There was a day when belonging to a political party meant something. It was a way of expressing, however vaguely, something of what you aspired for your country, what the good life was like. These days the life is being squeezed out of the party.
The point of this post is not to nostalgically lament for days when political parties were the epitome of philosophical purity. Those were rare. The attainment of power has always been the objective of the political party and the adjective has always been operational in the process of compromise which is so characteristic of the noun. Neither is it a complaint that negative ads, centralized databases, voter suppression and mobilization strategies, and rigid talking points make for lousy campaigns. They do, but in politics you do what works. But put it all together, and the institution of the political party has been debased to a glorified set of social networks, historic loyalties, or present self-interest, all united under a particular sign colour.
Last week, the Manning Center (which has been identified by some as a think tank tied to the Conservatives, although they are formally an independent entity) released their State of the Conservative Movement. It celebrated conservative-minded parties presently holding 47% of the seats in provincial and federal legislatures and mused about what this meant about people's changing expectations of government. I found it curious scanning the document that a judgement had been made qualifying the BC Liberal party as a conservative party (although some in the province evidently don't agree as a new Conservative Party is being formed) while the Quebec Liberal party did not make the cut. The growing influence of think tanks like the Manning Center is perhaps best highlighted by noting that the N.D.P. recently decided to set up their own Broadbent Foundation while some in the Liberal Party are actively organizing their own think tank as well. Evidently the parties themselves have come to realize that developing policy ideas and cultivating a movement are assignments they are no longer capable of performing.
The point is not that think tanks trump political parties. Rather, the point is that labels in the political process are often misleading and confusing, and the political party, once an institution which was the "caretaker" of a set of political principles, has morphed into something else. It is still a necessary and important institution, but the modern political party is more about brand—a means of organizing and articulating leadership around a set of practical policies—than it is about any coherence. It is a process-driven structure, not an ideas-inspired organism.
One can lament this development or accept it as the redistribution of tasks between social institutions. Ideas remain a part of politics as much (or little, depending on the rigour of your philosophic lens) as they ever have been. It is just that one should not look to the political party to generate them. It is just another way in which our social architecture is changing.