With the announcement of Joe Biden’s US presidential win, strategists around the world may be considering the latest election as a recipe for political success. Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP), which has in the past drawn inspiration directly from the US Democrats, will court disaster if it deems Biden’s campaign to be worthy of emulation.
Biden’s victory is a cautionary tale. The Democrats faced an abhorrent opponent. Trump’s commitment to government inaction is responsible for over 141,000 coronavirus deaths. He pursued cruel, racist, and xenophobic policies and bolstered white supremacists. His administration was marked by naked graft, cronyism, corruption, and patronage. The election resulted in the highest voter turnout in a hundred twenty years, estimated at 66.9 percent.
And yet, aside from winning the presidency, the Democratic establishment hasn’t benefited. They’ve lost seats in the House of Representatives, and the Senate remains under Republican control. Defeating a monstrous candidate like Trump should not be considered a stroke of strategic genius. Rather, Biden’s victory is a result of negative mobilization: voters turned out, despite voter suppression and a rival Republican vote surge, to deny Trump a second term.
A Long Crisis of Political Identity
The NDP has struggled to articulate a political vision that might break with the all-party austerity consensus in Canada. Having never gained power on a national scale, the NDP has nevertheless been elected and governed in a number of Canada’s provinces.
Historically, this record has yielded some impressive reforms like medicare. However, as neoliberal orthodoxy took hold over the last few decades, NDP politicians found themselves imposing cuts, betraying workers, and cheerleading fossil fuel development while in government.
Gaining provincial power while remaining a third party across the whole of Canada often puts the NDP in a precarious position. At the provincial level, the NDP’s opponents use its association with its national parent body as a red-baiting punching bag. The same opponents use regional economic interests as a wedge to paint provincial NDP parties as loyal to national interests and coastal cosmopolitans, accusing them of betraying their own province or local economy for the sake of high-minded nation-wide ambitions.
This creates difficulties for the federal NDP as well. When its provincial counterparts are governing and making concessions to industry, it proves hesitant to thoroughly criticize injustices unfolding in plain sight.
Take, for example, the Wet’suwet’en standoff in January 2020. The province of British Columbia, governed by NDP premier John Horgan, oversaw an RCMP raid on indigenous Wet’suwet’en territory. Members of the Wet’suwet’en nation were obstructing construction of a natural gas pipeline over sovereign, unceded territory. National NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s comments were muted, confining himself to an evasive statement that he found the situation “concerning.”
From Style to Substance
The national NDP was the official opposition to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives from 2011–15. The NDP’s polling numbers collapsed in the fall of 2015, sinking from around 30 percent in September 2015 to 19 percent on election day, and going from 109 seats in Parliament to 44. The 2015 election campaign saw Justin Trudeau outflank the NDP on the left. The NDP had publicly committed to balanced budgets, and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals blasted their approach as austerity economics.
The NDP elected a new leader, Jagmeet Singh, in the fall of 2017, and the party’s immediate strategy was an attempt to challenge the charming appeal that Justin Trudeau enjoyed. Charismatic profiles in GQ and Toronto Life established Singh’s stylish cred. Would celebrity status get Canadians on board with a social-democratic political vision?
During the election of fall 2019, Justin Trudeau and his Liberal party came under fire for interfering on behalf of multinational SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based engineering firm. Trudeau’s undermining of his own justice minister and attorney general resulted in a scandal.
His aim was to have a criminal case against the company settled — it was accused of fraud and bribing Libyan officials — so as not to imperil SNC-Lavalin jobs based in Quebec. To make matters even worse for the Liberal brand, a week into the election campaign, photos emerged of Justin Trudeau in blackface.
Despite these scandals, the NDP’s election campaign brought little popular support for the party — until its leadership started to speak the language of left populism. In early October 2019, the NDP released its platform, proposing expanding medicare to include pharmacare and dental care, housing affordability, student debt relief, and a new tax on multi-millionaires.
Over the days that followed, Singh echoed the rhetoric of Bernie Sanders, stating plainly that the pharmacare and dental care programs would be paid for by taxing multi-millionaires, and that working people were the real sources of the country’s wealth. Singh insisted that generous corporate handouts and fossil fuel subsidies were political choices to use money that could instead pay for expanding medicare.
The left-populist campaign boosted the NDP’s popular support by roughly ten points in the last days of the election, rescuing their vote share from collapsing into the single digits and staving off potential losses to the Green Party. In the end, the NDP lost seats, but they were saved from an electoral rout by their turn to a left-populist campaign and rhetoric.
Learning the Correct Lesson
If anything, Biden’s election should demonstrate that campaigning for “nothing to fundamentally change” risks disaster. The wealth of Canadian billionaires has ballooned while workers cope with job losses and face the looming threat of insolvency. What’s more, Canada’s new Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole, is increasingly brandishing the language of economic nationalism and criticizing free trade — positions historically held by the NDP.
Singh’s proposal to tax wealth and excess pandemic profits is a welcome sign, but the left-populist frame has largely receded. The rhetoric deployed for eleven days in the run-up to the last election has given way to an attempt to appeal to everyone, and Singh now appears to believe that small businesses (not workers) are the backbone of the economy.
Gestures toward a left-populist vision can’t simply be trotted out for a week before every election. It takes sustained political work to articulate a vision that addresses people’s real concerns — and to name the enemies of progress that will resist such a vision.
If the NDP cynically grafts left-populist rhetoric onto a campaign primarily built on centrist hubris as a vote-gaining ploy come the next election, they may find the Conservatives have already been hard at work establishing an actual political vision.