be voting for. So why not say so? Slavishly following party lines is what has got us into this mess. If you vote for ‘Party X’ but think that their ‘Policy Y’ is bollocks, say so! Why fight about it with your mate from ‘Party Z’ just because you feel it is your duty? It is not ‘right’ simply because you happened to vote for them (or worse: read their affiliated newspaper).
Policy institutes: Strong independent policy institutes and think-tanks can help. That said, the role of dark money funding these institutes in accordance with political and economic agendas are always a watch-out. A wider role for law reform commissions could be an important feature of a de-partisan landscape.
Grand Coalitions? Minority or coalition governments from both Australia and Britain have shown that sensible and practical policy decisions can be made and passed by minority or coalition governments (e.g. Australia’s NDIS was formed in minority government and with cross-party consent). The rise of third (or minor) party forces in parliaments may result in better decision-making; certainly breaking a party duopoly (even a little) should help.
Citizen initiated referenda? Sometimes an uneasy fit with representative democracy, and not always the most considered path to good policy-making, but citizen-initiated referenda can be a way to break through the partisan deadlock or stale dialogue.
Select and elect more independently-minded parliamentarians: This may be pie-in-the-sky stuff, but the shift from hyper-partisanism to considered policy-making requires individuals whose commitment to good policy is higher than their loyalty to their party. This one is probably too idealistic for the short term – but a guy can always hope!