If political principle has left the party, where has it gone?

We are now well acquainted with the fact that Canadian political parties have drained the clear water of principle from the House of Commons and left it a swampy cesspool of power and pandering. Ray Pennings notes that "Political parties have become marketing machines with the single-minded purpose of protecting and promoting the brand under which political activists will compete for election." Andrew Coyne, continuing the theme, states:

We are on the verge of fulfilling the dream of generations of strategists and political operatives: a politics drained of any remaining differences between the parties, or indeed ideas of any kind... [Parties are now] chasing the same polls, jumping to the same commands, animated by the same random populism, but purged of any lingering concern with principle, or as it is now called, "purism."

That last sentence is intriguing less because "random populism" is a worthy basis for executive or any other sort of power, and more for what it says about where principle is hiding in politics these days.

I say hiding, because the fact that modern political parties (and yes, we can absolutely include the Democrats and Republicans or the Tories and Labour) have abandoned political principle doesn't mean our political culture is suddenly less principled. Why? Because you can't do politics without some basis in principle. Think of it as the first law of politics: principle is invariably conserved. The fact that it's left the parties simply means it's gone elsewhere.

In a democracy, the source of principle is, supposedly, found in those who choose their legislators. In other words, if parties are suddenly without principle, it seems as much an indictment of those who elect them—us—as it does of those who need those votes to get elected.

There was a time, not so long ago, where a party which didn't live up to its principles would lose members or, if it was in government, be turfed out (peacefully or otherwise) by an electorate who actually cared for principles. Nowadays? Omnibus bills? Meh. Complete ignorance of the principles of responsible government by all parties? Meh. Free speech in the House of Commons, or in the public? Meh. Tell me how the economy's doing, and pass me my sweeties and my big screen. The game's on.

The fact that the power we're concerned with is fluffy and soft rather than sharp and pointed doesn't change anything. We are the Machiavellians, devoid of principle, unconcerned with virtue and concerned only with power.