Saturday, March 20, 2021

On plausible alternatives

One of the perennial frustrations in following federal politics is the tendency of media coverage to default toward a Lib-Con duopoly. That pattern typically manifests itself when polling data and other circumstances create an obvious opening for an alternative, and is particularly striking when one of those parties is still treated as the primary alternative even while trailing the NDP and votes in seats. (See: federal politics from 2011-2015 and Ontario politics today.)

Of course, there are reasons for that: most notably, two-party horse race coverage is far easier to generate than discussion of the nuances of multi-party democracy. And particularly in the case of the Cons being propped up as the primary alternative to the Libs, there are some explanations which hold at least a modicum of validity (such as what figures to be a fairly firm floor based on the Cons' prairie base), and some which are rather less justifiable (such as media outlets' systematic backing of the Cons no matter how inept or destructive they are). 

But while we can count on conventional media to ignore the prospect of a new contender emerging, there seem to be plenty of forces coming together to raise the possibility of the NDP becoming the primary alternative to the Libs in an election this year.

We're seeing endless election speculation based on the Cons' pitiful performance. And it's true that in a two-party campaign, the Libs would figure to be well positioned to improve their position compared to a party with an unpopular leader, and with no obvious direction other than to keep running well-worn actions from an increasingly outdated Harper playbook.

But the NDP has been creeping up in the party standings, while Jagmeet Singh's approval rating has regularly ranked at the top of the pack (due in no small part to his party's work ensuring people have what they need through a pandemic, rather than looking to undercut support like the Cons have done). 

And this weekend may have seen the Cons' membership firmly reject the very possibility of making up ground.

Just before the Cons' national convention, David Colletto offered a snapshot of the types of voters who aren't currently in their camp, but might be willing to consider them. And the convention proceedings could hardly have been scripted better to repudiate the interests of young people, who recognize the need for racial justice and view climate change as a serious issue.

None of the above means that Erin O'Toole won't put on the usual mask of fake moderation. And indeed, he's spent much of his time since winning the Cons' leadership trying to pose as a worker-friendly populist, while begging people not to look at the track record of himself or his party. 

But that pitch always relied on people actually finding him believable - which doesn't appear to be working.

Which means that we're at least into a position where there's a plausible path toward the NDP pushing ahead of the Cons as the social democratic alternative to a Lib government which has done plenty to cater to the corporate class. (Consider this the British Columbia model transposed onto the federal scene.) And we may soon reach the point where anybody looking for the most likely party to overtake the Libs - and the most plausible narrative for change - will have to look to the NDP.


  1. Sub-Boreal9:32 a.m.

    OTOH, the scarier the Cons look, the easier it is for Trudeau to beat the strategic voting drum. Which usually works.

    Regarding "the British Columbia model", what seems to have happened here is that the provincial NDP has occupied the federal Liberal space, for example, by talking lots about climate but subsidizing/cheerleading for fossil fuel pipelines. (See also: AB NDP, SK NDP) Which makes it a bit awkward for Singh to criticize Trudeau for his climate squishiness.

    Meanwhile, when it does propose something of its own, the fed NDP manages to come out somewhere to the right of Bernie Sanders, like with this week's announcement on student debt. Not a call for free tuition, but a loan remission program with all of the thresholds, ceilings, and eligibility requirements beloved of liberal wonkdom. Preceded a few days before by a sentimental serenade directed to small business.

    Watch for the fed NDP to get Mulcaired again, perhaps by two rather than just one of its opponents.

    1. To be clear, the policy this week was a debt forgiveness plan intended as an interim measure/form of relief for people who have already paid tuition while the party works toward free tuition in the future. I'd prefer to see a stronger proposal, but it's still a step in the right direction.

      As for the B.C. precedent, the key element of that is that even the business-supported party has actually taken some steps forward on the environment. There's still plenty of need to try to push all parties in the right direction - and yes, Horgan's stumbling forward with Site C and other gas infrastructure is a serious problem.

    2. I'd also note that in determining how "scary" the Cons, are their perceived likelihood of winning is a key factor. It's indeed easy for the Libs to say "red door or blue door!" when they're a couple of points apart; not so much though when the Cons aren't a credible threat to take power. (Which is again why it's important for coverage to accurately reflect their position, rather than artificially boosting it.)

  2. Canadian Conservatives are in a cleft stick created by the close relationship, at every level from ideological to religious to organizational to following the same twitter feeds, with American conservatism, combined with the somewhat different Canadian broader political landscape.
    That is, ever since the Tea Party, Canadian conservatism has been following the radicalizing path of American conservatism, becoming more and more fanatical along cultural conservative lines, which nowadays also includes various kinds of anti-science positions, most importantly climate change denial or pretty-much-denial. In the United States, this can win elections, between the relative strength of cultural conservatism there, emotional appeals being good for getting out its vote, and various American specifics in terms of the electoral setup such as the ease of various vote-suppression and gerrymandering measures and things like the electoral college which happen to amplify the impact of more rural, conservative voters at the expense of more urban, liberal ones.

    Canada doesn't have most of those American specifics and the cultural conservative base is fundamentally a bit weaker here. Conservatives can't win on just that fanatic base in Canada, except in the prairies. But that fanatic base is formed by basically cultivating hatred of everyone outside it, so it has become very difficult to expand without breaking the party. Pander to the base and everyone else finds it squicky, pander to anyone else and the base threatens to start something purer. And since the Conservative "tea-party", "Trumpist" etc. movement is marked by cultivating irrationalism and stubborn rage, you can't appeal to reason to get them to stay.

    Thinking of that close American/Canadian relationship (not to mention frequent whiny threats of separation from Prairie conservatives), I'm kind of surprised sometimes that nobody ever seems to have campaigned against the Cons based on the proposition that they are a bunch of traitors to Canada.

    All this limits the Cons' growth, but in our electoral system that still can make it tricky for the NDP to make progress. Plus, the NDP have certain problems in that regard as well, being often dominated by urban educated professionals who don't connect with a lot of people who would fundamentally be well served by the left. For instance, why on earth are most farmers right wing? Of all the groups in Canada, hardly anyone has been more consistently, devastatingly, and obviously screwed over by corporations than farmers. The NDP could and should (and maybe even does, but who can tell) have an incredibly strong message for these people. But the right has dominated all their information channels for decades, including their churches--and that last WAS a deliberate political push. The Mennonite Central Committee is something the NDP would be very at home with, but people I know whose parents were Mennonites are like Baptists or whatever instead. And the Canadian left has never really bothered to try to contest any of that.

    1. On the question about farmers, I'd point out a few interrelated factors.

      First, farming itself has changed radically over a period of a few decades: it's no longer feasible to operate as a family farm on the scale which was normal until the '70s-'80s. That means there are fewer people actually farming, and those who remain tend toward a more capitalist view of the world.

      Second, the institutions which provided some basis for social democratic organizing in rural areas no longer serve that role. The Wheat Pool, Co-ops, etc. have gone corporate; the Wheat Board has been dissolved altogether; most of the remaining agricultural groups sound more like rural Chambers of Commerce than organizations defending farmers from the multinationals who exploit them.

      And at the same time, the right-wing push to take over all kinds of information channels - including talk radio along with churches in Saskatchewan - has both left far too many people in rural areas with the impression that it's deviant to question conservative parties, and normalized a view of politics through a right-wing lens even for people sympathetic to the NDP.

      It's not true that nobody's trying to contest that, as the Saskatchewan NDP in particular has set up internal structures to reflect rural voices and interests throughout the party's operations. But that's barely been noticed from the outside, and it's a long way from reversing the tide.