Canada recently had elections! An odd idiosyncrasy of the Canadian political system is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (through the governor general) has the power to call elections whenever he sees fit. Trudeau called the elections in August, with an election day set for Sept. 20, in the hopes of securing a stable majority in Parliament to pass some of his more ambitious COVID-19 recovery packages.
Before the election, Trudeau was the head of a minority government, in which the largest party in Parliament is the governing party unless a coalition rises to supplant them. Opinion polling indicated that it was likely he would be able to obtain that majority in Parliament, so he called the snap election. In the end, after a drop off in polling for Trudeau’s party, the Liberal Party and a surge for the rival Conservative Party (Tories), the election ended with disappointment for most parties involved, as none of the major parties saw significant shifts. Even though we saw no dramatic wins or losses, there are still teachable moments for American political observers, as Canadian voters prioritized the same issues as American voters this cycle: COVID-19 and the economy.
If you are unfamiliar with Canadian politics or parliamentary systems, just imagine that by virtue of being the boss of the largest party in Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the head of government. The main parties in Canada that you have to know about are the ruling centre-left Liberal Party headed by incumbent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the center-right Conservatives headed by Erin O’Toole and the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) headed by Jagmeet Singh — the first person of color to head a major Canadian party. Also in the mix, while not winning any seats this cycle, is the right-wing anti-coronavirus lockdown People’s Party of Canada (PPC). Other minor parties are the environmentalist Greens and the Quebec Separatist Bloc Quebecois, but these two are much less analogous to American parties and institutions.
The first lesson from this election is that there is an upper limit on energizing the youth. Jagmeet Singh of the New Democrats ran a youth-centered campaign. Singh, a turbaned Sikh with a west coast surfer accent and a hipster vibe, prioritized issues young people are supposedly in support of, such as taking decisive climate action. He was a constant presence on TikTok, and he even played Among Us on a stream with his American counterpart, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. All that to only gain one seat in Parliament. It makes sense to at least partially center youth issues into the fun social democratic party, given that young people tend to be the most amenable to social democratic policies and Singh’s aesthetic. But the NDP did not do as well as they hoped, gaining only one seat to increase their total to 25 members of a 338-member Parliament. That is not to mention that even though they were successful at winning a plurality of voters in the 18-35 range, they only beat out the Liberals by a few percentage points.
It wasn’t even that Singh did a bad job. According to recent polling, even after the loss, 82% of NDP voters want Singh to stay on as leader. Singh often polled as the most popular of the federal party leaders, but artificially limiting a movement to youth aesthetics is not a recipe for success. We know that the NDP can have electoral success because not even three elections ago, in 2011, they had more seats than the currently-ruling Liberals under leader Jack Layton. So we know the problem is not that Canadians detest left-wing policy. There are only a limited number of young people with a propensity for voting, and parties (or progressive wings of American parties) hoping to effect national change should not limit their policies or aesthetics to the young. Focusing on a group as uniformly distributed across the country as young people does not lend itself to electoral success. Focusing on turnout above all else, which is the trap many left of center organizations can fall into, has limited effectiveness as you scale this strategy up and out of the most progressive districts because even if you energize the youth into voting, there is no guarantee that they will vote for you.
The second message is for American conservatives. Parties without a shared narrative or a shared voice will inevitably fail. The Conservative Party’s leader. Erin O’Toole, an unassuming former member of the Canadian armed forces, adopted a strategy of extreme moderation for the conservatives. Pro-carbon tax, pro-choice and pro-banning certain models of firearms, O’Toole did everything he could to seize on the center of the Canadian electorate. The fact that these are not traditional issues championed by the Tories did not go unnoticed by voters. Moderation will be seen as pandering when the Conservatives are perceived to have abandoned many of their signature issues in hope of securing the keys to the Prime Minister’s office.
This gamble failed, as you may be able to tell from my tone in the last paragraph, and caused a surge in parties to O’Toole’s right. Meandering down the middle of the road ultimately proved to be an ineffective way for the Conservatives to pick up stray votes. The People’s Party of Canada (PPC) for instance is led by former Conservative Member of Parliament and the Marjorie Taylor Greene of Canada, Maxime Bernier. Bernier capitalized on lockdown measures and the conspiracy theories that emerged in their wake to become the explicitly populist, anti-globalist, anti-COVID safety measures candidate. The PPC sapped up a measly 5% of the electorate and didn’t even win one seat, but the vote splitting is still projected to have cost the conservatives up to 24 ridings (the Canadian term for district).
This should worry moderate Republicans, such as Larry Hogan, potential presidential candidate and Maryland Governor. Even barring party schisms like we have seen up north, at this stage it may be near impossible for a Republican to win without the new voters that former President Donald Trump and his distinct policies, for better or worse, motivated into the polling booth. Up to 70% of Republicans would consider joining a third party if it were headed by Trump. If the 2024 Republican presidential primary goes in the wrong way and an enraged Trump finds reason to exit the party, you could see a Republican Party hobbled for more than a decade.
O’Canada, a country with a much smaller population than our own but one that is just as politically vibrant. American politics of course did bleed into the Canadian election. Former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both endorsed Trudeau and his Liberal party, while Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., endorsed Singh and the New Democrats. Though Canada is of course a deal more liberal (small L) than the United States, and even has a different political system, our closest ally still has lessons for both the American left and right. Because of this recent snap election, the next Canadian federal election will not be until 2025 as opposed to 2023, which it would have been without the snap election. Until then though, keep an eye on the leadership struggle within both the Conservative and New Democratic parties, and hope that the PPC meets its more than timely end after COVID-19 measures die down.
Julian Barnard is a Senior Opinion Editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.