Lessons From the 2015 Canadian Election

For the first time in Canadian history we have a federal dynasty. After a 78 day campaign that featured little policy discussion but plenty of negative advertising and nationalist fear mongering, the people of Canada finally had a chance to choose their leader. And choose they did. Canadians went en-masse to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, who picked up more than 150 seats before the counting even reached the Manitoba border.

It was a truly stunning turn around for a party that just four years ago was written off for dead by the nation’s punditry. But aside from facile comparisons to the Trudeau-mania of yesteryear, what are the real, long-term implications of this stunning victory? What should progressives take to heart from the events of this week?

Modern Politics: Surface Over Depth, This Time, Every Time

Like so many Canadians without a famous family name or elite social connections, I find the prospect of a Justin Trudeau prime ministership thoroughly distasteful. He proves that in Canada you can dropout of two masters program, possess no private or public experience of any depth, and simply traffic on your family’s name to rise to the top of political life.

Everything about him bespeaks of the Laurentian elite who have governed this country’s political and economic institutions for hundreds of years, a deeply interconnected group of businessmen, lawyers, bureaucrats, lobbyists, academics, and cultural czars who control institutions, own property, and frequent social clubs in the Montreal-Toronto power corridor. The son of one of the most ruthlessly centralizing insiders of all time, there is no doubt that Justin was able to run for parliament, and later ascend to the leadership of his party, because of his family name and the celebrity it afforded him.

Simply put, if his last name was Smith he would be the most popular high school teacher in Vancouver. For those fond of comparing Trudeau to Barack Obama, it’s worth remembering that the latter graduated from Harvard Law and taught at the University of Chicago for over a decade before entering into political life. When it comes to policy expertise, local community engagement, and sheer intellectual authority the two men are simply not comparable.

justin-trudeau

Yet those who share my views about Trudeau have been making this very point for the last four years. We could go on howling at the moon for the next decade regarding Trudeau’s nepotistic rise, and it would not make one bit of difference. For this election hammers home a painful truth: politics in the 21st century is not about experience, policy expertise, or intellectual competence. Surely if that were the case than the erudite minds from academic institutions across this country would be our political leaders, men and women who can lecture for hours regarding Foucualt, Derrida, Latour, Agamben, or whatever contemporary theorist happens to be du jour in academic circles.

Politics is not about who can perform best in the seminar room. It’s about who sells themselves best on the campaign trail, how you can speak the language of the voters without talking down to them. A university degree is not required to be a brilliant politician in this society, as Rob Ford long ago proved. Indeed, erudite education and a valuing of wonkish detail is actually a major detriment to electability, as Trudeau’s predecessor Michael Ignatieff painfully discovered.

The Liberal party made a bet that Trudeau’s lack of experience- indeed the utter suspension of disbelief one would need in order to take him seriously as a social thinker and policy leader- would not matter to Canadians. And they were right. All Trudeau needed to win was a childish positivity and a series of well-delivered nationalist mantras. He rarely strayed from these truisms, even in his debates. But that only played to his strengths, for he didn’t have to dip into policy waters or grapple with the inns and outs of constitutional law in order to appear electable. He just had to seem bright, caring, and sensitive.

Modern political contests are not about policy or even ideas. They are about presentation, feeling, mood, and affability. Political parties who choose leaders based on any other criteria than these do so at their own risk.

Harper’s Image Cost Him, not his Policies

Stephen Harper lost because the image of him as an autocratic brute became entrenched in the public consciousness.

If you asked the majority of people why they voted Liberal few would be able to name even five policy-planks that they liked from Trudeau’s campaign. Only a small minority of people can really tell you about the ins and outs of tax-free savings accounts or income splitting. Even fewer are going to get excited by questions regarding payroll taxes or debt-to-GDP ratios.

What people remember is not the content, but the form: how someone carries themselves, the human moments they are able to conjure up on the campaign trail, the feeling they give you after you’ve just heard them speak. On all of these counts, Harper failed woefully over the course of this campaign.

What makes this all the more ironic is that his policies were not actually out of line with the priorities of most Canadians. Harper ran deficits when he needed to in order to help the Canadian economy negotiate the global financial crisis. He left sacred Canadian institutions such as Medicare and Old Age Security intact. The CBC continued to receive funding under his tenure, albeit at a reduced amount. Most Canadians even supported the bombing mission in Syria, despite its hazy strategic goals, its contribution to the deaths of innocent civilians, and the lack of any kind of UN authorization permitting it.

While his opponents painted Harper as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, with a hidden conservative agenda lurking just beneath his blithe exterior, the opposite was in fact true. Harper moved to the center to get elected and he by and large stayed there. When Harper got his vaunted majority four years ago he did little with it other than to keep the Canadian state marching slowly ahead in a climate of global financial unrest. The man simply managed the welfare state bequeathed to him by successive Liberal governments; any dreams he had of demolishing it were left behind in his rebellious Reform days.

Stephen Harper

So why did Harper lose? Yes, he had some policy failures. His egregious attack on Canadian civil liberties with Bill C-51 was utterly unacceptable to the vast majority of Canadians. Yet beyond any policy disagreements, it was the tone Harper struck for the country that people found ever more repellent as time went on. His championing of a militaristic culture betrayed long-standing Canadian commitments to peacekeeping and UN multilateralism. His stuffing the Senate full of corrupt sycophants betrayed conservative promises of clean, reformed government. His tin-eared handling of the Syrian refugee crisis, where he seemed to presume that the refugees were terrorists that needed to prove otherwise before they’d be let into Canada, was beneath the humanism the country has prided itself on for decades.

Most lowly of all, his production of a false-controversy surrounding the niqab was a divisive, ethnically-belligerent move, one designed to sow tension in the populace at precisely the moment we need to be embracing difference within and without. One was left to wonder: how does it accord with conservative values for a government to tell a woman what she can or cannot place on her body? What right does any government have to make such a decision?

For all of these sins and more, Harper lost his government. Defenders can claim that none of these positions by themselves made Harper a bad leader for the country. Certainly Liberal politicians have a long history of supporting institutional corruption, and Canadians didn’t seem to mind making the military a larger part of Canadian ceremonial life. Even on the issue of the niqab Harper found (misguided) support in certain sections of the country.

But each of these issues combined to form a portrait of a man who was secretive, vindictive, and fearful of the world beyond Canada’s shores. Canadians rejected such a leader as too narrow-minded to deserve their support, despite their general alignment with Harper on a whole range of policy questions.

It’s not policy that counts, but image. Ever was it thus.

Is There a Genuine Left in Canada?

Of course the most wrenching defeat on Monday night was experienced by Thomas Mulcair’s New Democratic Party. The defeat was particularly heartbreaking not only because the NDP were leading in national polls for much of the contest, but also that at no time in their modern history did they have as good an opportunity as this election at actually forming a national government. The stars were aligned for them: they had finally made it into official opposition status, being a political force in Quebec, the GTA, and the West Coast, with a smattering of hip supporters in prairie metropolises such as Winnipeg, Calgary, and Edmonton. They had an experienced, bilingual leader with high favorability ratings. They were going up against a detested Conservative government, while the establishment Liberals had an inexperienced leader who had made a crucial misstep in supporting a widely unpopular security bill.

This was the NDP’s real chance to change the political calculus in Canada, to move from being the plucky third-party, the adorable national-conscience (which, like all purely benevolent voices, is ignored continually), to become a dominant, aggressive, left-of-center force in Canada. In one fell swoop they could have set themselves up as the progressive party in the country for the 21st century, the true enemies of the Conservatives, leaving the moribund, sickly Laurentian Liberals in their wake, left to rot on past glories in their social clubs and Upper Canadian colleges.

Mulcari

And what did the NDP do? They blew it. Big time. Many people will critique Mulcair in the coming months for the campaign he ran. But in truth he was doing what every political consultant told him to do: move to the middle. The turning point in the election was the moment Mulcair announced that if elected the NDP were not going to run deficits. The day after the Liberals announced that they would do just the opposite, justifying such a move by reminding everyone that any economist worth their salt will say that government spending is needed to help a country through a recession, and with interests rates so low and the need for new infrastructure so high, deficits are actually a fairly sensible policy at this time.

The move was brilliant: the Liberals outflanked the NDP to the left, setting themselves up as the most progressive option for the anti-Harper vote. It enabled Trudeau to go around the country promising every constituency their own grab-bag of goodies: more subways, LRTs, hospitals, teachers, and community centers, looking all the while like the most progressive thing to hit Canadian politics since Tommy Douglas. Meanwhile, Mulcair was left to explain why he refused to spend big on needed infrastructure projects, being painted as a calculating centrist who was speaking the neo-liberal language of the Conservative Party.

Jack Layton would have never made such a mistake. He came from municipal politics and had a deep understanding of the language of local governance, one that is all about transit, commuting, trash pick up, and the price of groceries. If he had a chance to win a majority as the left-of-center option for Canadians, he would have gone out speaking the Kings…that is, he would have proudly affirmed what the NDP has always stood for: social democratic justice for all, but especially the poor, women, LGTB, and aboriginals, those most marginalized groups in our society.

So the NDP not only lost the election, they lost their soul as well. Depressed grass-roots volunteers were left defending Mulcair’s centrist ideas as Trudeau kept championing more and more progressive policies. When you combine this policy mistake with the fact that Mulcair failed to be the formidable debater he was marketed as, and possessed little fire-and-brimstone charisma in speeches on the campaign trail, it was not hard to see why the anti-Harper vote went en-masse to Trudeau.

The NDP now face a stark dilemma: if Trudeau governs in as progressive a fashion as he campaigned (and if he’s running deficits, changing Bill C-51, and getting us out of the bombing mission in Syria, it seems as if he’ll be off to a good start), how do you distinguish yourself from the Liberals? Moving closer to the center is obviously not an option. But moving back towards the socialist roots of the party will cost it its electability.

Canada is too wealthy a country to be enamored by working-class socialism. Is there a working class in Canada? Perhaps, but it’s not reflected in the people who vote in national elections, where less than 20% of the electorate support the NDP. Take the GTA for example. The people who vote in this urban region are the professional class of lawyers, doctors, bankers, accountants, professors, teachers, and engineers. As homeowners, parents, and bourgeois investors, they want the economy to grow, their taxes to go down, and tuition for their kids to remain the same. They also want to assuage their guilt over poverty in the country by supporting the social welfare state (medicare, pensions, community housing), but not to the point where private property or the free market itself is ever threatened. This combination- capitalism with redistribution- is what the Liberals (and Conservatives) have always offered them to varying degrees.

As such, they simply have no reason to take the NDP seriously. Their modest progressive impulses are satiated by the Liberals already. Thus the NDP faces the question that it has always faced: outside of the remnants of the blue-collar, unionized working class in Oshawa, as well as environmentally minded progressives on the West Coast, how can the party appeal to establishment, Laurentian Canadians? Simply put, for white-collar Canada- that is to say, most of voting Canada- the stain of socialism is too great for the NDP to ever be let into the halls of power.

This is the greatest challenge that the left in this country must face up to. Our politics may be on the right side of history, but they are out-of-place in this deeply satisfied, bourgeois country.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.

One thought on “Lessons From the 2015 Canadian Election

  1. Just a brief comment, because I thought this was a brilliant analysis. Especially where the NDP were concerned. Mulcair’s weird centrist move almost had me jumping ship to vote for the liberals, but then I remembered all the inherent problems with the liberal party. And really, I just couldn’t put a vote in for nepotism. I guess our only hope for a resurgence on the left waits with the US Democratic Primary elections – with Bernie Sanders looking to give Clinton a run for her money. Where everyone will be asking if the US is ready for a female president, I’ll be asking whether the US is ready for a socialist president…

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