“Unfortunately, the Liberal party in power turned out to be as much a political creature as ever.”
In 2015, Canadians voted to end almost ten years of rule by the Conservative Party of Canada, inaugurating Justin Trudeau, son on the eminent Pierre Elliott Trudeau, to the highest office of the land. Trudeau the younger had run on a campaign of social progressivism, promising to deepen the multicultural project, reform Canada’s dated first-past-the-post way of electing Members of Parliament (analyzed here), and take steps to end the war on drugs by legalizing marijuana. Trudeau was surprisingly able to outflank even the nominally left-wing New Democratic Party and took advantage of the citizenry’s yearning for change after ten years of Conservative rule under the calculating Stephen Harper. Also unique was Trudeau’s emphasis on a tonal change in politics. While the conservative Stephen Harper had presented himself as icily competent (with efforts to melt that image coming across as embarrassing) and an intellectual, Trudeau emphasized sunny mannerisms and opening the country up. Far from the insular and partisan politics of the preceding government, the newly youthful Liberal Party under its photogenic leader would create an environment that was democratic and participatory. Political life would reflect the pluralistic values many Canadians pride themselves on, and which flows from the multicultural policies which are perhaps the signature achievement of the Liberal Party.
The Need for a Genuinely Progressive Alternative
Unfortunately, the Liberal party in power turned out to be as much a political creature as ever. While critics of Trudeau like to imply that the recent string of scandals and evasions is somehow a tremendous deviation from the past, it is in fact a sorry demonstration of how politics has continued as usual from at least Chretien through Harper and now Trudeau. At least since Pierre Trudeau labelled the opposition parties a bunch of “nobodies” in 1969, the increasingly leader-centric nature of Canadian politics has generated ever greater concentration of power. Much power is vested in a few figures who surround the Prime Minister. These individuals become the face of the political party and drive much of its agenda forward. This has, in turn, contributed to deepening partisanship as leaders of the two major parties (the Liberals and Conservatives) try to personally distinguish themselves and edge out ever smaller margins of voter support from the undecided center.
The end result of this has been that many sincerely progressive parties have been held back. With so much attention directed to the sitting Prime Minister and his (occasionally her) expected rival, the ever-third place New Democratic party and its leader get sidelined. This difficulty is compounded by the aforementioned first-past-the-post system for electing representatives, which is also appropriately characterized as a winner take all process. The peculiarities of Canadian politics mean that it is entirely possible for a candidate to win a relatively small percentage of the vote, while still getting elected despite most of the population not casting a ballot for him or her. This also means that the two major parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, have often won majority governments with 38 or 39 percent of voters supporting them. Naturally, this, in turn, establishes a de facto two party system. There is little point in casting a ballot for the Green or New Democratic parties, since that may split the Left and center-left vote and lead to a Conservative victory. Although Trudeau’s Liberals promised to reform the system during the 2015 campaign, they later reneged on that promise once in office.
One of the major political currencies in today’s post-modern climate of inauthenticity is genuine integrity.
All of this is extremely frustrating for Canadian progressives, who at bare minimum warrant having their voices heard and having their views represented in a representative democratic system. Leaders like Tommy Douglas and Jack Layton have contributed a great deal to the policies and politics of the country, from introducing universal healthcare to deepening the country’s commitment to minorities and marginalized groups. While there was a welcome surge to second place in 2011 under Layton’s leadership, unfortunately, the momentum has not been sustained and progressive politicians once again face an uphill battle going into the 2019 election. I’m going to conclude this article with some suggestions on how to buck these trends going forwards.
At the moment, progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are gaining support in the United States, a country long thought so hostile to the Left that “socialism” amounted to a dirty word. The roots of their success, though still fragile, are complex. But part of the reason is that both candidates and their supporters are running as sincere progressives who are confident in their ideas and are willing to put forward proposals that would have seemed outlandish in American political culture a decade ago. One of the major political currencies in today’s post-modern climate of inauthenticity is genuine integrity. People do not want progressives to run as Liberals or Democrats (in the United States) proposing to raise taxes an extra 3 percent. They want bold ideas that can galvanize attention and focus debate away from neoliberal incrementalism and towards the possibility of structural change. So far, while the New Democratic Party’s proposals are all admirable, none has been striking enough to capture the public’s attention the way that Sanders’ demand for Medicaid for all has in the United States.
Another important development would be to aspire, as J.A Smith puts it in his great book Other People’s Politics (reviewed here), to generate a coalition of mass support which, “leaves space for acknowledging the constitutive character of social division and the impossibility of a final reconciliation.” This is key to differentiating Canadian progressivism from Liberal centrism. The Liberal party is famous for its aspirations to be a big tent omnibus when campaigning; but while governing, it works in a highly centralized and incrementalist manner. For progressivism to be different, it needs to resist the idea of assimilating all of the different strands of Canadian leftism into a single unity dominated by the party apparatus. Instead, we should regard eclecticism as a strength, mobilizing together with the prospect of governing in a manner that does not efface these differences but allows them to flourish. This could mean allowing greater rights for candidates to express deviations in opinion from one another, continuing to call for electoral reform, and encouraging membership to be actively involved in expressing what they wish from leadership. If this occurred, progressives could distinguish themselves from centrists, while also generating the energy and passion characteristic of authentic democracy with the aim of winning big in 2019.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at email@example.com or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.