The State of the Canadian Left: a dialogue

This is the fourth in a series of dialogues on Canadian politics between me, J.J. McCullough, resident of Coquitlam, B.C., and my friend Doug Musk, resident of Beamsville, Ontario.

Check out our previous dialogues on the state of the Canadian right, the state of the 2017 Conservative Party leadership contest, and the election of Andrew Scheer as Conservative leader.


Ontario NDP leader Andrew Horwath and federal NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh.

Ontario NDP leader Andrew Horwath and federal NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh.

DOUG: Well J.J., since we’ve spent a large part of our previous three chats largely self-flagellating our own of the political spectrum I think it might please our readers to finally tackle what’s going on in the Canadian “left.” Since it’s in power federally, along with in most of the provinces (and many of the cities), I think it’s something important for us to tackle.

What’s your sense of the “left” as it exists in Canada currently — particularly it’s factions and leaders?

JJ: Well, the Canadian left differs from the Canadian right in that it has a pretty clear and focused agenda. When we talked about the right, we characterized it as a sort of confused coalition of people who dislike the left for various, often hazily-defined reasons. The left, I think, has a much better sense of what it exists to do.

They care a lot about creating an ever-more racially and culturally-diverse society and opposing anyone who expresses or fosters racial and cultural intolerance. They care a lot about female empowerment and opposing anyone who promotes sexism. They care about legal equality for LGBT persons and stamping out homophobia and transphobia. They care about delegating as much political, legal, and economic power possible to aboriginal governments and aggressively inserting an aboriginal cultural presence in Canadian society. They consider climate change the defining, existential challenge of our time and believe governments should be engaged in aggressive regulatory initiatives to curb it.

It’s an ideology with traces of the individualism of classical liberalism — certainly in regards to anything having to do with sex, gender, drugs, or the ending of human life — but is overall mostly concerned with strengthening collective rights and securing collective goods.

I’d call most of Canada’s present rulers “technocratic liberals.” They support everything described above, but are pragmatic in how they go about it. Since they believe in politics and government as useful and productive tools, they accept that some give, take, and compromise will be required to make progress on their agenda, with some victories having to be incremental (i.e., Prime Minister Trudeau agreeing in principle that the oil sands should be “phased out” but still approving some — heavily-regulated! — pipelines in the meantime), sometimes aggressively (as with his sweeping trans-rights legislation or Syrian refugee intake).

Given that the Liberal Party is generally in power everywhere, I’d say this approach is synonymous with their governing philosophy.

Below the technocratic-political-class left, we have the broad “activist-class” left — the people who staff the universities and legal groups and think tanks and charities and NGOs and write the columns and the blog posts — and seem to exist mostly to complain that progress isn’t happening fast enough under the current government (at whatever level). I think these are the people who vote and sustain the NDP. Big-l Liberals would complain these are the people who can afford to constantly judge the good by the standard of the perfect, since they’re never called on to exercise any real responsibility. Which I think is fair. Indeed, whenever, the NDP does get in power, as in Alberta right now, they wind up employing the same pragmatic style of governance as Liberals. I think it’s actually rather hard to govern as an unabashed leftist radical these days, given that even the far-left believes deeply in government, and the critical role bureaucrats and lawyers and judges and professors and the rest have to play in the decision-making process. It’s much easier to be a radical if you’re someone like Steve Bannon, who views all this “deep state” stuff with contempt and just wants to plow through; much harder if you spend much of your political breath arguing that these people are all heroic public servants who deserve more money and resources and deference.

Despite the fact that “inequality” has grown in volume as a political catch phrase, the economic left seems pretty absent from Canada these days. Concerns about economically marginalized groups seem to quickly morph into conversations about their racial/gender marginalization, and even our unions now seem as obsessed with “social justice” as they do with minimum wages or raises for their workers — who mostly now work for the government anyway, and are thus already likely to enjoy statistically above-average pay.

The foreign policy left also seems pretty marginal. I mean, this is Canada so foreign policy stuff is hardly ever top of mind, but even then, I feel interest in Israel-Palestine stuff, or criticism of the War on Terror, is vastly less prominent in anyone’s messaging than it was a decade ago. In the early 2000s, Jack Layton earned a lot of credibility on the left for his willingness to aggressively bash George W. Bush’s foreign policy. If a new Layton came along, I think there can be no doubt he’d have a lot more to say about Trump’s sexism than his mideast policies.

I do get the sense there exists a small but feisty left-wing subculture that’s trying to bring back foreign policy and economic leftism, and feels alienated that these arguments are so unheard these days. I find they’re mostly the stereotypical “Bernie Bro” types — young men who are very interested in war and history and like to talk about “actual Nazis” and and post sassy “socialist memes” on Facebook about how Lenin was right, you know. They’re kind of a reverse alt-right. I don’t really know who represents them in Canada. I think they’re honestly not that interested in Canadian affairs, much like Canadian alt-righters.

Does this all strike you as broadly accurate?

DOUG: I’m intrigued by this concept of the “technocratic left.” Roger Scruton predicted the rise of this ruling philosophy in his informative and prescient The Meaning of Conservatism in the early 1980s. He argued political domination by this style of ideologue would be the natural outgrowth of an ultra-consumerist culture and citizenry, particularly amid the decline of mid-level institutions — e.g. the church, community groups, men and women’s organizations, etc.

I’d be intrigued to see how informed the people who vote for “technocratic left” parties are, and how they’d compare to voters on both the right and the far-left. I suspect you’d find a very knowledgeable core along with plenty of people who only engage with politics at a very casual level, or  whose thoughts on politics are mostly informed by glib and vapid one-liners — “if you don’t like an abortion don’t get one!” or “love wins!” or “it’s [the current year]!” The technocratic elite loves these people because they help create the impression that there’s an objective “right side” to any moral debate. It’s a subtle way of portraying your ideological opponents as basically flawed human beings who aren’t enlightened to the degree you are. I think this fits nicely in with this trend of handsome young men in their 30’s-40’s leading  technocratic centre-left governments — not just Trudeau, but Macron in France and Renzi in Italy, too. I think it’s part of a deliberate branding effort to appear thoroughly hip and cool and in tune with the times.

The other striking thing about modern liberals is how little sacrifice they demand from their supporters. Liberal politicians actually tend to promise that taxes will be kept low, or even cut, with resulting deficits punted to future generations or creditors. When there’s a terrorist attack or international disaster no one will be called to do anything beyond change their Facebook photo and offer some “thoughts and prayers” before turning back to Cosmo. The poor? Well, just have faith that some government department will handle that. Trudeau’s line about not needing to worry about finances because “the budget will balance itself” may be the most visceral example of this type of thinking, but really, so much modern liberal rhetoric simply boils down to some version of “everything’s going to be all right if we just hug and work together”.

That’s maybe why Trudeau hasn’t gone completely overboard on some of his policy ideas and has offered vague support for things like pipelines — I think there’s an awareness in the Liberal backrooms that their support is a mild wide but an inch deep. Their policies aren’t being backed by hardcore left-wing ideologues, but just voters inclined towards conflict avoidance, or those whose support that can be easily bought. I suppose this is partially just how you play politics if you’re (at least ostensibly) a “centrist” movement — you have to be prepared to abandon the more ideological factions of the electorate to parties with more strongly held positions.

One thing you can say about the farther left part of the spectrum — what you called the “activist left” — there’s at least acknowledgment that hard action is required to generate solutions. I may disagree with those solutions, but at least the Corbyn/Sanders/Ashton set are proposing something beyond the inertia of the status quo. The NDP’s “LEAP Manifesto” does signal a firm agenda, and in fact explicitly acknowledges the trade-offs that would be required to pursue the goals it advocates. I’m not sure if the Liberals even realize there are trade-offs implicit in policy making. If they do it’s almost never brought to the public’s attention. The closest thing has been the marijuana legalization mess, and they pretty much had to be dragged to that press conference like it was the Bataan Death March.

I hadn’t really thought of it in some time, but your comment on the lack of foreign policy critiques on the Canadian left these days is just stunningly accurate. At university, I used to jokingly tell fellow non-leftists that everything discussed in seminars would inevitably find its way back to Bush-bashing, or a diatribe on the invasion of Iraq, usually through some spurious link to a historical parable. Now it’s almost never brought up, and if it is it’s in a form of identity grievance politics. For instance, when we talk about Syria it has less to do with the war than the need to import as many Syrian refugees as possible. I’m almost surprised the Liberals actually promoted more military spending recently. I suspect almost none of their base cares about that, and indeed, might actually disagree strongly if it turns out those funds are being pulled from other programs. 

I do see elements of the economic left in my day to day life, though. There’s still a populist union wing of the NDP for example, though with the decline of private sector unions and the rise of less physically strenuous and dangerous work I think a lot of its potency isn’t what it once was. That said, there are regions where this type of New Democrat still has some limited force — some industrial cities like Hamilton and Windsor, as well as Northern Ontario and parts of the interior of B.C. Here in Ontario we’ve even seen open feuding between this wing, represented by the Ontario NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, and the forces that want a more social justice-oriented party. The latter group pretty much openly attempted to sabotage Horwath’s 2014 campaign for not being concerned enough with the issues of the downtown urbanites.

I do wonder where the NDP ultimately goes, though. It’s possible it may bleed some of its hinterland support to parties which are more pro-resource development, and the Liberals seem to be successfully LARPing as “woke” with very few slip ups. Perhaps Jagmeet Singh gives them a new angle which the other potential leaders wouldn’t. I’ve considered it a possibility that Canada might actually be heading back into a more two-party series of elections, (as we saw in the U.K. just some weeks ago where the smaller parties were squeezed). Do you consider that plausible?

JJ: Well, the prospect of a two-party Canada is one of those persistent predictions of Canadian political history (much like, “well, that’s the last we’ve heard of Quebec separatism!”) that often seems plausible in the moment, only to be demolished in the face of unanticipated events. During the 1990s, the global fall of socialism was seen as a deathblow to the NDP, and the party did enter a severe phase of decline, but then it came surging back with a vengeance during the late 2000s. And circa 2011 it was fashionable to say it was actually the Liberals who had one foot in the grave… and then we had Justin Trudeau’s roaring comeback.

Both the Liberals and NDP are very established parties with firm partisan infrastructure that isn’t going to vanish overnight because of a bad election or two. Though the NDP is small when compared to the two governing parties, it enjoys the backing of a large union/activist industrial complex that seems to keep it perpetually flush with staff, candidates, volunteers, and propagandists, even in dark times. In recent Canadian history, parties only seem to truly crumble if the leadership makes a conscious effort to dissolve them, as was the case with the PC/Alliance merger, or what’s going on with the Alberta parties today. There was that passing moment during the Harper years where a “unite the left” idea was briefly entertained, with grandees like Jean Chretien even encouraging it, but it wound up going nowhere because the sitting party leaders opposed it. Institutional inertia is hard to overcome, and the “distinct cultures” of the two parties — the legends they tell themselves about their differences from each other, and their distinguishing symbols and histories and so on — breed strong tribal loyalty among the people who run them.

That said, if the NDP picks Jagmeet Singh to be their leader you’ll have a pretty striking situation of both of Canada’s centre-left parties adopting near-identical “hip and modern” branding strategies of the sort you described. I really think it will be fascinating to see how that plays out, because it’s going to be very difficult for Trudeau, and Trudeau partisans, to try and out-woke a first-generation nonwhite Canadian with a turban. I’m eager to see the first time Singh accuses Trudeau of racism, and the degree to which NDP-friendly media — the sort of outlets and pundits who increasingly feel the need to demonstrate they’re not afraid to criticize Trudeau for being insufficiently left-wing on climate change or Trump or aboriginals — begin to push a narrative of Trudeau as the “privilege” candidate good leftists should feel embarrassed to support. That was a very hard case to make with Thomas Mulcair, who was a kind of embarrassing character in his own right, and had no identity politics advantage over Trudeau — but won’t be with Singh.

But on the other hand, what happens to the more old-fashioned Horwathite NDP voters if they get a Trudeau of their own? Logically, you’d expect the complete urbanification/wokification of both the Libs and NDP to open the possibility of Trump-like Conservative breakthroughs in some of the remaining NDP rural/industrial ridings. Charlie Angus, a middle-aged white guy from northern Ontario who in his past life as a journalist, wrote nothing but those “wither-the-plight-of-the-mining-town” stories that have become so common today, seems like he’d be the true working-class/private-sector unionist choice, but even he’s gone out of his way to minimize any cultural space between the urban left and his constituents. Bill Tieleman, who is quite an insightful NDP pundit here in BC, wrote a good column which sniffed pretty incredulously at Angus’ tweets following Trump’s election, in which Angus claimed his voters back home, in their “coveralls, greasy boots and biker tattoos” had expressed horror at Trump’s sexism in their free moments between “helping Syrian refugees find their way around.”

You tend to notice nuances in party races better than me, Doug. Do you agree with the broad Singh vs. Angus dynamic many are framing the NDP race to be?

DOUG: I somewhat agree with that narrative, though I think Nikki Ashton and Guy Caron could be important factors going forward. Unlike the ridiculously clogged field that was the CPC leadership race, having only four candidates increases the importance of inter-candidate horse trading, as well as allowing a little more space for the candidates to run in separate lanes and actually champion ideas.

It does strike me that Ashton and Singh seem to be running quite similar messages though — the sort of standard “grievance issues” driven campaign, heavy on identity politics, inequality etc. The rhetoric coming from both of them is really quite far to the left, and I think having either of them as NDP leader would represent the furthest leftward tilt any mainstream Canadian political party has made in decades. Let’s not forget that Ashton ran for leader in 2012 and finished last, with only 5.7% of the vote. Her faring so much better this time around shows just how dramatic the NDP’s push to the left has been in the aftermath of the perceived failures of Mulcair.

On a related note, what continues to surprise me is just how negative the stigma around Mulcair is. 2015 obviously marked a decline for the NDP, but it was still quite good showing, historically speaking. Muclair led the party to one of its “top four” results of all time, with only Layton and Broadbent having done better — and in Broadbent’s case, only very narrowly. The historic norm is for the party to perform around the 14-18% range, with the notable exception of the 1990’s, where, as you noted, the party was in deep crisis. It’s why I’m slightly nervous about Conservatives being too reliant on what I call the “Goldilocks strategy” where the NDP’s level of support is “just right” for helpful vote splitting on the left. For one thing, it’s ultimately beyond our control, for another, a strong NDP might just wind up pushing Canada to the left overall, by forcing the Liberals to pander more in that direction.

I do think a move to the left is basically inevitable for the NDP, though, even if Caron or Angus win. Though Caron seems to be the most moderate of the bunch, and has gotten some attention from the NDP base for actually proposing concrete policy ideas (particularly a “basic income” plan), I’m not sure if he has a path to victory. The NDP membership is dominated by B.C. and Ontario (about 60% of their members are in these two provinces) and the field is decently bilingual, which removes that angle for him to run on. Perhaps he can somehow finish ahead of Angus on the 1st ballot, though I think it’s unlikely.

Angus seems to be splitting the difference a little between Caron and the Singh/Ashton wing of the party. Not totally neglecting the populist and policy wonk factions, but trying to at least placate the identity politics and urban wings with some rhetoric, as you pointed out. I’ve also heard some standard “establishment” type critiques of Singh, how he hasn’t spent enough time in the federal party, doesn’t have a seat in parliament, etc. I don’t think that stuff is too damaging though I guess it might hurt him slightly on the margins.

I’m always a little skeptical about the significance of leadership races, overall, however. The pool of voters you have to pander to is very small and niche, and we really have no idea if the candidates are just going to completely reverse all their positions after winning (see Patrick Brown’s utterly cynical PC leadership campaign in Ontario for a particularly grotesque example). You have to wonder if Angus, for example, is just posturing with some of his recent comments, like those ones in that article you mentioned. Am I really supposed to believe residents of Timmins are worried about “cultural appropriation” and “microaggressions”? Income inequality and aboriginal issues I can definitely see as being uniquely important to NDP supporters in places like Northern Ontario and the B.C. interior, but these sorts of “intersectional” issues can’t be much more than annoying distractions for, say, union voters at the local paper mill.

That brings me to the larger question of how popular all this university-radical stuff is with the public at large, let alone the NDP base. Is this the kind of politics where the bark is worse than the bite? Perhaps I’m just biased since all this stuff is completely dead in the water where I live — even NDP voters I talk to either have no interest in it or are actively opposed (for some context: the NDP often finishes second in my riding after the Conservatives, with the Liberals in third). I just have this gut feeling that a lot of these campus crazies are just mentally ill and/or weird youth who will drop it all at a later date. The media, for its part, seems to be under the false impression that Twitter is somehow reflective of the population as a whole, as opposed to a highly self-selected 15% (or so) of it.

Could Singh or Ashton backfire on Conservatives hoping for a vote split? What if their new leader makes the NDP come off as a bunch of radical far-left lunatics, thus making Trudeau and the Liberals seem moderate centrists by comparison? Would Caron and Angus just get overshadowed by the more charismatic Trudeau? I’m actually very intrigued by the NDP race because I think there are two distinct paths possible and I really can’t put my finger on how the winner will be received by the public (unlike “generic Conservative” Andrew Scheer).

JJ: You raise a really important question about perception, and it’s one I struggle with a lot. When you spend a lot of time on the internet, and particularly on social media, it becomes easy to get comfortable with these very broad, cartoonish caricatures of left and right wing voters, which really warps your ability to accurately read the tastes of the electorate.

Obviously there exists a faction of Canadians that wants the most far-left prime minister imaginable. These are the stereotypical people, and I think it’s probably fair to say they’re a much smaller and less influential group than the right’s current obsession imagines. That said — and while I’m skeptical of leaning too heavily on foreign analogies — I think Sanders and Corbyn also illustrate we can also be too quick to assume politicians who emerge from the far-left fringe can’t assemble a wider electoral coalition. I think a key variable is whether the candidate can present as an authentic champion of fairly mainstream socio-economic interests. My sense is authenticity of this sort is closely linked to cultural authenticity. Sanders and Corbyn, for however radical they may have been ideologically, were these rumpled old white guys who spoke in a blunt, pissed-off manner about common problems. They struck many as familiar and genuine.

What we don’t have is a good case study of someone like Singh — someone who would be a far-left ideologue and quite outside the mainstream culturally. That strikes as a particularly high-risk mix given Singh also hails from the identity politics wing of the far left, as opposed to the more materialistic left of Sanders and Corbyn. What some call “cultural Marxism,” as opposed to ordinary Marxism.

Hillary Clinton is often portrayed by the right as having run this repulsive SWJ campaign, but that’s kind of a narrow generalization of a much more elaborately flawed candidate. Barack Hussien Obama was culturally odd in some ways, but also ran as a bland hopey-changey liberal technocrat of the sort we previously discussed. That’s why I’m so obsessed with Singh, I think he would be a fascinating, unambiguous electoral test case of the current incarnation of the activist urban left.

Singh would almost certainly do poorly in rural and suburban Quebec because Quebeckers are just generally more racist and xenophobic than the rest of the country, a fact which is now pretty much being openly conceded in the press through euphemisms about Quebec voters being “uncomfortable with his outward displays of religion” or whatever. But even in more comparatively open-minded English Canada, I think there could be a powerful middle class distaste for an East Indian party leader with a big beard and a turban who is always banging on about discrimination or transgender rights or whatever. The medium sort of becomes the message, and there becomes a sense that the public’s tolerance is being deliberately stressed — triggering a “well now this is a bit much” type reaction. I guess that’s what media people mean when they refer to this idea of the country “not being ready” for a politician who is too ostentatiously outside the mainstream. It’s an instinct of caution that may be unfair, but it is what it is. For the record, I think Nikki Ashton would have a similar problem of being a young single mother who just finished (by the time she became leader, at least) giving birth.

But on the other hand, I have a hard time imagining Singh being a disaster for the NDP in some of the big urban ridings, including those where a vote split on the left helped give the Conservatives a majority victory in 2011. I think these are places where the idea of electing a nonwhite, non-Christian prime minister will be very attractive, and where there’ll  be significant appetite for punishing Trudeau for not fully delivering the progressive goods. Will that be enough to compensate for (increasing) NDP losses in Quebec? Maybe not. Once again, Quebec could wind up being the erratic variable, which shows just how difficult it can be to use a purely ideological analysis for understanding Canadian politics.