The election of Thomas Mulcair as NDP leader (and leader of Canada's official opposition) this past weekend has been rightly observed by most as a preference for power over principle. Brian Dijkema has already argued in this space that Mulcair's victory was part of the "mass migration to the politics of the middle." There is, however, another way of looking at it.
Was it a choice between power over principle, or was it an acknowledgment that the politics of incrementalism is the only way to implement principle in our post-ideological age? Was it perhaps an implicit recognition of the limits of politics and the fact that our political leaders can only work within the framework of a cultural consensus?
There is a sense in which Mr. Mulcair's challenge isn't that different from that which Prime Minister Stephen Harper faced over the previous decade. On his road to power, Mr. Harper had to overcome the fear of a hidden "scary agenda," generally understood to include social conservative priorities on marriage and life issues. In order to overcome public skittishness regarding these issues, Mr. Harper made absolute pronouncements that he would have nothing to do with this agenda. By and large, the social conservatives have stayed with him, not having anywhere else to go. There are, arguably, very small incremental policies put into place which may appease this constituency, but it continues to be clear that for this government, social conservative issues are politically toxic.
But there are stranded idealists in both parties. Those in the NDP who are proud of the label "socialist" are soon to find themselves in a similar position within their own party. (It should be remembered that only a decade ago, the party dealt with a "New Politics Initiative" which advocated a hard left turn for the party. One-third of delegates to the 2001 convention supported this direction and the profile leaders of that movement remain active in the party today.) The party needs them and their commitment, so will do its best to find ways to throw a bone or three their way, but if the agenda is getting power, socialists are to the NDP what so-cons are to the Conservatives—"scary agenda" baggage that does not sell well publicly. Mr. Mulcair is likely to do with them what Mr. Harper did with the so-cons.
These largely ignored constituencies will tell you it's not a fun place to be. They are forced to stay friends with those in power, selling loyalty for only the solace of a small bone from time to time. The alternative is undignified marginalization, cast off as a political nuisance irrelevant to the real pursuit of power.
For those who look for their answers from politics, all of this is very disillusioning. It is equally disheartening for those who loftily uphold concepts such as justice, freedom, and equality, and seek to have them realized through politics. However, if the maxim is true that politics follows culture and that in a democratic system, what is politically possible is only what has been made culturally legitimate, the impact may be to direct those "true believers"—whether they be socialists or so-cons—to their more important task.
If you want to see your beliefs put into practice in a democratic system, you need to win the hearts and minds of enough of your neighbours that your ideas become politically acceptable. This is primarily a cultural, not a political task. But for now and the foreseeable future at least, socialists and so-cons are in the same boat as they assess what next steps they might pursue to see their ideas reflected in public policy.