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Right-wing populism and the realignment of working-class politics in Canada

Many Canadians still believe that we are somehow immune to right-wing populism. That is dangerous thinking.

Canadian PoliticsLabour

Illustration by Canadian Dimension

I heard about the closure on television on the six o’clock news. Then, a couple weeks later they phoned me up and said ‘you got a 35-year pin that we have here. We’d like to give it to you.’ I said ‘okay.’ He said, ‘meet us at the front gate.’ You know, everything was closed so the fellow, our superintendent at the time, he gave me the 35-year pin. You can picture a chain linked fence, he handed it to me through the fence. ‘Here is your 35-year pin.’

The story of the 35-year pin is emblematic of the anger and loss felt by many across the deindustrialized world. This particular story was shared with me in 1998 by a former steelworker in Lackawanna, New York, but I have heard many other stories like it over the past quarter century researching the far-reaching consequences of mine, mill, and factory closures. The United States alone lost eight million manufacturing jobs between 1979 and 2010, much of this in the Rust Belt.

Donald Trump, Brexit and the rise of right-wing populism in Europe have therefore not come as a big surprise. If anything, what surprised me was that it took so long for people to revolt. Politics as usual has utterly failed working people.

Yet, many Canadians still believe that we are somehow immune to right-wing populism. That is dangerous thinking. Canadian liberalism and social democracy are nothing if not complacent. Trump’s narrow defeat in the November 2020 election will no doubt comfort the comfortable.

Canada is ripe for right-wing populism and a realignment of working-class politics is taking place that can support its growth if left unchallenged. There is every reason to believe that the NDP will be obliterated in the next federal election. That usually helps the Liberals, but this time could be different. Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole has signaled that the Conservatives are making working-class voters a priority in an effort to expand their base. Economic populism is now on the table for the first time in a generation. In doing so, O’Toole is taking a page out of the US Republican and British Tory playbook.

One doesn’t have to look far to see how this might unfold

Deindustrialized areas that once voted for left-wing or liberal parties across Europe and the US have voted for populist right-wing candidates in recent years. This political shift has been facilitated by two things: the decline or collapse of private sector trade unionism and the gentrification of parties that were once grounded in working-class communities. These parties took for granted working-class support, as their “Blue” (US) and “Red” (UK) working-class walls crumbled around them.

Once proud socialist parties in France, Italy, and Germany have withered or died. In the United States, one former bastion of industrial liberalism after another has fallen to the Republicans. Not so long ago, West Virginia was one of the most progressive states in the country. It is now painted deep Republican red.

How has this happened?

The political realignment in the United States has been a long time in coming. In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon launched his “Blue Collar Strategy” that appealed to white working-class “hard hats” who were patriotic and resentful of middle-class students and cultural elites who sneered at their values and culture. He was able to flip white working-class Southerners and make major in-roads in other regions. Trump’s approach has been broadly similar, as he tried with some success to flip Northern white working-class voters.

At the same time, the Democrats embraced neoliberal centrism. Bill Clinton delivered the North American Free Trade Agreement and Barack Obama bailed out the bankers instead of homeowners in 2008. It was Trump, not Obama or even Trudeau, who re-negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement to ensure more protections were in place for unionized workers.

The evidence certainly supports Andrew Sayer when he argues in The Moral Significance of Class that the “liberal, affluent, educated whites regard treating others unequally on the basis of their gender, ‘race’ or sexuality as immoral… They do not, however, see class inequality as unjust.”

The class politics of redistribution has made way for the cultural politics of recognition, with its attendant fixation on cultural symbols. Sadly, I think historian Jefferson Cowie is right when he suggests that: “Without a shared economic vision, white working-class interests easily became racial sentiments.”

What of Canada then?

The last time that the New Democratic Party made class analysis central to its pitch to voters was in 1984 when Ed Broadbent embraced the idea of “Ordinary Canadians” and railed against the “Bobsy Twins of Bay Street.” Four years later, riding high in the polls, Broadbent let the Liberals outflank the NDP to the left on the generationally defining issue of free trade with the United States. The 1988 election was a political Waterloo for left-nationalism in Canada, ushering in an era of neoliberalism.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that Canada experienced its first wave of right-wing populism in the early 1990s with the rise of Preston Manning’s Reform Party.

In 1993, I volunteered to be an election day observer at one of the NDP’s best polling stations in my hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario. It was also one of the poorest. Although the NDP would regularly receive 60% of the vote in this part of town, this time the Reform Party came in first. NDP households flipped from left to right overnight.

Since then, the NDP has continued to jockey for the middle ground. My father, a railway worker, couldn’t stand Jack Layton when he was NDP leader. It was the height of Canada’s forestry crisis and dozens of resource towns like ours were in an existential crisis. Yet the NDP ran on lowering bank charges on credit cards. That was their BIG idea! In fact, the only leader to even mention the forestry crisis in the leaders’ debates, over two election cycles, was Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois. My father would have voted for the old sovereigntist if he could have.

The next federal election

The Conservative Party’s appeal to working-class voters will begin with its unconditional support of pipelines and extractivism. This will almost certainly be a key component to their strategy of prying northern ridings from British Columbia to Newfoundland out of the hands of the NDP and Liberals. These highly unionized areas constitute the majority of non-urban ridings held by these two parties in a country where the urban/rural divide in politics is already well established. I expect the NDP will find it impossible to satisfy its middle-class supporters in downtown urban areas (for whom pipelines, mining and forestry are dirty words) and working-class voters living elsewhere (for whom this is about jobs and respect for the work they do).

From this, O’Toole will expand outward to include a broad-based appeal to economic patriotism, targeting blue collar households. The pandemic has shone a harsh light on the hollowing out of our manufacturing sector. How successful this will be is difficult to say. After all, the Conservatives were the ones who gave us free trade. But now that the party of Margaret Thatcher has emerged triumphant in England’s deindustrialized North, anything is possible.

The other wedge issue will be patriotism. We can expect the Conservative Party to wrap itself in the Canadian flag, much as Canada’s left once did before 1988, and fire-up the culture wars. The hotter it gets, the better, for the Conservatives. I expect Sir John A Macdonald’s name will come up once or twice. In Québec, the Conservatives will try to tap into Islamophobia and secularism, but they are unlikely to emphasize immigration as they want to win the Vancouver and Toronto suburbs.

To respond to this political challenge, now more than ever, those on the left need to find ways to bridge the politics of recognition and redistribution—and to re-engage with working-class communities.

Steven High is the author of Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rust Belt, One Job Town: Work, Belonging and Betrayal in Northern Ontario, and co-editor of The Deindustrialized World: Confronting Ruination in Postindustrial Places. He is now leading a seven-year transnational project examining the politics of race and class in deindustrialized areas.

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