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The New Democratic Party, Debating Its Old Name, Should Think More Globally

August 6, 2009

After nearly fifty years, it seems that the New Democratic Party has finally come of age. Among the burning questions to be discussed at the party’s upcoming convention in Halifax is that of whether to drop the word “New” and proceed as the Democratic Party. My immediate reaction was that it would be a shame to lose one of the venerable old party names in Canadian politics – which probably indicates in itself that change is overdue.

This would not be a matter for us internationally-minded Canada’s Worlders, except that some commentators have been quick to notice that the United States already has a Democratic Party. The significance of this, however, is somewhat disputed. Party activist Ian Capstick has sensibly pointed out that no one is likely to confuse Jack Layton with US President Barack Obama.

Nevertheless, the Globe’s editorialists suggest that the name change “would be an awkward attempt to take advantage of Barack Obama’s popularity” and would even be disingenuous in linking the no-longer-NDP to America’s Democrats. Lawrence Martin, in the same paper, seems to think that a bit of linkage would be just the thing, and gushes enthusiastically that the name change would be “like a fresh coat of paint”. How inspiring.

What this debate highlights is the lamentable myopia of the Canadian media. We Canucks sometimes enjoy mocking Americans who think the United States is the only country worth paying attention to, but many Canadian journalists seem to think there are exactly two countries deserving of such notice – the United States and Canada. Nobody worries unduly about whether Michael Ignatieff is distinguishable from Malcom Turnbull of the Liberal Party of Australia (although the answer is probably yes) or whether Stephen Harper is illegitimately taking advantage of the popularity of the UK Conservatives.

Names of political parties tend to be rather unoriginal the wide world over, and coming up with a good one that isn’t in use anywhere else is hardly a trivial task. A few minutes with Wikipedia reveals Democratic Parties in Uganda, Argentina and Mongolia, among others, and even New Democratic Parties in Albania, Sri Lanka and the Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. (Although it looks as though ours might just be the oldest New Democratic Party in the world.)

Accordingly, I think it’s silly to use the existence of a Democratic Party in the United States as an argument either for or against renaming our NDP. However, the folks at the Globe also make a much better point, which is that “Democratic Party” is awfully generic. Do we have any parties in Canada that don’t espouse democracy? They suggest that the New Democratic Party become the Social Democratic Party of Canada, which is at least substantive and distinctive. I personally think it would be nice if Layton and the gang could find a way to keep the NDP acronym, for example by becoming the National Democratic Party. No, wait a minute, that will never do – there’s already one in Egypt.


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9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2009 7:11 pm

    From the moment I heard the NDP was considering changing their name, I thought the “Social Democratic Party” would be a better choice because in terms of branding, it allies them more closely with the largely successful social democratic governments of Europe. Ideologically, they are already nearly identical with parties like the SDP of Germany, the Danish Social Democrats or Sweden’s Social Democratic Party – all of which have held power in those countries for extended periods of time and have been quite good at it.

    By drawing even a superficial perceptual connection with European social democracies, it might actually get people thinking about them as a viable potential federal government instead of our principled but slightly scary opposition.

  2. August 13, 2009 4:10 am

    Your point about “dogmatic archaisms” is interesting. Do you think there’s some specific document “authored over 250 years ago” that explains America’s aversion to socialism?

    Now this discussion will take us off into a very different concern. Perhaps I could direct you to a post I had made previously.

    Thank you.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      August 13, 2009 10:55 am

      I think there’s a large kernel of truth in your blog post. It’s possible to make too much of Canada’s “peace, order and good government” vs. America’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, but the two phrases really do capture a difference in sensibilities.

      However, I feel entitled to complain about your arithmetic. The American Revolution was less than 250 years ago!

  3. August 12, 2009 2:35 pm

    Great blog post by Doug McArthur on the more substantive changes the NDP needs to make:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Doug – if these more substantive changes aren’t made, the name change will seem trivial and be greeted with cynicism.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      August 13, 2009 11:16 am

      A lot of people seem to be saying that the NDP needs to change more than its name, but there’s clearly a lot of room for disagreement on the nature of the changes. Doug McArthur seems to think the party essentially needs to move closer to the centre ground of Canadian politics, which of course is already a mightily crowded piece of real estate.

      David Goutor, writing in the Toronto Star, advocates the polar opposite: he wants to see bolder policy positions, starting with a call for withdrawal (almost immediate, one presumes) from Afghanistan.

      For what it’s worth, I like a couple of McArthur’s suggestions, like disconnecting organisationally from the unions and reining in the Israel-bashers, but in general my perspective is closer to Goutor’s. Especially in the wake of the financial crisis, there’s plenty of room for a strong Canadian voice advocating more government involvement in the economy (as opposed to McArthur’s talk of curing “anti-business” instincts) and less reliance on trade and partnership with America.

      Those positions would fit the NDP like a glove, if the party could only be bold enough to advocate them with something like passion and conviction. I might even consider voting for them, especially if they dropped the UN-worship and slavish adherence to political correctness while they were at it.

  4. August 12, 2009 4:02 am

    On the other hand, I think “social capitalist” would strike many people as the worst political oxymoron since “progressive conservative”. And if democracy “fundamentally underscores our lives”, so does capitalism, for better or worse. We can have more or less democracy, or more or less capitalism, but both concepts are going to be central to life in Canada for the foreseeable future.

    Excellent point, and with that you’ve exposed the limit of my spin-doctoring abilities.

    To some degree my suggestion probably had its origins in my discussion with Americans, who to this day stand vigil, arms in hand, ready to fight the socialist/communist menace. If that sounds ridiculous, feel free to visit any number of neocon websites.

    Their lunacy astounds, and for what little I could think to bolster the progressive movement down there, it occurred to me that softening the emphasis on ‘social’ and the incumbent attitude of unfettered social spending, might make the whole collective concept more palatable.

    Yes, you can ask what relevance does American thinking have to Canadian politics, but I must confess that there are far too many reasonable Americans, forever shaking their heads, at the inappropriateness engendered by dogmatic archaisms (largely authored over 250 years ago).

    Keep in mind; it may very well be OUR social mechanisms (public healthcare, etc) that they emulate in the future. Even if we are only one-tenth their size, it may be that we can influence them. God knows they affect us.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      August 12, 2009 1:00 pm

      Yes, I lived in America for long enough to appreciate just how much ideological opposition to anything that smacks of socialism exists on their side of the border. I suppose it would be sort of gratifying for Canadians if they moderated this tendency enough to get the government more involved in health care, or do something about the state of their public schools.

      On the other hand, I don’t think Canada should actively encourage the United States to move in this direction, on the theory that we have little business telling America or any other nation how to run its own domestic affairs. And I certainly wouldn’t want to see any Canadian political party choose its name based on the sensibilities of the American public. We need to maintain some elbow room, and give them some in return.

      Your point about “dogmatic archaisms” is interesting. Do you think there’s some specific document “authored over 250 years ago” that explains America’s aversion to socialism?

      Anyway, I don’t know why your original comment on this post disappeared. I don’t think it was anything I did. Here it is again, so that others can read it.


      Joe Egerszegi said previously:

      I think the whole ‘Democrat’ thing is irrelevant: democracy fundamentally underscores our lives, and in the world’s eye it should be synonymous with Canada, or any other western democracy.

      By my thinking, it would be much more descriptive to emphasize the social capitalist philosophy, whereby we’re all too clear on what capitalism is, and we’d like to temper its rapaciousness with a social conscience, and arguably this has been the NDP’s focus, certainly as witnessed by its creation of medicare, etc.

      While the inclusion of the word ‘capitalist’ might start some long-time NDPers, it would go a long way to distance itself from the economically untenable socialism, and the still eviller communism (as we know those to those to the south of us think).

      Canada is painfully centre-line, and it’s a balance we constantly strive for. The ‘Social Capitalist’ moniker simply gives this balance recognition, which the NDP could take advantage of.

  5. corsullivan permalink*
    August 11, 2009 1:34 pm

    Thanks for the comment, and I certainly see your point. The NDP has never really argued for a purely socialist economy – they just want to shift the balance a little further towards the socialist extreme (entirely healthy, in my view). A name like “Social Capitalist Party” would acknowledge this.

    On the other hand, I think “social capitalist” would strike many people as the worst political oxymoron since “progressive conservative”. And if democracy “fundamentally underscores our lives”, so does capitalism, for better or worse. We can have more or less democracy, or more or less capitalism, but both concepts are going to be central to life in Canada for the foreseeable future.

    I think the NDP would be relatively safe as the “Social Democratic Party”, the “Solidarity Party”, or even the “Socialist Party of Canada”. None of those names would necessarily imply that they want to abandon capitalism entirely, and the last one in particular would have the virtue of boldness. We Canadians can be rather timid in our political discourse, especially compared to some European countries.

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