A 30,000 foot view of the Canadian political landscape
Feb 1, 2013

A 30,000 foot view of the Canadian political landscape

In this post I investigate the 30,000 foot view of the Canadian political landscape, and consider various factors for what I consider to be a defining political trend of the last several decades: the declining political space between parties.

Room for three parties:
Wind back the clock to the 70s and look at the global political landscape. The world was caught in a Cold War between two super powers offering very different approaches to society. The amount of political space, if you will, between these models was enormous and made it possible to have many very distinct political domains in between these extremes. You could have a communist party calling for public control of everything, and a libertarian party advocating for the complete abolishment of government. Around the world from Europe to South America to Asia, countries looked at the two superpowers and emulated different aspects of them, usually somewhere in the middle.

In Canada, we got three major parties in a traditional political spectrum (the Bloc Québécois, as a separatist party first and foremost, has a location on the left vs right spectrum only secondarily). For years the NDP was far to the left of where it is today, advocating quite genuinely for very socialist policies, much like many of the socialist parties in Europe. The precursors to the modern Conservative party steadfastly opposed the kinds of expansions to our social safety net that the modern versions accepts for granted.

In between, the Liberals had plenty of room to carve out a distinct patch of ground for themselves, only sometimes overlapping with parties on either flank. They could promote capitalism and liberalism while maintaining and building the kinds of social programs that allows for a floor beneath which no one can fall, a ladder to help everyone climb, and the removal of the proverbial glass ceiling. Much of our history and strength as a country today is, as anyone must acknowledge, due to the success of the the Liberal party.

The Soviet Union collapses:
Fast forward to 1991, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The world got a a definitive answer, after decades of wavering, over which social and economic model triumphed. The closer one is to the US, and Canada is pretty close, the more we are tempted to forget the enormous prestige the Soviet Union had to countries like, say, India. The downfall of the Soviet Union marked an end to the appeal of the far left of the spectrum and subsequently saw, around the world, a significant rightward march among many of the big socialist parties.

The expansion of social programs:
While the left moved to the right, the center, usually the center-left, had considerable success at the building of government. Public education and higher education, universal healthcare, infrastructure  welfare programs, and the like have all been built up. There can be further expansions, of course (many in the NDP want to see national pharmacare and childcare programs), but the biggest and most important ones have been solved. Conservatives of the past may have opposed these as they were being implemented, but those today largely accept their existence and focus on relatively small reforms, or cost trimmings.

Victories for civil liberties:
The third trend in the last fifty years has been the massive success - although not yet complete - of genuine equality among different people. Race and gender are now firmly protected at the government policy level even if much work remains to be done at the social level. In Canada, we now have significant protections for LGBT people, including marriage equality. I don't want to suggest that this battle is over and there are still undoubtedly issues that need to be changed (for instance with aboriginal and transgendered people) at the policy level. However, the scope of this debate has narrowed considerably. Nobody debates whether race or gender or religious identity should be protected and given equal status. In Canada at least, the other major culture war issue of abortion seems to be far from center stage, in no small part due to Harper's insistence. These cultural issues are particularly challenging for the NDP and Liberals, for they both like to make frequent appeals to cultural progressiveness During the leadership races for these parties, for instance, there are constant appeals to the importance of women. Hear, hear, of course, but as correct as this view is it doesn't distinguish between them.

Declining political space:
These three trends - the fail of the far left, the building up of the mainstays of government influence in society, and the success of cultural progressivism - have all meant that the biggest and most contentious issues has been, at least in part, resolved. Political parties no longer have large disagreements, and in fact agree, on many tenets of our present society that were once fiercely debated. With the declining political extremes and the trend toward homogeneity in their views, it is harder to establish distinct political identities for larger numbers of parties.

The comparison of the above picture of Canada with a couple other countries may be useful:

In Israel:
As an example where this narrowing isnt happening consider the recent elections in Israel. In Israel, with proportional representation, there are numerous parties all over the political map. However, they still have very large and fractious disagreements, in particular over how to deal with the Israel-Palestine conflict, and on religious identity (different parties may be ultra-orthodox, or secular, for instance). Given the wide political space, there is room for many distinct parties, helped of course by the electoral system which makes it much easier to have many small parties than our first past the post system.

In the US:
The United States is in some ways the easiest to analyze in that it only has a two party system, and thus doesn't suffer from what I termed the N-party problem. There are only two parties and both historically manage to position themselves so as to get, in a very stable way, roughly half the votes each. Several of the factors that led to narrowing in Canada have not occurred or only partially occurred in the US. There are still vicious culture wars going on, for instance on abortion, gay marriage and many issues related to religion. The US is behind many first world countries in establishing government programs such as universal health care which has led to the bitter debates for decades culminating in Obamacare.

While the US left never quite embraced socialism with the fervor of some parties in the Europe and Canada, given as they were the example of the alternative superpower, there was overcompensation on the right. Particularly given certain institutional and historical elements entrenching limited government and fundamentally conservative principles in their founding documents and philosophy, the appeal of very limited government has been stronger in the US than in other countries. However, the demands of modern society have led towards larger government in domains like universal education and healthcare that doesn't really mesh with this outlook. As such, while in other countries the wide space created by having a far left closed somewhat after the Soviet Union collapsed, the wide space in the US was formed by having a powerful far right that didn't have the opportunity to shrink.

In the last decade there has been something of a polarizing, led by the right, that is widening the political space as ideological and populist appeals, sometimes on the culture wars issues and sometimes on role of government issues, have pulled the right to a place quite a bit further right than seen in some decades. Ultimately, such a move defies the long term trends expected of a two party system unless the rightward shift can be explained as following the direction of popular sentiment which, unfortunately for the GOP, it can't easily be. This is probably the biggest factor in why Mitt Romney is not president today. But such movement is not sustainable; as long as the people keep moving left on issues like gay marriage or immigration reform (due more to a demographic shift than popular opinion shift, but a shift nonetheless), the right will eventually catch up.

Consequences for parties today:
None of these trends are going away any time soon. This post could have been written five years ago and probably will remain true in another five, at least. As such, I will differ a discussion to its own post of the consequences of this view to the issue of today: choosing a new federal Liberal leader. The preamble to that discussion is here. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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