Foreign Affairs

Why Liberals (Almost) Always Lose: How Justin Trudeau explains Modern Politics

When I wrote one of my first articles for The Texas Orator last year on the nuances of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, I had a vague sense of the challenges he would face moving forward. But I did not predict how those challenges would multiply before the next election. The evolution of the golden boy prime minister didn’t stop with the words I published last year; Trudeau has only grown to be more controversial with time.

As Canadians went to the polls at the end of October, recent scandals — the conflicts of interest, the legal interference, and of course, the brownface photos — were at the front of their minds. But after the election, the mixed legacy of one of the world’s most influential liberals is confronting the future of a nation that struggles with its place in the world.

Trudeau’s Tribulations

While I was highly critical of Mr. Trudeau in early 2018, I was also hopeful. I argued that policy, not personality, should be the measure of his success. In a barrage of campaign season interviews, Trudeau himself pushed the same point. His reputational repair strategy was to acknowledge, apologize, and move on. He quickly pivoted to his progressive accomplishments on free trade, immigration, climate change, and inequality. However, it was uncertain that Trudeau’s policy legacy was strong enough to carry him to re-election.

Against a global backdrop, Trudeau’s struggles are hardly surprising; he is a globalist in a sea of nationalists. Canada is an exporting nation that is demographically dependent on immigrants. The country’s total fertility rate is well below the self-sustaining rate of 2.1, and the government expects 23 percent of Canadians to be over the age of 65 by 2030. This will place unprecedented stress on Canada’s universal healthcare system and expansive social safety net. Trudeau is objectively correct when he says Canada needs immigration, but that does not change the fact that a majority of Canadians view the current immigration system as too permissive.

Trudeau is not oblivious to his growing unpopularity. He pointed to attempts at redistributing wealth to the middle class as a primary solution to the excess of the Liberal Party’s pro-globalization agenda. However, Canadian voters may not hear these overtures because his scandals are too loud. Pressuring the Ministry of Justice to spare a Quebecois corporation from prosecution does not signal prioritizing working families. Moreover, if Rule of Law is considered a core liberal value, interference in a legal matter to protect the interest of one’s home province is surely illiberal.

Many see Trudeau’s foreign policy successes and his personal performance as carrying the torch of global liberalism, but this comes at a steep domestic cost. While he has pushed ahead on climate, many citizens have been left behind. Before Trudeau, the energy-producing provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan grew over four years at rates of 24.3 percent and 16.3 percent between 2010 to 2014, respectively. From 2014 to 2018, Saskatchewan grew only 2.9 percent, and Alberta’s GDP contracted 0.9 percent.

Alberta and Saskatchewan are unlikely to ever support a Liberal government, but they’re also unlikely to prevent one. Because the bulk of Canada’s population lives in the urban areas of Ontario and Quebec, winners are often declared before polls even close in the western time zones. In almost every other situation, the Liberal Party would not be concerned by its lack of popularity in Western Canada. But in almost every other situation, the progressive champion of a multinational country is not caught wearing brownface.

For good reason, the brownface scandal has been the most explosive incident that Justin Trudeau has faced. It threatens to undermine the ideals of diversity and inclusion that underpin Canada as the world’s first multinational state as well as the legacy of the Trudeau name. From its inception in 1867, Canada has defied the orthodox model of the nation-state, where one nation is ruled by one state. The British North America Act of 1867 unified New Brunswick and Nova Scotia with what was “British Canada” and created the provinces of Quebec and Ontario. The Anglo nation and the Francophone nation united as “One Dominion, under the name of Canada.”

In 1971, Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, announced the official adoption of a multicultural policy, which extended the ideal of inclusion beyond English Canadians and French Canadians to include aboriginal peoples and immigrants of all origins. The senior Trudeau’s policy would later be codified as an act of Parliament under the Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1988. Diversity transcends partisan and ethnic lines in Canada, and it is not clear whether the junior Trudeau’s intolerant acts will be forgiven with time.

The Ottawa Conundrum

In typical Canadian fashion, the election played out almost exactly the way it was expected. It was always unlikely that the Liberal Party would be able to maintain a liberal government. However, some chatter from the right suggested that the Conservatives would win more seats than the Liberals and form a minority government.

The Liberals lost almost all their seats in the Prairie provinces, including urban ridings like Regina-Wascana, which was consistently held by a Liberal since 1993. However, they performed well enough to hold on to Ontario, a province that would be equated to a “Swing State” in the U.S. due to its mix of rural conservatives and urban liberals.

While the outcome of the election was boring, the path to get there was not. First, across the country, the Conservatives won the popular vote by a margin of 200,000 votes in a country of about 36 million. This is especially peculiar since Canada does not have an electoral college system that redistributes votes from densely populated areas to sparsely populated areas. Still, Liberals won 36 more seats than the Conservatives, enough to require only a small faction of the far-left New Democratic Party to stay afloat.

However, a small faction of the New Democrats is all the Liberals will have because the NDP lost 18 seats, most in their stronghold of Quebec. In their place, the Bloc Quebecois, a regionalist party that advocates for Quebec cultural sovereignty, grew from 8 seats (below the threshold of official party status) to 32. Bloc is now the third largest party in Parliament after spending most of the previous decade dormant.

Trudeau does not need to form a coalition to remain Prime Minister. However, he will need to work with other parties, most likely the New Democrats, to pass policy. In Canadian politics, minority governments are the norm rather than the exception; however, if the Liberals lose any vote, it will trigger a vote of no-confidence and a snap election. Trudeau might even find it easier to convince a quarter of Conservatives to support his policy than to maintain nearly perfect unity among Liberals and New Democrats.

Meanwhile, Conservative Canadians will continue to feel marginalized by the Canadian political process. In my original piece, I explained how power is centralized at the federal level and the Prairie provinces are steamrolled when Conservatives are not in power.

With Quebecois nationalism resurging and the Conservatives losing the election in spite of the popular vote, regionalist tension is set to explode. If Ottawa pushes on with its urban-supported policies, the reckoning Canada will face will only come faster.

Before the Fire Spreads

From Santiago to Beirut, massive demonstrations around the world have targeted entrenched elites and indicted them for making life harder for ordinary people. Meanwhile, in places like Moscow and Hong Kong, the tide of the democratic recession might be turning as people take to the streets to demand political freedoms. While each of these episodes seems unique and incomparable to the others, a global economic slowdown signals that the unrest will spread.

Earlier in October, the IMF downgraded its global GDP growth forecast from 3.2 percent to 3 percent. Some speculate that the U.S.-China trade war is having a cascade of consequences, but 11 years after the Financial Crisis of 2008, an economic downturn is inevitable. Like trade deals and immigration policies, recessions have distributional consequences. The rich have savings and assets to cushion their fall; the poor most often do not have extensive savings and bear the brunt of lay-offs and cuts to welfare spending.

Thus, the growing inequality of the last few decades will exacerbate the impact of a looming recession. While academic analysis often bifurcates economic issues from political issues, the average worker will likely not make this distinction. Darling leaders, like French President Emmanuel Macron, quickly learn the limits of their charisma when their policies provoke working class backlash. The “Yellow Vest” protests in France against a fuel tax shows the current fragility of the balancing act between fighting climate change, reducing inequality, and promoting liberal values.

How has Canada avoided a major populist movement? Even France’s Marianne Le Penne, an ardent nationalist, earned widespread popularity that she still holds today An easy answer is that Canada doesn’t have populism. The problem is that this is simply not true. Based on the notion that Quebec needs to breakaway from Canada, the reemergence of Quebecois nationalism is an obvious threat to prevailing consensus on Canadian multiculturalism. A smaller but potentially potent movement exists in Western Canada, where some Albertans want to break away from the intrusive federal government they blame for hurting Alberta’s oil industry. Some voters in Saskatchewan feel similar dissatisfaction due to the large cultural divide and their lack of power in Ottawa.

Canada has popular discontent like every other advanced country, but it has not been as politically impactful. Perhaps the Canadian government is engineered in such a way that populism will never manifest itself in Parliament. On the other hand, these issues might continue to simmer until they explode. The federal government is not doing much to help its case; in fact, some taxation schemes are taking money from the poorer Prairie provinces and subsidizes the more well-off Eastern provinces.

The Canadian federal government faces grave structural problems. So far, Canada has not faced a significant populist movement, but as the global economy slows and socioeconomic issues in Canada persist, the status quo will not last.

Liberals vs. Everyone

The troubles of Justin Trudeau vividly depict the situation of center-left governments around the world. Attacks from the left and the right are compounded by self-created scandals. Anyone who is elected has some degree of charisma; that is not a serious differentiator of leaders. The boring middle ground has become very easy to campaign against and extremely hard to defend, as the fringes only need to prove their own ideological purity and the crookedness of the enemy.

In his book A Thousand Small Sanities, Adam Gopnik compared the liberal mission to a circus tightrope walker:

You lean a little to the left and a little to the right and sometimes a flock of monkeys drops on your shoulders…and you have to keep walking anyway. Keeping your balance is the point, not the problem.

The centrists, moderates, small-L liberals (whatever you want to call them) of the world are characterized as the timid, wishy-washy species of politicians who say and do whatever they must to stay in power. To the delight of the fringes, Justin Trudeau appears to be a case in point. Yet, despite his many flaws, Trudeau might still save liberalism because he embodies the very thing it portends to contain.

Even in the ongoing Democratic primary in the United States, liberalism seems dead. The two labels being fought over are “progressive” and “electable.” Electable might be a proxy for moderate, but the label “moderate” is only used by detractors and pundits. And then there is the term “liberal,” which has been completely missing in action, with the exception of YouTubers who brag about making other people cry.

The fear of the terms “moderate” and “liberal” testify to the rise of hyper-partisanship and decline of liberalism. Maintaining ideological purity has been established as the highest good and embodiment of courage. This is an obvious perversion of “good” and “courage.” What is good about a movement that rallies lots of support but prohibits compromise necessary for policy reform? What is courageous about demonizing those who make themselves vulnerable to attack from the right and left while settling to promulgate from the comfort of the base?

Liberalism takes the danger of personal politics and dissipates the allure of strong man with institutions and ideals. The liberal mission is not a crusade to grab power, but a promise to give it up one day. The cowardly moderate is a myth because liberals sign up willing to lose. When the fringes lose a vote, they seek to manipulate a win through blaming, obstructing, purging, and other forms of political arson. Trudeau lost his majority and now needs to work with rival factions to enact policy. This won’t mean abandoning liberalism — but re-embracing it instead.

Liberals have proven to be good at losing. But democratic politics, which by its nature requires relinquishing and sharing power, is defined by losing more than it is winning. The all-or-nothing movements — Marxists, Fascists, Racists — do not endure because they cannot accept losing. Liberals throughout history lose, check and balance power, reorganize, and rise again.

Four years ago, Justin Trudeau looked like a promising young leader, and amidst real achievements, he has demonstrated serious flaws. He now emerges from the latest election with a tattered legacy. Trudeau’s defenders will cry that there is a double standard because populists seem to survive personal scandals and failed policies while liberals are slammed for every minor fault. These liberals are probably right, but I would take a double standard over a race to the bottom.

Trudeau might offer some lessons for other liberals, but mostly for what not to do instead of what to replicate. As he faces a divided Parliament that reflects a divided nation, he would be wise to heal these divisions and bring more Canadians into the process. This would be the ultimate testament to liberal tradition: a flawed leader leaning a little to the left, a little to the right, and keeping the balance so the experiment may live on.

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