What Canada Can Teach Us About Liberals Everywhere

Even when free of political constraints, liberalism produces the same results everywhere it is tried.

For as long as I can remember, a similar refrain has greeted any criticism of liberal timidity made from the left. Though it comes in many shades and variations, the basic contours are always identical. To put it as plainly as possible: Those of us on the left are instructed, again and again, that liberals—whatever their failures or shortcomings might seem to be—are always behaving as progressively as the world will allow them to. Out of power, this means that liberal politicians must always moderate their message to win back electoral ground from the right. In power, it means they must do the same to retain it. But don’t worry, partisans of this narrative will always declare: The liberal path is merely a longer and ultimately more effective route to the same destination, one that takes into account the frustrating realities of social change and the many obstacles, institutional and political, facing anyone who seeks to make the world a better place. 

To be a liberal is to master the art of explaining why, regrettable as it may be, things either cannot change or cannot change at the speed demanded by those on the left. This argument comes in many forms, but always invokes the same basic formula: namely, an expressed affinity for a progressive cause or concern tempered by a series of stated obstacles that make realizing it difficult, impossible, or unrealistic even when a liberal administration is in power. 

Midway through his excellent 2016 book Listen, Liberal, Thomas Frank puts these arguments to the test in a chapter examining blue states, i.e., those where Democratic hegemony is unchallenged and liberal politicians are presumably free to put the progressive values they quietly hold elsewhere into action without fear of stiff resistance or Republican obstruction. The chapter’s opening passage succinctly lays out one of liberalism’s most common and exhausting defenses: 

When you press Democrats on their uninspiring deeds—their lousy free trade deals, for example, or their incomprehensible Wall Street reform legislation—when you press them on any of these things, they reply automatically that this is the best anyone could have done. After all, they had to deal with those awful Republicans, and those awful Republicans wouldn’t let the really good stuff through. They filibustered in the Senate. They gerrymandered in the congressional districts. And, besides, it’s hard to turn an ocean liner. Surely you don’t think the tepid-to-lukewarm things Clinton and Obama have done in Washington really represent the fiery Democratic soul.

If we accept these claims then, as Frank points out, it follows that blue states like Rhode Island and Massachusetts should be flourishing, progressive utopias—Democrats in those states, after all, aren’t forced to defer to corporate interests, gut social programs, or worship at the altar of high finance (as they so regrettably are everywhere else). 

But, as it turns out, the typical blue state is no progressive utopia after all. New York, in many ways the centrifuge of the Democratic machine, suffers from soaring levels of poverty and inequality, not to mention rampant corruption. Despite providing safe seats for Democratic politicians at every level of government, party apparatchiks and donor networks actively work to shut down and defeat progressive and left challengers—the better to ensure that the halls of power are staffed with a never-ending cavalcade of Joe Crowley and Andrew Cuomo clones in perpetuity.  

I know all too well how Mr. Frank and others on the American left feel looking at this dismal state of affairs and hearing the same bad arguments mobilized to maintain it again and again. 

That’s because Canadian federal politics are effectively the same blue state thesis put to the test on an even grander scale—with even more depressing results. 

In the American context, the obstacles to progress are often said to be institutional roadblocks like gerrymandering, voter suppression, Republican obstruction, or the incremental realities imposed by America’s conservatively-inclined system of government (two directly-elected houses, counter-majoritarian checks and balances, term limits). Given the power afforded to large corporations and other moneyed interests to grease the wheels of campaigns and ballot initiatives through endless donations, the inevitability of private resistance to progressive politics is also regularly cited as an intractable impediment for liberals. Then there’s popular opinion, which tends to be portrayed (usually in a very misleading fashion) as inherently conservative or, at any rate, as too conservative to permit much beyond the most tepid centrism. 

Wrong as these arguments ultimately are, they do at least have the virtue of being rooted in reality. America’s political institutions are deeply obstructionist and Republicans, outside of solid blue states, manifestly do rig the system at every opportunity—suppressing the votes of poor and racialized people, gerrymandering districts, and blocking legislation they dislike whenever possible. Corporate power is undeniably vast and plays an active role in tilting the political process thanks to America’s awful campaign finance system. And, while popular opinion is certainly nowhere near as conservative as it’s often made out to be, there’s little doubt millions of Americans harbor reactionary views on both social and economic issues and could be mobilized to resist a reform-minded Democratic president or Congress with minimal effort from the demagogues at Fox News. 

In Canada, however, the picture looks quite a bit different.

Unlike the United States, Canada is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system of government modeled on the U.K.’s. Majority governments where a single party controls the House of Commons are far more common than minority ones and, as a matter of course, party discipline tends to be incredibly strict. (Canada also has an unelected Upper House, though since sitting governments are free to appoint whomever they please to any vacancies this is rarely a serious obstacle.) 

Thanks to Canada’s first past the post electoral system, governments don’t even need to win 50 percent of the popular vote to wield what’s effectively unrestricted legislative power—the sitting Liberal government, led by Justin Trudeau, got less than 40 percent in the federal election that brought it to power four years ago, securing 184 out of 338 seats. 

Since 2003, the country’s campaign finance system has also been incredibly restrictive. PACs and Super PACs are not a part of the political landscape, spending limits are rigorously enforced, donations and advertising from unions and corporations are banned outright, and the maximum individual contribution to a political party is capped at less than $2,000. District boundaries are drawn by an independent elections commission and the ability of corporations or other interest groups to flood the airwaves with advertising is restricted during campaigns. 

What all this means is that Canadian federal governments have comparatively few obstacles to passing transformative legislation, if indeed it’s their intention. Except in extreme cases, a prime minister with a majority in the House probably won’t face a backbench rebellion and isn’t going to run afoul of big donor money in the event they push legislation private interests dislike. Public opinion, of course, might be an obstacle: Governments aren’t generally prone to pursuing policies that are wildly unpopular. But majority public opinion in Canada appears predisposed to supporting big new social programs and higher taxes on the rich (recent polling, for example, has found that more than two-thirds of Canadians support a wealth tax and a big majority support the creation of a national universal prescription drug program).  

For even more evidence of this, we need to look no further than Justin Trudeau’s own campaign messaging in 2015—which gestured, rhetorically at least, towards an activist and equality-minded style of governance. In office, however, Trudeau has largely governed from the neoliberal center: paying lip service to the problems and injustices facing Canadian society while doing little if anything to meaningfully alleviate them and, in some cases, actively moving things in the opposite direction. Unlike its predecessor, his administration has been willing to acknowledge the threat of climate change, but nonetheless remains fiercely committed to the construction of new oil pipelines. For the first time in Canadian history, it has tabled a poverty reduction strategy, a document which in practice amounts to nothing more than a series of new metrics for measuring poverty and includes no resources for actually reducing it. In a cynical sleight of hand, its signature tax hike on the rich was neatly paired with a tax cut for the slightly less rich. Having promised to reform Canada’s archaic electoral system, it reversed course midstream and denounced the very efforts it had sworn to take up as risky and dangerous. 

Despite four years of a Liberal government in office preaching the rhetoric of progressive reform, little about Canadian society has fundamentally changed and there’s every reason to believe things will stay that way if the government is re-elected with another majority. And yet, members of the Canadian left can probably expect all the familiar sermons to be repeated when they inevitably protest. Despite the relative lack of obstacles they face compared to America’s Democrats, Canada’s liberals have long been masterfully dextrous when it comes to lecturing progressively-minded voters about the need for “pragmatism” and the necessity of never breaking too much with the status quo, even as they rhetorically acknowledge its injustices. 

This cycle is bound to continue until a critical mass finally understands the grim reality that liberalism has far more to do with arresting and stifling social change than it does with pursuing or promoting it. Which is to say: even when you remove all of the obstacles and constraints; even given a carte blanche to reform without impediment; even when doing the right thing would be greeted with resounding popular support; there is simply no fiery spirit hiding behind the familiar liberal timidity. 

Even calling it timidity, in fact, may be too generous—a timid person, after all, neglects to pursue a desired goal out of fear. The liberal failure to act towards progressive goals, on the other hand, is quite plainly a conscious choice. Canada is all the evidence we need. 

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