Saturday, November 26, 2016

Bucking the Trend? Canada, Trump, Brexit, and French elections

By accounts I have read, the French right is running well in France's upcoming election. In fact, those who oppose the extreme right (the ultra nationalist, anti-immigrant National Front), my find themselves having to vote conservative to avoid an extremist government. Said differently, moderates, centrists, leftists, and environmentalists may have to start putting a heck of a lot of water in their wine. In fact, by the time they are done ... they may discover that they don't have any wine left. What's going on? It would be like Democrats supporting Ted Cruz to avoid Donald Trump. Yeah, you'd avoid Trump but ... would anyone on the Democratic side of the ledger really say that they could live with Ted Cruz policies?

I'm not going to answer that question because ... well ... just about everyone and their dog is trying to explain the resurgence of intolerant nationalism in "the west." Trump is, of course, but one manifestation. Former British PM's referendum strategy might be seen as an opening wedge: an effort to make peace with extremism so as garner those votes to stay in power. We know Cameron played with fire and got burned. Better and more insightful people than have already written more than most of us could read on the successes of Trump, Brexit, national walls along Hungary's borders, etc. And, in the myriad of ink that has been spilt on those issues, I doubt I have much that I could say that has not already been said somewhere.

Instead, a far more interesting question for those of us in Canada is this: is Canada bucking the trend? Where Trump, Brexit, Hungarian border walls, the National Front, etc., the success of anti-immigrant parties in Germany all point in one direction, the 2015 Canadian election seems to point in the other. Canadians were (more or less) confronted with the same issues and the same alternatives. The Conservative Party ran on a thinly disguised Islamophobia platform (complete with potential tests for Canadian values for immigrants and proposed "barbaric cultural practices" hotlines that would have allowed Canadians to inform on their neighbours regardless of what their neighbours were actually doing). The niqab was demonized, refugees were caste as terrorists, and violence was presented as the only alternative to ISIS hate. Yet, for one reason or another, Canadians -- it now appears and something we did not know at the time -- bucked the trend. Rather than affirming these values, Canadians elected a relative neophyte to the Prime Minister's office on what was, in retrospect, a pretty vague platform to increase taxes on the rights, welcome a significant number of Syrian refugees to Canada, and support for women making their own choices about what to wear.  Why was this? Is there something different about Canada? Is Canada really moving against an international trend toward extreme forms of nationalism?

It is difficult to make a definitive conclusion one way or the other. But, there is one significant factor that I would like to put on the table as a matter of potential concern to other moderates, reform-oriented, progressive political parties and individuals. The Canadian Liberal Party has a lot to *not* recommend it. It lacked experience in governing, its key figures had little name-brand recognition, it had been reduced to a third place finish in the previous election and seem to be just about over and done with as a political movement. What helped it regain power?

Some minor issues that may have had an effect:

1. Canada had -- unlike the US and UK -- a conservative party in power heading into the 2015 election. Thus, Canadians were well aware of what conservative-oriented policies looked like and a large section of the population had already reached the conclusion that they did not like them. In the UK and the US, by contrast, the electorate addressed centrist or leftist governments in power that were, among large sectors of those populations, seen as failures (or, perhaps, past their best before dates).

2. It is more difficult for Canadian conservatives to be isolationist and to oppose international trade agreements because of the degree to which Canadians perceive a need for these agreements. Whether this is 100% true or not is a matter of debate, but the general theory is that Canada has an export driven economy and so needs to be developing trade agreements. This might be particularly true for Canadian Conservatives because of their close tie to the Western Canadian oil industry. For this reason, the Canadian Conservative Party is far more likely to argue that international trade agreements or other neo-liberal economic reforms are needed and necessary than British or American conservatives.

3. Likewise, it is more difficult for Canadian conservatives to argue against immigration. They do, to be sure, particularly as it pertains to certain groups of people, but the simple fact that the Canadian economy needs people must always moderate this. The truth of the matter is that Canada's rate of natural population growth is so low that without immigration, Canada's population would enter a period of decline in the near future. But, the cultural issue is that a good hunk of Canadians -- in complex and contradictory ways -- see multiculturalism as a touchstone of Canada. And, the percentage of foreign born Canadians is much higher than foreign born Americans or Brits. Thus, running against too much against immigration is difficult for those interested in winning office (witness, one might say, Harper who crossed that line to his detriment in 2015).

4. There is also an older argument that Canadians are more moderate in their politics. Their are fewer bastions of extreme thought among the population, at least this is what Michael Adams polling suggests in books like Unlikely Utopia or Fire and Ice.  I remember reading Keith Davey's auto-biography Years ago. He was a Liberal Party rainmaker before the days of extensive polling and voter tracking. When reflecting on Liberal Party success he made the point that Canadians were really moderate and that the Liberal Party would continue to win elections as long as it stuck to centrist moderate positions.

In the US, something different had gone on.  Because the US lacks a left-wing political party, moderates -- the Democratic Party -- are associated with "the left" when in any other country, they would be centrist. Because Canada has the NDP, it is far more difficult for right wing parties or commentators to use that type of electoral manipulation.

There may be some other factors, too, that played in Canada bucking the trend -- if it is that -- but I think the big one relates to political alternatives. One of the problems that the proponents of the EU in Britain and the Democrats in the US ran into was that they did not find a way to articulate working class discontent with what we could call the economic insecurity of neo-liberalism. I'm not saying that the stands taken by the Democrats on any particular issue were bad stands but on economic issues, they embraced a globalized neo-liberal agenda which, it appears, simply has not played well in the "rust belt," Likewise, a lot of areas of traditional Labour support voted against the EU despite the fact that Labour supported the EU.

Should labour have abandoned the EU and argued against it? I don't want to armchair quarterback but let us read through the concerns that workers (particularly through unions) have expressed about international trade agreements. They argue that they are losing their jobs (seeing jobs go south, e.g., in the US). Is this true? A friend of mine pointed out that it really isn't. Mexico stole no jobs from the US. Every American company that chose to relocate to Mexico for cheaper labour (or, other) reasons was run by an American who made the decision to move jobs out of Ohio or Missouri or Wisconsin to Mexico. Mexicans did not steal these jobs. Rich Americans decided that they would rather be richer than to run companies that kept American workings.

In a similar sort of way, we need to reread opposition to immigrants. Some if it is bigotry: pure and simple. There is no way around that. The CPC's anti-niqab stand might be read in this way and might have attracted bigoted votes. But, some of it is disguised concern expressed in a bigoted language. That bigoted language is not an accident. It is there because of bigotry.

But -- and it no way to excuse it -- bigotry can also express a deep sense of economic fear. The issue here is not culture, but again economics. Again, I don't think it is true. I know that labour markets are fragmented and that different economic sectors have different labour markets. In other words, immigrants and the "born in" population don't usually compete in the same labour markets. The fact that this is not true, however, doesn't mean that people don't believe it and, it seems, a whole lot of people in Britain, the US, and now France, among other countries, see immigrants and trade agreements as threats to their economic livelihood and to the wellbeing of their kids. This is the same logic we hear when people reject concerns about the environment because of an economic rationale.

Said differently, and if you put it all together, economics stands at the centre (it is not alone, to be sure) of the vote against the EU, for Trump, and likely with regard to other elections, such as that in France. And, this is precisely where Canada was different.  What was different about Canada -- and, I think, one of the reasons the Liberal Party won the 2015 election -- was that moderate politicians -- centrists, in this case -- were able to articulate an alternative economic agenda. In the US and in Britain, the extreme right captured the economic argument, asserted moderate or leftist failure on this front, and they were aided in this by the fact that moderate political figures (and the "new labour" in the UK) had abandoned their opposition to neoliberalism and, in fact, embraced it. There was, in other words, no one articulating the economic concerns of middle and working class people in those countries. In Canada, the Liberals were able to do this.

Now, to be sure, the Liberals are not abandoning economic neoliberalism but they suggested enough modifications to it -- in terms of tax policy, infrastructure spending, postsecondary education funding -- that the anti-immigrant message of the Conservatives was offset. And, what is more, the Conservatives in Canada helped the Liberals in this regard. Unlike the extremists in the Republican Party and UKIP, the CPC is firmly committed to economic neoliberalism. It could not, therefore, articulate an alternative economic agenda and its bigoted anti-immigrant stand was left all by itself as bigotry. The got a lot of votes for this but ... without a connection to economic issues, it was not enough.

Canada has, therefore, not bucked the trend so much as offered a different perspective on the future of moderate reformist politics. The big comparative lesson for moderates and leftists to learn is this: don't appear to cosy  with economic neoliberalism. You didn't used to be. In fact, you used to have a lot concerns about it. Perhaps it is time to recover those concerns.
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