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Moving beyond the centrist consensus in Election 44

To imagine a world beyond the constraints of the current political and economic order, we need to talk about structural change

Canadian Politics

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole pose with TVA moderator Pierre Bruneau before the French language election debate at TVA studios in Montreal, September 2, 2021. Photo by Martin Chevalier/Le Journal de Montreal.

Canada’s 44th general election is likely to be decided by a small percentage of electors in a small percentage of tightly-fought ridings. In June, polling analyst Éric Grenier wrote about “the 6% election”—just over 60 ridings won by six percent or less in 2019, many of which were decided by no more than a single point. While campaigns get national attention and while we follow national polls, federal contests are undertaken riding by riding, and the general election is a series of 338 individual local elections.

Political parties have limited resources, including money, time, and human beings. They rely on certain voters, try to persuade others, and mobilize those most likely to vote for them. Moreover, much of the election is focused within a narrow ideological and issue spectrum that matches up with those voters. On top of it all, the mainstream political parties are all ideologically, small “L,” liberal—that is, they are parties that operate within the framework of liberalism and capitalism. Accordingly, we tend to get consensus elections, broadly considered, and 2021 is no different. Canada’s political parties are not carbon copies of one another. It matters who wins. Yes, our parties operate on similar structural grounds—especially compared to possible ways organizing ourselves that exist outside the liberal imagination. But it still matters who wins.

The New Democratic Party wants to bring in (means-tested) dental care and a renter subsidy. The other parties aren’t talking about that. The Liberal Party is advocating for a $10-a-day childcare program that is superior to the Conservative Party’s childcare scheme, which is based on the tax system. The Green Party wants a basic liveable income. The NDP wants to tax those making over $10 million a year, focusing on the wealthiest earners as a source of funding for social programming and climate action. The other parties wouldn’t raise those taxes, and Justin Trudeau went so far as to bemoan such “unlimited zeal,” preferring, as Liberals do, limited zeal.

Because the parties differ in who they serve and how they serve them, it matters who wins, especially for the most marginalized among us. For instance, those with less would fare better under the NDP than the Liberal Party and better still compared to the Conservatives. Policy differences within the liberal order of free market capitalism, limited welfarism, and representative democracy are still policy differences. And differences that look marginal when contrasted with structural socialist shifts look anything but marginal when compared with one another within the existing framework. If you don’t believe that, ask anyone who struggles to pay rent and who could use $5,000 a year right now—assuming rent-controlled pricing, at any rate—or lower-income earners who are uninsured and can’t afford to visit the dentist.

Differences matter, but the 2021 election represents a dual consensus that we ought to interrogate. First, parties seem to agree on what the issues are insofar as their platforms address similar issues and they spend time talking about them. That’s no surprise. Issues are determined by a mix of reality—what we have to address because, well, it very clearly needs to be addressed—and political expedience—what will benefit the parties addressing them. So, the parties will talk about what they need to talk about and what people say they care about: for instance, pandemic recovery, climate change, the economy and affordability, and Indigenous reconciliation. Second, the parties seem to agree that these issues and others can be dealt with within the market system and through electoral, representative democracy—at least more or less.

Looking beyond the narrow bandwidth in which our politics operates, however, there is little talk of structural change. Who controls what? Who owns what? How much of it? How did they get it? How do they keep it? Why doesn’t someone else own it? What about economic democracy and worker ownership? Why don’t we have more nationally-owned enterprises? Participatory democracy? The Communist Party of Canada talks about such things, but they receive an admittedly negligible percent of voter support and scarcely any mainstream attention, even though we ought to be expanding our conception of how we might order our democracy and our economy.

None of the mainstream parties are seriously engaging with structural alternatives, and it’s not for lack of public interest. In August, Innovative Research Group found majority support among respondents for a radical transformation of the economy, including 35 percent support for “moving away from capitalism”—with 31 percent who “neither support nor oppose” it. Only 25 percent opposed the idea. We have every reason to think that if we talked about this stuff more, more people would be interested in it.

The truth is that while the population has a mix of hard and soft commitments and preferences, political elites play a central role in deciding what we talk about, how we talk about it, and what we think to be possible, plausible, or likely. Politicians, political parties, and their surrogates, along with the media, are therefore critical to agenda-setting, especially in the absence of mass movements to break through the fences we’ve put up around our imaginations. Given that, while the consensus around the key issues of 2021 are in some ways encouraging insofar as they recognize certain important issues as issues, the dominant form of addressing them—almost exclusively within the liberal, capitalist, representative democratic order—is stifling. More to the point, many of even the better or the best policies offered within party platforms are not sufficient structural solutions to structural problems (for instance, capping the cost of cell phone plans or tying federal transit funding to ensuring housing density), but rather ad hoc patchwork efforts that will do little if anything to remake the order that produces such problems in the first place.

It matters who wins the election and better is preferable to worse, but while we focus on how to solve the challenges of our day, we ought to also focus on the structures that produce the problems we face time and time again. That shift in focus requires us to imagine a world beyond the constraints of the current political and economic order, and it requires that political elites take up the cause—either through their own initiative or through pressure from the people. The former seems unlikely, so perhaps it must be the latter. Either way, a comfortable centrist consensus can only take us so far, and it will never take us far enough.

David Moscrop is a contributing columnist for the Washington Post and the author of Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones. He is a political commentator for television, radio, and print media. He is also the host of Open To Debate, a current affairs podcast. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of British Columbia.

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