Could a Realignment Happen Here?

The political realignment happening elsewhere could happen here, but the regionalism that defines our country presents some unique roadblocks in building this sort of political coalition.

A lot of ink has been spilled in the last few years trying to explain the political realignments taking place across the western world. Some celebrate it, most commentators decry it, but there’s a lot of disagreement about where it came from. There is a general consensus however that Canada is largely immune to these broader political forces, like nativism, nationalism, and populism, and thus we shouldn’t expect to see a realignment happen here. 

But the language and approach we’ve seen from Erin O’Toole since he became leader of the Conservatives suggests that O’Toole and his team don’t entirely share this assessment. These are still early days, but it looks like the Conservative approach under O’Toole is going to be to try and capture the same kinds of “left behind” voters that made Trump president in 2016 and voted to leave the European Union in the United Kingdom. 

Canada has a large segment of people we can classify as “left behind,” but the regional dynamics that define Canadian politics are going to make building a viable political coalition on top of it very difficult. In short, I think right now we’re not actually focusing on the right places when we think about a potential realignment, and we aren’t thinking seriously enough about how regional dynamics would play into this. 

Canada’s Populist Immunity? 

I’ve written in the newsletter (and elsewhere) before that I think the best lens to understand these forces sweeping global politics is to think of them as particularistic forces. This captures both subnational and civilizational movements in ways that terms like populism and nationalism don’t. 

This was a key of part of my assessment of our apparent immunity to these forces in a piece I wrote for The American Interest shortly before the 2019 federal election. If you understand these political forces as being defined by some sort of particularistic attachment, in contrast to liberal universalism, it makes sense that a particularistic politics was never going to emerge in Canada at the national level. Our contemporary national identity is essentially liberalism and thus a particularistic backlash against liberalism at the national level doesn’t make much sense.

But I also argued that the way these particularistic forces manifest in Canada is at the local and regional level. The growth of this liberal national identity has created a vacuum that has allowed these particularistic identities to flourish at the subnational level. What this might do long term is lead not so much to populism, but to fragmentation. I bring this piece up because it is a good way to contextualize the argument I’m about to make. The dynamics of how this country works have to be understood through regional lenses. Canada doesn’t make sense absent these dynamics. 

Shifting Political Cleavages 

O’Toole’s shift hasn’t gone unnoticed. A few weeks ago in the Globe John Ibbitson published a piece titled “The new class divides are defined by education, gender, age and geography.” The piece is about just that. There’s a well-known theory of party formation called cleavage theory, which essentially posits that party and political divides are built around preexisting social and cultural cleavages. These new divides may be an evolution and represent the new cleavages around which parties will start to realign.

Here’s Sean Speer talking about the same thing in the National Post:

“O’Toole’s working-class gambit reflects a broader political realignment that’s occurring across the Anglosphere. One of the main political stories of the past quarter century or so is the shift of non-university educated, working-class voters from the left to the right. There are various explanations for it including the transition from a goods-producing economy to a service-based economy, an acceleration of cultural and demographic changes, and a growing values-based divide between post-materialists and those “left behind.” 

Although there are disagreements about the causes of these trends, there’s little dispute about their political effects. Left-wing political parties have increasingly become representative of urban, educated, progressive voters and conservative parties have come to comprise rural, less-educated, traditional voters. This realignment is reshaping politics in the United States, United Kingdom, and elsewhere in advanced economies.

Forgotten People 

The left behind citizens in western countries that have become the key to these political realignments share some important characteristics across national boundaries. There’s been some work done identifying these citizens as well. We’ll call them forgotten people.

Canada’s labour market performance over the past few decades looks, at least on the surface, to be quite good. Significant gains have been made. But looking at the disaggregated picture suggests we have a large class of these forgotten citizens just like other advanced postindustrial democracies. Most of Canada’s labour market gains in the past few decades have been among women with postsecondary credentials. There have also been gains with men with postsecondary credentials, but most importantly men and women with postsecondary credentials have seen significantly stronger gains than men and women without these credentials. 

I’d encourage you to read the Macdonald-Laurier Institute paper linked to above if you want to look a bit more at the data. To point this out isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with educated women seeing these big gains, what’s important though is that the big gains among this group mask stagnation and decline in other groups. In particular, men without postsecondary credentials have seen both stagnating and declining labour force participation rates, employment rates, and income levels. 

Canada has the highest levels of postsecondary educational attainment among all OECD countries. Around 54% of Canadians aged 25-64 have college or university credentials. But there are still nearly seven million working age Canadians (25-64) who don’t have postsecondary credentials, and these are the people who are not experiencing the labour and income gains that credentialed workers are. These are the forgotten people who have been disproportionately impacted by economic change and the move away from industrial to a postindustrial knowledge and service based economy.

Forgotten Places 

Education and gender play a role in these new cleavages, and there is a large segment of the working age population in Canada who fall under this forgotten people category. But what’s also significant about these people is where they are clustered. Urbanization means most Canadians now live in urban areas. But around 20% of the Canadian population still live in rural areas, and while this is among the lowest rates in any G7 country there are still roughly 11 million Canadians who live in rural areas and small population centres (less than 30,000 people). That’s a lot of Canadians. 

What is striking is that the divides between credentialed and non-credentialed workers in labour market performance maps on extremely well to a rural-urban divide. We lead the OECD in educational attainment, but we also lead the OECD in having the largest urban-rural gap in postsecondary attainment. Nearly all the job creation and growth in Canada has been in a small group of large urban centres, with everywhere else being left behind. This explains why these large urban areas continue to grow, but also why the gap between these areas and the rest of the country does as well. Rural employment levels still remain below pre-2008 recession levels.

We could delve into this deeper, but the key takeaway is that there are millions of Canadians that fit the left behind mold. A divide is growing in Canada between highly credentialed urban citizens and less credentialed rural citizens, males especially. Education, gender, and geography are becoming the new dividing lines between those that are getting ahead and those that are falling behind.

Canada’s Natural Resource Resiliency 

So Canada does have a sizable portion of the population that fit the “left behind” mold, but it is also less pronounced than in other places like Britain and America. There might be a reason for this. Canada has experienced what economists have described as a “resource boom” in the last 15 years or so, What this may have done is created job growth and opportunities in a sector where workers, males especially, that lack postsecondary credentials could still find relatively high paying and “mid-skilled” work. This helped maintain relatively strong employment in this class of people and also ensured these workers weren’t all forced into low-skilled service jobs, or unemployment.

It basically ensured that there was a middle option for these workers that helped lessen the impact of “job polarization” on Canada’s non-credentialed working class. It made sure that the loss of jobs in sectors like manufacturing and the auto sector (mid-skilled jobs that don’t necessarily require postsecondary credentials) didn’t result in the complete disappearance of mid-skilled jobs and industries. The paper cited above specifically made the case for this by comparing job polarization in Ontario and Alberta and argues that differing job polarization paths in these two provinces in the 2000s could be explained by the demand for labour in the oil and gas sector. Kevin Milligan, a UBC economist, has made a similar argument and suggested that Canada’s resource sector has sustained Canada’s middle class over the last few decades. 

And this is why the collapse of the oil and gas sector is so troubling. If the sector doesn’t recover and these jobs disappear permanently, the devastation this will cause won’t just result in human tragedies and countless lives ruined and lost to deaths of despair, it may create the same political earthquakes we’ve seen elsewhere here, just delayed.

A Hypothetical Forgotten Places Coalition 

That Canada has a large segment of left behind citizens, and that our now struggling resource sector may have helped lessen the impact of various economic forces and dislocations suggests, in theory, that a political realignment built around bringing some of these voters into the Conservative fold might work here. Let’s imagine what that coalition might look like at the federal level. 

The base of the Conservative Party is in Western Canada and rural Southern Ontario. Forming government means expanding beyond this. In 2011 Harper’s majority was built by dominating in the West and Ontario, combining both the rural Southern Ontario base with a near sweep of the GTA. Combined with a strong showing in New Brunswick, this was the path to a Conservative majority. But a realignment would theoretically look a bit different to the 2011 coalition. 

The Conservatives are off to a good start building a realignment coalition. The Prairies and rural Southern Ontario fit the mold. But the logical next step to increase this forgotten coalition would be in different areas. It would focus on Northern Ontario and cities like Sudbury, Thunder Bay, and Sault Ste Marie. It would also include adding some of the rural seats in Southern Ontario and places like BC that they failed to win in 2019. 

It would also have to include big gains in Atlantic Canada. The four Atlantic provinces are the four most rural provinces and are hardly beacons of economic growth and prosperity. The Conservatives did very well in New Brunswick in 2011, winning 8 of the province’s 10 seats, but the Conservatives have historically performed poorly in Atlantic Canada. Winning here would be a true sign of shifting coalitions and realignment. The other place where a realigned coalition would (in theory) need to break through is rural and small town Quebec. Forget the cultural and linguistic differences for a moment and these Canadians look just like the forgotten citizens elsewhere.  

Treat these people and places as all the same and you’ve got the makings of a potent electoral coalition of rural and small town Canada. The problem is you can’t treat them the same. Building a viable political coalition between the West, rural and Northern Ontario, rural and small town Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces is going to be incredibly difficult because of distinctive regional cleavages and identities.

Regional Divides and Challenges 

If Canadians were a homogenous group of people, and the only differences between us were the urban/rural and credentialed/not-credentialed cleavages, you could probably make this work very easily. But in Canada these identities, especially identities that involve feelings of alienation and disconnect, are closely tied into regional and subnational identities. These identities are often in direct conflict with each other. 

The way successful realignments end up occurring is these new cleavages end up reorienting around specific issues or debates. Britain’s membership in the EU is the perfect example, and Brexit was a critical juncture moment that unfroze loosening political identities and led to this electoral realignment by giving these new divides a specific issue around which battle lines could be drawn.

In Canada these issues are likely to be ones that make putting a regional left behind coalition together much more difficult. For instance in the West we are already seeing this alienation manifest itself in calls for equalization reform and other constitutional questions unlikely to be popular elsewhere. Equalization reform becoming an issue around which forgotten people in the West can be mobilized would make sense there, but equalization reform is not only unlikely to mobilize forgotten Atlantic Canadians, it may well actually alienate them and be the thing that prevents them from joining this new coalition. Newfoundland, another province which gets the short end of the equalization straw, might be the exception.

As a brief aside, we need to retire the term “Rest of Canada” (ROC) to describe English Canada. It drives me nuts to see people using it. The differences between different parts of English Canada are wide and varied, and Canada is a federation of regions now not just two different linguistic and cultural groups. 

But the real regional challenge here concerns Quebec. I won’t rehash my assessment of Quebec’s political landscape from a few weeks ago, but the cultural particularism likely to mobilize these Quebecers is one that for obvious reasons appeals only to Quebecers. The CAQ now dominate in rural and small town Quebec, but these voters look very different from “similar” voters elsewhere. 

The first and most obvious challenge would be that again, a coalition between the West and Quebec under one banner would be very fragile. Whether it comes to tensions over equalization again, recognition of Quebec’s distinctiveness, or aspects of official bilingualism, a West-Quebec alliance is going to face serious challenges. I also explained in the Quebec piece how Quebec’s cultural conservatism is not a social conservatism, and how Quebecois particularism actually now understands itself as very secular and liberal. It’s going to be difficult reconciling that with the more socially conservative parts of the coalition that is important in places like Southern Ontario.

I came across by chance an interesting academic paper a few weeks ago when looking at the polling on Canadian support for immigration. I’d always assumed that there was a deep consensus around immigration here, something echoed in the media and by all our political and cultural elites. But the polling actually consistently shows that large portions (close to and over a majority in some polls) of the population want lower immigration levels. Gordon, Jeram, and van der Linden argue that the reason this has never manifested itself electorally in Canada as it has elsewhere is that this “nativist” vote is split in Canada between an anglo nativist bloc and a Quebec nationalist bloc, and that these two blocs have never been able to unite in a serious way to create a serious nativist party in Canada, and that structural and regional dynamic creates the illusion of an immigration consensus in Canada. 

A political realignment around these new cleavages in Canada has to account for these regional and local dynamics. The regional diversity and distinctiveness of Canada is one of the things I love about it the most. Canada is a better place because of its regional distinctiveness. But these regional dynamics mean that the ways that mobilizing these forgotten peoples across the country is going to look very different in different regions and places. You cannot just treat an alienated oil sector worker in Alberta, an anxious steel worker in Sault Ste Marie, a Quebec nationalist in Trois-Rivieres, and a poor fisherman in Nova Scotia the same. 

The “forgottenness” of these left behind citizens in Canada is intermeshed and layered into distinct regional and cultural identities, ones that may well come into conflict. Building this sort of coalition may be nearly impossible to do.

Could it Still Work? 

Yes and no. This is already long enough so I’ll wrap it up with some thoughts I’ll return to soon. I would welcome a conservatism that genuinely becomes a champion of working people, and I think there are places and spaces where this is possible. But to do this we’ve got to think seriously about coalition building. 

Attempting to flip non-traditional regions like Northern Ontario and Atlantic Canada should be a key part of this, because adding these voters and areas to the traditional Conservative base is a fairly natural extension that could be done without creating new conflicts within the Conservative coalition. But this wouldn’t be enough to actually form a governing coalition, and my skepticism about the possibility of breaking through in Quebec means that I think the Conservatives still need to look elsewhere, specifically the GTA and the 905. 

As much as forgotten people are clustered in rural and small population centres, there are still plenty of working class and struggling Canadians in urban areas, ones who also fall into this left behind category. These are again the non-credentialed working males in urban areas who end up working precarious jobs or low skilled and low paying service sector jobs. This also means a realignment here is going to have to be inclusive of ethnic and religious minorities, like the “Ford Nation” coalition. A conservatism that genuinely wants to help the working class cannot ignore these people either. Figuring out how to reach out and help these people could actually be the key to a serious realignment here. 

While a realignment is possible we’ve got to think carefully about how and where it can be turned into a governing coalition. It won’t look just like Harper’s 2011 coalition, and it won’t just look like an entirely rural coalition that ignores regional differences. But to make it work Canadian conservatism has to think about the left behind peoples in major urban areas as well, and I think it is here where we actually have an opportunity to craft a genuinely reform-oriented, working-class conservatism that helps working people because it doesn’t just cherry pick or idealize the working people it focuses on. More on this very soon.