[David Koyzis is a Global Scholar with Global Scholars Canada and has a PhD in government and international studies from the University of Notre Dame. He’s the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. The following transcript has been edited for space and clarity.]
The American Commons: Good afternoon. How are you, Dr. Koyzis?
Koyzis: Hello! Good to be here.
The American Commons: Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us today.
The American Commons: Now, there are plenty of things that we would like to ask you about, but we would also love to give you space to talk about some things that you don’t necessarily get a chance to talk about in other venues. Before we get into our questions, are there any specific issues that you would like to talk about?
Koyzis: Given that this publication is oriented around the development of a new, alternative political party, maybe we should talk about the defects of these existing parties. I’ve been saying for years that the Democratic and Republican Parties have become diseased parodies of their former selves. All the worst elements within them have come to the surface, and all of the things that were flaws for decades, have now overtaken the parties, and made them very unhealthy. And it makes the country – it’s only serving to exacerbate existing divisions within the country, and they seem to be making no effort to try and bring reconciliation or to try and bring Americans together.
The American Commons: You talk about that a little bit in a few of your books – Right Wing liberalism vs. Left Wing liberalism.
Koyzis: Yeah, they’re both versions of liberalism. The thing that always put me off about the Republican party is that the libertarian economic elements have been too dominant. That seems to have been the case since at least the 1960s. Not much before that, as far as I can remember. The Democrats have become the party of “personal identity” and “lifestyle choices” and so forth, without much regard for the larger community. So both parties, in some respects, are pushing different sides of the individualist philosophy, and they’re pushing it in very negative directions. And if enough people can be convinced that these parties, at this point, maybe can’t be salvaged anymore, then maybe an alternative would be better. Perhaps that’s the place to start.
Now, I have to be careful here, because I’m a dual citizen – I was born in the United States, but I’ve been a Canadian citizen for the last quarter of a century. I was born just across the street from Chicago. I grew up in the Chicago area as well, although you probably wouldn’t detect it much in my accent, because I haven’t lived there for the better part of 50 years, now.
But I still love the country of my birth. Sometimes I go back and it seems foreign – like a different place from the one I left behind many years ago. Both my wife and I have roots in the States – she was born in Long Island, New York. Our daughter was born here, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, but she also has U.S. Citizenship through her parents. So we’re a binational family.
I worry, in some respects, that Canada is rejecting the best features of the British Constitution and adopting the worst features of the American system. So I have worries for both countries!
The American Commons: That’s truly interesting, because a lot of folks over here think of Canada as “America in 20 years.” They see some of the stuff that happens in Canada and think, “We’re probably a couple of decades behind that.” But you think that a lot of Canada’s troubles come from imitating elements of the American system?
Koyzis: Oh, definitely. And that’s been going on for a long time. In some respects, it may be that we’re ahead in terms of secularization. You know, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest protestant denomination in the United States, and that says something about the United States. In Canada, though, the largest Protestant denomination – at least historically speaking – and this is probably by taking inactive membership statistics, as well–is the United Church of Canada. Which is a kind of, once historically big, combined Protestant denomination that brought together most of the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Congregationalists in 1925. And it’s lost its sense of identity – it’s lost its Christian identity very largely – but that’s supposedly the largest protestant denomination in Canada. And that, in itself, probably indicates that Canada is more secularized than the United States.
But in other kinds of trends, we’re constantly imitating America.
The American Commons: What kinds of imitations have you seen, with Canada channeling America?
Koyzis: One example would be that, prior to 1919, the leader of a political party was elected by his parliamentary caucus. In other words, those members of parliament who were members of that party–they were the ones who elected the leader. And that changed in 1919 when the leader of the Liberal Party, Sir Wilfred Laurier, died suddenly before there was supposed to be a party convention, so they decided, “Why not let the convention select the leader?” We’ve been doing that ever since then. Now there’s an effort to try to make this kind of a grassroots selection, in the same way that Americans have been doing since 1968 – since the reforms implemented after 1968.
The American Commons: After the death of Robert Kennedy?
Koyzis: Yeah. Now, I am definitely in favor of democracy, but I think it’s also possible to push democracy too far, to overly democratize a political system. And that’s the upshot of chapter five, in my book Political Visions and Illusions.
Obviously, the American Solidarity Party is still small, so it’s early to have that kind of a conversation for a party like the ASP, but with respect to the Democrats and Republicans, I think this idea of “the people” somehow electing a leader of a party gives the advantage to would-be Napoleonic type figures who are insufficiently accountable to anybody. See, in the old days, in Canada, the Prime Minister had to look out for his parliamentary caucus. But now, in Canada, we have Prime Ministerial politics instead of Cabinet government. And that’s not the way it was supposed to be, but that’s the way that it has turned out.
And so you get people like Donald Trump, who is probably a narcissist of some sort, and who doesn’t even make an effort to unite the country beyond his own support base. But I also think that, even with his predecessor, Barack Obama, there were so many people back in 2008 saying, “This is the savior of the country!” It’s still this Napoleonic attitude towards the President. And I think that’s very unhealthy.
The American Commons: So you think that a lot of that roots back to the shift away from smoke-filled rooms and into the primary process?
Koyzis: Yeah. The smoke-filled rooms served a purpose, because they were an avenue whereby local officials and party functionaries would vet a candidate before he was presented to the public. And that stage has been largely removed from the process for the last 50 years. And I think Jimmy Carter, he was fairly ineffectual – a very good man, I like him personally; I heard him speak about 30 years ago in Atlanta, and I found him quite impressive as a speaker – but as a President, though, he had no connection with Congress. It was very difficult for him to govern, because he was this lone figure who was parachuted in and expected to govern in a system that is set up to disperse power.
So, this is the sort of thing that concerns me about the direction of American politics. The sort of figures that the 18th century founders would have blanched at putting in power, these are the kinds of people that are increasingly coming to office in the United States.
The American Commons: And so, as things have shifted in Canada to imitate the American electoral system, have you seen more figures like that? Have you had your own Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene types and so forth?
Koyzis: Not so much, but Justin Trudeau – who is the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau – comes to mind. He wants to be a nice guy. He wants to be liked by everybody. In some ways, I think he would make a better Governor General, who represents the queen. He likes the photo-ops, and so forth. But at the same time, he also said that “pro-lifers” would no longer be allowed in the Liberal Party parliamentary caucus. They would not be nominated for seats in the House of Commons. And he also tied the reception of government money for a summer student work programs to acceptance by the recipient organization of “a woman’s right to choose,” on the abortion issue. And he cited the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which nowhere mentions a “woman’s right to an abortion.” But he got away with it because there’s insufficient accountability. The Prime Minister is not being held sufficiently accountable to his parliamentary caucus. The people, as a grassroots entity, are powerless. They can’t hold a party leader accountable in between conventions.
The American Commons: So the more grassroots the process of selecting a candidate becomes, the less actual power the grassroots have.
Koyzis: Exactly. This is something that was understood by Calvin, by Aquinas, by Althusius – all the classic political theorists. I think even the American Founders and the Canadian Fathers of Confederation, too, understood that for a system to be balanced, you can’t just have one person who’s going to govern on behalf of the people. It’s better to have officials who represent different segments of the body politic, of the electorate, who can hold other officials accountable. And that’s what the smoke-filled rooms did back in the old days.
And things have developed such that Truman and Roosevelt would never recognize today’s Democratic Party. Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower would not recognize today’s Republican Party. I don’t think they would like it. This is why, for something like the American Solidarity Party, it’s really important to try and reach out and connect with as many people as possible. Because I think there’s a crisis right now. And what happened in Washington on the 6th of January is just the tip of the iceberg. Things could get quite a bit worse with the current divisiveness in the American body politic.
The American Commons: On the subject of cultivating third parties – like the American Solidarity Party – can I read something to you, which you wrote a few years back in Comment Magazine?
Koyzis: Of course.
The American Commons: You said:
“Two decades ago a small number of mostly Reformed Christians in Canada established the Christian Heritage Party (CHP), which over the course of five federal elections has failed to come close to winning even a single seat, perhaps due in part to the hurdle posed by the first-past-the-post system. Whatever the merits or flaws in the CHP’s programme and however dedicated its few supporters, it is difficult to avoid concluding that much time and energy have been dissipated in building and nurturing an organization which is so obviously handicapped by the electoral system. Correct principles are no substitute for prudential judgement in such matters.”
Taking that experience and applying it to the ASP, we’re probably comparable to the CHP in a number of important ways, in the sense that we are a Christian Democracy party that draws a significant degree of inspiration from Abraham Kuyper, and other such thinkers within the Reformed community. Do you have any advice on how we can avoid some of the pitfalls that the CHP has struggled with?
Koyzis: I think the biggest pitfall with the CHP is that it comes from a fairly narrow slice of the Dutch Reformed community that originated in an ecclesiastical schism in the Netherlands back in 1944, and they brought it over with them. So what they lack is a real comprehensive political philosophy that would enable them to understand the role of the state in the life of the country. They’re hamstrung by that.
But it’s also true that the electoral system is an obstacle. The whole of the United States is divided up into 435 electoral districts, congressional districts. All that is necessary is for one candidate to win a plurality of the vote in that particular district. In Canada, we have more or less three evenly matched parties – the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, and the New Democratic Party, which is a kind of democratic socialist or social democratic party. Hamilton, where we live now, is a New Democratic stronghold, because Hamilton is historically an industrial city, so the New Democrats are strong here, represented in labor unions, and so forth. So it’s possible that you can have three evenly matched parties in a single district, and one of them wins with barely over a third of the vote.
This is what happens with elections to the House of Representatives. Now, because there are only Republicans and Democrats for all practical purposes, somebody is likely to get an absolute majority of the vote within that particular district. But something like the American Solidarity Party – unless you were able to succeed in building up a support base in specific areas, specific regions -if the support base is too diffuse across the country, you won’t win a single seat in congress, much less the presidency.
That’s the thing. I would like to see a new political party, because I hate the way the two political parties have developed. When I was younger, I was probably more sympathetic with the Republicans. When I was able to vote, I generally voted with the Democrats. But then both parties, in my estimation, became unworthy of support, let’s put it that way. And in a first-past-the-post electoral system, people generally vote for the party they think will do the least damage. So it’s very difficult in our systems, both Canada and the United States, for people to vote with enthusiasm unless they’re activists with that particular party and they’re really sold on it. But most people are going to go to the polls and say, “I’m not sure I like either one of these, but who will likely do less damage?” And in a democracy that’s predicated on that, where you have people basically hedging their bets, saying, “I don’t really like these parties, but I think these people will do less damage than the other party,” no one is particularly happy. But that’s what people in English-speaking democracies generally have to do.
The American Commons: So, for the American Solidarity Party – or any similar party – to get a leg in, we have to operate more like a traditional political party in the sense that we have to build up really strong regional coalitions before we can accomplish much of anything nationally.
Koyzis: I think so, yeah. Maybe on the state level. Or even the local level. I think there’s something to be said for making local politics a priority, because that’s what immediately affects our lives and the lives of our neighbors. Maybe something like an “American Solidarity Party of North Carolina,” and see if you can get people on your side in North Carolina and try to aim for the state house.
The American Commons: Running candidates for the State House of Representatives, or State Senate – things like that.
Koyzis: That’s right, yeah. The United States is one of the largest countries in the world, both in terms of area and in terms of population. Canada is quite a bit smaller. We’re about a tenth the size of you. I know personally a member of parliament. The idea of actually meeting a member of parliament is not so unusual here in Canada. I actually shook hands with Prime Minister Stephen Harper back in 2006. I met Prime Minister Joe Clark – this was in 1979. So it’s not that unusual in Canada.
But the United States is so large and spread out. You have population centers, with most Americans living east of the Mississippi, apart from California and Texas, of course. A would-be national figure would have to be recognized by the third of a billion Americans who have the potential to vote, but the idea of actually influencing policy at the national level might not be the way to go. Because you might be able to make a flash. You might be able to call attention to the bankruptcy of the two political parties. But for actual efforts to try to put people in office, it might be better to start at the state or local levels.
The American Commons: It sounds like you’re saying that running national candidates is probably good for advertising the party, but running local candidates is best for actually moving the dial on policy.
Koyzis: That’s right. I think so, yes. And there are some states that will be more open to that than other states. So running American Solidarity Party candidates in somewhere like Oregon or Washington would probably be a non-starter. North Carolina, possibly, but I don’t know. Maybe in a place like Illinois or Indiana, that might be a possibility. Places where there are large Catholic populations as well – that takes you into the Northeast and Great Lakes, as well. Those might be places where you could get some of the Catholic population on your side.
The American Commons: So purple states and states with heavy religious communities.
Koyzis: That’s right. Maybe even Michigan, which has all of these Dutch Reformed colonies – like Grand Rapids. Maybe Iowa would be a possibility, where there are strong religious traditions.
The American Commons: Have you seen any initiatives like that in Canada? I know, obviously, the CHP was kind of a non-starter, but have you seen any small third parties get kind of a hook in, locally?
Koyzis: To some degree, yeah. There is somewhat of a gulf between federal and provincial politics. So, in a province you might have different parties that are the major parties in the province, and they won’t be the Liberals and Conservatives. It might be the New Democrats and the Liberals. At one time in British Columbia it was the Social Credit Party and the New Democrats, and they were the major parties, whereas on the Federal level it was the Liberals and Conservatives. In Quebec, politics have always been fluid. So you have the Parti Québécois, a separatist party, and two other major parties, but they’re not Liberal or Conservative. So you have different parties at the local level.
In the United States, at one time, you had Robert La Follette and others – the Progressive Party, which basically supplanted the Republican Party in the 1920s and 30s in Wisconsin. And then in Minnesota there was another party that supplanted the Democrats called the Farmer Labor Party, which was very similar to what’s now the New Democratic Party in Canada, which was the old Co-operative Commonwealth Federation from Saskatchewan. So, kind of a social democratic party, and then they eventually merged with the Democrats in the 1940s in Minnesota.
So, at least in the past, until the middle of the 20th century, there were other parties in the United States that would make an impact on the state level. They didn’t eventually make it to the national level. The La Follettes and the Progressive parties ended up fading away eventually as the two major parties were able to essentially absorb the constituencies of the minor parties. And the two major parties used to be really good at that. The high watermark for socialism in the United States was the 1932 election. I think over a million voters went for the old Socialist Party in the United States. But then, when Franklin Roosevelt was elected, he began to take on some of the reforms that were proposed by the Socialists, and in that way he got the former Socialists on the side of the Democratic Party.
It’s not clear to me that the Democrats and the Republicans can do that anymore, because they’ve been taken over by the extreme wings of their parties.
And this is why I think something like the American Solidarity Party actually has a chance – probably not immediately on the national level – but if they were to concentrate on specific states, using Pew data on which states have the most observant Christians and Jews and would most likely be on the side of a party like this. My sense of the matter is maybe some southern states, but I think I’d want to be careful about that, because I know that the Trump bandwagon was very popular in the South. But the ASP might get votes in some of the so-called “border states,” like maybe Kentucky, possibly Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. I don’t know about Massachusetts, even though it has a large Catholic population. But I think there are states, like Iowa and maybe Kansas, where the ASP might be able to make a difference.
And if it can make a difference at the state level, then it might get some national attention. Rather than starting at the top, I would start at the local level. The real local level, like municipal and so forth, although oftentimes those are non-partisan elections. So I don’t know if it would make a lot of sense there, but you might be able, at the county level, at the state level, to make some campaigns that would emphasize the flaws of the two traditional parties and get people thinking, “Let’s try something else, because the two parties we have now aren’t working.”