The Difference Between Political and Partisan


Before I launch into this post, I want to give credit where credit is due. A bit of political sense emerged from the Toronto mayor’s office this past week.

The City of Toronto’s arms length organization, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, is in the process of selling 900 homes in the city. The real estate deal could net the city as much as $400 million. As Toronto faces a 2012 budget shortfall of nearly $800 million, and as mayor Ford is hamstrung by campaign promises to cut taxes while engaging in “no major service cuts”, that big wad of cash sure looked tasty. Indeed, Ford said so himself:

“Obviously, we need the money to fund next year’s budget,” Ford said.


But later that day, Ford’s hand-picked advisor who is running TCHC, corrected him. Case Ootes said that the $400 million was already spoken for. It had to be applied to the $647 million backlog of repairs required by the housing units remaining in TCHC’s possession. And, wonder of wonders, Ford agreed with him:

“We need these houses repaired and I fully support (Ootes’) recommendation to use all revenues from the sale of these homes for capital repairs,” Ford stated.


This is a very good thing (and it couldn’t have been easy, either, given the amount of cash involved). Finally — finally! — somebody told a political leader that revenues raised from the sale of capital assets are one-time infusions of cash that can only be appropriately spent on one-time rebates, or on other capital expenditures, and not on year-to-year operating expenses. Hallelujah! Fantastic! That is far, far better than how Ernie Eves and Mike Harris dealt with the sale of Highway 407 (using the one-time cash infusion to claim they’d balanced the budget). Too often, governments intent on cutting taxes without cutting services look towards selling the fridge to pay for food. The mayor’s office didn’t do this. And this gives me a modicum of hope for the future. There are some sensible advisors in the team (not just Ootes; I appreciate the work budget chief Mike Del Grande is doing in trying to close the gap), and Ford is willing to listen to them. We need more like this, please.

On a different but related subject, Sandy Crux of Crux of the Matter has rejoined the Blogging Alliance of Non-Partisan Canadians after spending some time with the Blogging Tories. In our e-mail conversation during her request to join, she said something that got me thinking. We’d talked a bit about the rough-and-tumble nature of the political blogosphere, and whether or not it was possible to get away from it all. One line she said stood out, and I hope she won’t mind if I quote it:

Regarding being apolitical, I understand. The truth is none of us are completely non-partisan. We all have a world view that comes through whether we like it or not.

After thinking about this for a couple of weeks, I have to disagree with the statement. But the root of the disagreement comes with how you choose to define non-partisan.

I have been told on numerous occasions that it is impossible to be non-partisan, and that everybody has political thoughts of one form or another. The latter part of that statement is undeniably true. I think the mistake comes in thinking that being political and being partisan are the same thing.

Now, I should point out that my own criteria for membership in the Blogging Alliance of Non-Partisan Canadians itself doesn’t fit my definition of non-partisan. I only set up this blog aggregator to provide a home for bloggers of various political stripes (or, without any political stripes) who wanted the benefits that aggregator links provide but who, for one reason or another, did not want to belong to the various partisan blogging aggregators that were materializing (the Blogging Tories, the Libloggers, the Blogging NDP, et cetera). Under this criteria, I could and did gain members who were card carrying members of the various parties.

But to be truly non-partisan is to belong to no party, and it is entirely possible to be that, and be political, because political thoughts and partisan actions are two different things.

Everybody is political. That was drilled into me straight from Political Science 101 (okay, maybe the professor in question had a bit of a bias there), but there’s nothing wrong with being political. Being political is simply a matter of having an opinion, and working with others to act on that opinion. I as an individual have a right to an opinion about what I believe the goals of society should be, and how society should marshall its scarce resources towards meetings those goals. As I am an individual, it is almost certain that should I encounter another individual, my opinions about what we should do and how we should do it will differ from their opinions about what we should do and how we should do it. As we are both individuals within society, we’re going to have to find a way to work out those differences and come up with a common policy.

That’s true and basic politics. It occurs every time two or more individuals meet to decide upon something, from foreign policy to what roads should be built where, to what we should have for lunch. As we are all individuals entitled to our own opinions, and as we share the society in which we live, the meeting of minds that takes place in working out these differences of opinion is not just inevitable, it’s a necessary component of our democracy without which civil society wouldn’t exist.

So I am political. I have opinions. I believe that we as a society need to invest more in education and in public transportation. I believe that governments should be open, accountable and as transparent as possible. I believe that, after building and maintaining the infrastructure that sustains us, our governments should leave us alone as much as possible. I believe we should balance our budgets when possible, and that good, effective and efficient government costs money, and if we want it, we have to pay for it.

All of that makes me political. Does that make me partisan? No.

Because being partisan refers specifically to a subset of politics. This occurs when groups of individuals, having agreed to a set of basic goals for society, now band together into a party to advocate for those goals. It seems a natural component of our society; individuals seem to like to group. But the paradox of this activity (and it happens throughout all aspects of society), is that by joining such groups, individuals often subsume elements of their own individuality. They hold opinions that are at odds with the opinions of the wider group, but they set these opinions aside to focus on their common goals. I would argue that the willingness individuals have for subsuming their individuality into the group (and the individual’s underlying reasons for doing so) defines just how partisan they are.

It’s no surprise to me that we have political parties. We get more done if we work together in groups than if we struggle along individually. The question is, why did you join the political party? Why are you staying in the political party? Are you advocating for the political party’s policies because you yourself believe in them and have come up with a rational argument for believing in them? Or are you advocating for the political party’s policies because the political party advocates for them? That’s the litmus test.

I consider myself non-partisan because I haven’t belonged to a political party in roughly eighteen years (my last political affair was with Mel Hurtig’s Nationals. It didn’t end well). I have a set of political opinions that I believe strongly in (I’ve explained some of what they are above). I believe that most, if not all, of these came about through my own life experience. I’ve been trained as an urban planner; I spent most of my formative years living in downtown Toronto not needing to drive. I flourished in school and have seen what a good education can do. I’ve relied on our health care system, and I’m grateful for the fact that I’m still financially solvent in the aftermath.

Various political parties may have put forward and pushed for the things I believe in, but I generally don’t defend my opinions by saying “the X party believes…” Parties may be advocating for policies that I strongly believe in; I may decide to vote for them, and defend my vote, on that basis, but all the mainstream parties have advocated for things I believe in. And as you saw above, I’m not afraid to complement the good in a party that I otherwise often disagree with.

Partisanship also varies considerably between individuals who actually join political parties. Individuals may find that a particular party’s goals so closely match their own that joining is a natural fit. That doesn’t necessarily make them partisan. Others may have only a small number of goals that they care about, which are advocated by a particular party, and they in turn complete the exchange by advocating for the party’s wider goals in order to further the narrow ones that really interest them. It’s difficult to measure how far individuals go with this, but you can see the difference. Compare Dan Arnold of Calgary Grit to Stephen Taylor.

Stephen Taylor has worked hard for the Conservative party. He helped establish the Blogging Tories and he is a tireless campaigner for the cause. I have no doubt that he believes strongly in what he advocates. It may be unfair of me to compare him to Dan Arnold, but I must, because Dan Arnold is possibly the most non-partisan Liberal partisan, or partisan of any party, that I know. His blog, Calgary Grit offers insight into that rare creature: an Albertan Liberal. Maybe in dealing with this upbringing, a sense of humour, a mild disposition and a sense of pragmatism is a necessary survival skill, but it certainly makes for an interesting read. Dan is not afraid to criticize his own party when they screw up, or complement the other parties when they do something well. His assessment of political outcomes seems almost separated from his own personal decision to vote Liberal.

I’m quite comfortable sharing a beer with Stephen Taylor, and would dearly love to share a beer with Dan Arnold as well. And I respect both men immensely. But while I would go to Stephen Taylor to see Conservative policy strongly argued and well advocated, I’d go to Dan Arnold for a more honest assessment for the pros and cons of any party’s policy. Stephen Taylor is unquestionably committed to the values he believes in and he pushes those values; Dan Arnold, while himself committed to pushing his own beliefs, is able to take a step back, accept constructive criticism and use it rationally to alter and improve his own views. That’s the difference between being partisan and being political.

If you choose to join the Blogging Alliance of Non-Partisan Canadians, you have to accept the fact that there are a lot of political people here who will challenge your arguments and question your assumptions. That is the natural day-to-day activity of a healthy democracy. Such activity in and of itself does not make one partisan. The question in defining how partisan a person is (or how partisan you are), is what arguments you build to defend your beliefs. Have you really thought things through? Can you logically argue from A to B on your own, or do you fall back on your political party’s talking points?

We are all political inside, but whether or not we’re partisan depends on how we answer the question above.

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