Similarities and Differences: What A Comparison of Doug Ford and Donald Trump can Tell Us About Populism in Canada and the United States

Last week produced the election outcome that most expected and many progressives feared.  Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives won a large majority in Ontario, taking almost 41% of the vote and 76 out of 124 seats.  There is strong temptation for many to compare Doug Ford to Donald Trump.  Ford is a populist politician, claiming to represent “the people” against a supposed class of political elites.  Such a comparison is valuable in that it can highlight some of the ways that right-wing populists take power.  Like Trump, Ford benefited from running against an unpopular incumbent and for an established party that is usually seen as the alternative to that incumbent.  Unlike Trump, Ford did not run an anti-immigrant campaign.  Indeed, success in the diverse ridings in suburban Toronto were key to his victory.  This suggests that populism can succeed in Canada under circumstances very similar to the conditions its succeeds under in the United States, but not with the same anti-immigrant rhetoric that American right-wing populism often has.

It is notable that both Trump and Ford won elections that a generic opposition party candidate was either favoured to win or very close to being favoured to win.  In the United States, election forecasting models that focus largely on economic conditions and incumbency (and which ignore the characteristics of the candidates running for office) showed a very close election in which a Trump win was reasonably likely.  These models ended up being very close to the actual result.  In Ontario, Ford was running against a highly unpopular Liberal government that had been in power since 2003.  A 15 year old government with a Premier that has an approval rating going into the election of 19% is not one that is likely to win re-election.

Both Trump and Ford won elections that any opposition party should have.  It is very rare to see either the Democrats or the Republicans win three consecutive Presidential terms, as it is to see parties govern provinces for over 15 years.  The take-away here should not necessarily be that Trump or Ford benefited from a populist surge.  Rather, they won elections that most opposition leaders and parties would have.  Progressives should not take too much comfort in this.  One would hope that choosing leaders that ignore democratic norms, like Trump and Ford, would cost opposition parties elections they should otherwise be able to win.  The Ontario election suggests that this is not necessarily the case.

It is important that both Trump and Ford ran for mainstream parties.  This is one of the things that sets the two apart from European populists.  Most European populists run for explicitly populist parties instead of co-opting mainstream ones.  This is the case for Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France, Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party in Britain.  As a result, they have to develop their own election organizations and establish their own groups of party loyalists.  Trump and Ford took over existing parties with deep roots in their respective jurisdictions.  Neither had to build their own organization, and both benefited from voters’ loyalty to established parties, be it to the Republicans in the United States or to the Progressive Conservatives in Ontario.

There are two lessons that come from this.  The first is that keeping populist parties out of politics does not necessarily keep populist politicians out of power.  Indeed, institutions that force populist politicians into mainstream parties may make them more powerful.  This is something to consider when debating institutional reforms such as changes to electoral systems.  Designing institutions that make it harder for right win populists parties to emerge may just drive right-wing populists into mainstream parties.  Once in those parties, being able to take advantage of the mainstream parties’ electoral organization and partisan loyalty may make it easier, not harder, for right wing populists to win.

The second lesson is that progressives should not count on partisans to defect in order to defeat a candidate who violates key democratic norms.  There were certainly large numbers of Republicans and Ontario Progressive Conservatives that campaigned against Trump and Ford when they were running in primaries or leadership contests.  Once Trump and Ford had won the leadership of their respective parties, however, supporters of their parties fell in line.  Partisan loyalty ended up being stronger than any commitment to democratic norms.

All of this being said, it is important to remember that Doug Ford is not Donald Trump and that the demographics of Ontario are different from the demographics of the United States.  Unlike Trump, Ford did not make anti-immigrant rhetoric a central part of his campaign.  Rather, he focused on opposing carbon pricing, reducing hydro-electricity rates, and cutting taxes.  Ford did make a rather odd comment about Ontario “taking care of [its] own” in response to a question about encouraging immigrants to move to Northern Ontario.  In responding to criticism though, he emphasized his ties to immigrants and highlighted the importance of recognizing immigrants’ education credentials.  This is far cry from the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump campaign or of many European far-right populists.

Ford also did well in ridings with large shares of immigrants.  The first graph below shows little relationship between the size of the immigrant population in a riding and Progressive Conservative vote share.  The second and third show the average PC vote in ridings with an immigrant population of at least 30% and at least 40% respectively.  Ford did only slightly worse in ridings with an immigrant population of at least 30% than he did in Ontario as a whole.  He actually did slightly better in ridings with immigrant populations above 40% than he did in the rest of the province.

Immigrant Population and PC Vote Share

Each x denotes a riding.  The line shows the trend and the 95% confidence level.

Support in Ridings with Immigration Populations Over 30%

Support in Ridings with Immigration Populations Over 40%

The lack of anti-immigrant rhetoric in Ford’s campaign is a reflection of Canada’s demographics.  Canada has a very large immigrant population (1/5 of Canadians were born outside the country).  Immigrants also tend to be concentrated in swing ridings that determine who wins elections.  This is particularly the case in Ontario with respect to the suburbs around Toronto (often referred to as the GTA).  Running on an anti-immigrant platform in such an electoral environment is bound to lead to failure.  As such, Ford had to modify his populist appeals in a way that appealed to the Ontario’s diverse electorate.

There is value in comparing Trump and Ford’s electoral success.  There are similarities between the two.  Both took advantage of circumstances that were favourable to opposition parties, and both successfully co-opted mainstream parties with strong election organizations and loyal followers.  At the same time, Trump and Ford are not the same kind of populists.  Ford’s efforts to, not only avoid anti-immigrant rhetoric, but to win over immigrants highlights the way that Canadian right-wing populism had to be very different from American right-wing populism.  The anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump campaign cannot win in a country where immigrants make up a large portion of the electorate and are concentrated in the key swing districts parties need in order to be successful.

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Right/Left Splits: Gains from the Smaller German Parties Came from the Expected Larger Parties

Last September’s German election produced interesting results.  The election created a Bundestag with 6 parties, more than any election since WWII.  This has made coalition formation difficult as the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) Angela Merkel failed to build a coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP) and Greens, and is now trying to form a grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SDP).  Part of the reason that coalition formation in Germany is so difficult after this election is that both the CDU and SPD lost significant shares of the vote to small parties.  The CDU dropped from 41.5% of the vote in 2013 to 32.9% in 2017, while the SPD dropped from 25.7% to 20.5%.  In light of this, it is interesting to look at which smaller parties have benefited from the declines in the two major parties.  When one looks at where the CDU and SPD have lost votes, it appears that each of the smaller parties benefited from the larger parties’ decline, though the AFD did particularly well in districts where the CDU or their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) lost significant amounts of the vote.

I took advantage of Germany’s mixed member proportional system to examine the way that votes shifted from larger to smaller parties in the last election.  Like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, Germany is divided into districts (known in some countries as ridings or constituencies) for elections.  Unlike in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, German voters get to vote both for a district representative and party that they prefer.  The candidate with the most votes in the district enters the Bundestag as the representative for that district, but additional members are also added to the Bundestag from party lists in order to ensure that each party’s total number of seats is equal to its share of the party of vote.  To examine shifts in vote share I looked at the way that voters’ party vote shifted in different districts, comparing the losses in the two main parties to the gains made by the smaller parties.  I used voters’ party vote and not their vote for district representative, because party votes are less likely to be subject to strategic considerations (district representative votes for weak parties are more likely to be seen as wasted than party votes) and because party votes are less likely to be influenced by the quality of the candidate being run in the district.  In all of my analysis, I look at the change in party vote share between the 2017 and 2013 elections.

The strongest differences with respect to where a minor party gained votes exist for the AFD.  The graph below compares the change in vote for the two largest parties to the change in vote for the AFD in each district.  Districts that saw AFD gains between 10 and 20 percentage points saw much larger declines in CDU/CSU vote shares (in black) than SPD vote shares (in red).  Where the AFD’s gains were weaker (between 5 and 10 points), the CDU/CSU’s and SPD’s losses where much closer to each other.  This suggests that the AFD is pulling more votes from the CDU/CSU than from the SPD.  This fits with the way that the AFD has challenged Merkel for her openness to receiving refugees during the Syrian refugees crisis.  At the same time, the fact that the AFD made gains in districts that saw similar CDU/CSU and SPD losses suggests that it is plausible that the AFD took at least some votes from the SPD.

Change in AFD, CDUCSU, and SPD Vote by District

The party with the next greatest divide in gains from the CDU/CSU and SPD is the far-left Die Linke or Left party.  The graph below shows that where Die Linke made gains, CDU/CSU and SPD losses where fairly similar.  CDU/CSU losses were greater than the SPD’s, but that is likely due the fact that the CDU/CSU losses in general where greater than the SPD’s.  This should not be seen as evidence that the Die Linke is drawing a large number of voters from the CDU/CSU.

Change in Die Linke, CDUCSU, and SPD Vote

Interestingly, the districts that Die Linke lost most in are also the districts that the CDU/CSU suffered their heaviest losses.  It is plausible, though more evidence would be needed to prove this, that the AFD has managed to appeal to disillusioned voters on both the left and the right of the political spectrum.  Voters who voted for Die Linke in 2013 out of disillusionment with the mainstream parties may have seen the AFD as plausible alternative to mainstream parties in 2017.  While Die Linke and the AFD have very different anti-establishment appeals, Die Linke’s is economic and anti-capitalist while the AFD’s is anti-immigrant and anti-European integration, it is plausible that anti-establishment voters would shift between the two parties.  This may have occured if AFD was able to increase the salience of immigration and European integration issues at the expense of the economy.  In such circumstances anti-establishment voters may shift from Die Linke as the economic anti-establishment party to the AFD as the anti-immigrant anti-Europe anti-establishment party.  This is supported by the graph below, which shows that the districts that saw the largest declines in the Die Linke vote also saw the largest gains for the AFD.

Changes in Die Linke and AFD Vote

It is finally notable that the differences between who the two mainstream smaller parties took votes from are less pronounced.  The first graph below shows that the FDP did slightly better in districts where the SPD lost more votes and where the CDU/CSU lost slightly less, but these differences do not appear to be particularly significant.  The second graph below shows that the size of SPD losses appeared to have no correlation at all with the change in the Green vote, though the party did do slightly better in districts where CDU/CSU losses where larger (the size of the Green gains in these districts however is only two of three points).

Change in FDP, CDUCSU, and SPD Vote by District

Change in CDUCSU, SPD, and Green Vote by District

The greatest damage done to the two German mainstream parties in 2017 was done by the AFD.  Their growth disproportionately affected the CDU/CSU, suggesting that they are a greater threat to the CDU/CSU than to the SPD.  At the same time, the SPD also lost votes in the districts where the AFD saw gains.  While the SPD should feel less threatened by the AFD than the CDU/CSU, it is not necessarily the case that they face no threat at all from the party.  Far-right parties around Europe have been able to take votes from anti-immigrant left-leaning voters who perceive immigration and the European integration as a threat.  This should lead the AFD to be able to take at least some votes from the SPD, even if they take a larger number from the CDU/CSU.  The gains that the AFD made at the expense of the CDU/CSU mean that, as Angela Merkel attempts to navigate her through coalition talks, she will have to pay particular attention to the threat the AFD presents to her party.

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Who Benefited from the Collapses? A Comparison of Labour and Conservative gains from UKIP and the SNP

This June’s British election saw a surprise as Theresa May’s Conservatives, who were expected to increase their majority at the beginning of the campaign, lost their majority and almost lost government altogether. The election was seen as a success for Corbyn’s Labour party and an utter failure for May’s Conservatives. What is notable, however, is that the vote for both the Conservatives and the Labour party went up compared to 2015. May’ proportion of the vote was 5.5 percentage points higher than Cameron’s in 2015 while Corbyn’s was an impressive 9.6 points higher than Milliband’s. In contrast, both the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) lost large numbers of votes. May did not lose the Conservative majority because she won fewer votes than Cameron, she lost because Labour was able to increase their vote share to a greater degree than the Conservatives were.

This suggests that Labour was able to take votes from the collapsing UKIP. UKIP had a disastrous election, losing its only seat and dropping over 10 percentage points in the popular vote. Part of the narrative around Labour’s rise and UKIP’s collapse is that Labour was able to win back working class, anti-immigrant voters who defected in 2015. A look at where UKIP lost votes and where Labour and the Conservatives made gains, however, suggests that the Conservatives benefited more from UKIP’s decline than Labour did. The more UKIP lost in a riding, the closer Conervative gains where to Labour ones.

The graph below shows compares the gains of both Labour (in red) and the Conservatives (in blue) to UKIP losses. Each x marks the change in percentage points for either Labour or the Conservatives in a particular riding, while the line provides the overall trend. Labour tended to pick up votes in a riding regardless of whether UKIP suffered significant losses. There is a slight increase in the Labour vote share as UKIP losses increase, but it is only slight. In contrast the steeper trend line for the Conservatives shows that the more UKIP lost in a riding the more successful the Conservatives were. Where UKIP lost 0-10 percentage points the Conservatives tended also to lose support (though there were a substantial of ridings where UKIP losses were close to 0 and the Conservatives made substantial gains). In contrast, almost all of the ridings in which UKIP lost more than 10 percentage points saw Conservative gains, many of them quite substantial.

Labour and Conservative Gains Againt UKIP Losses

This is not to say that Labour did not make gains in ridings in which UKIP suffered substantial losses. Like the Conservatives, Labour only suffered losses in a couple of ridings in which UKIP lost over 10 percentage points of the popular vote. There is, however, a much larger gap between the two parties in the ridings where UKIP losses are low. The more UKIP losses in a riding, the closer the Conservatives come to catching up to the Labour party’s gains. In the vast majority of ridings the Conservative gains never fully catch up to Labour’s gains (though the one riding in which UKIP saw losses of over 30 percentage points, Clacton, saw a much larger Conservative gain than a Labour one).  The gap between Conservative and Labour gains is much smaller, though, in ridings where UKIP lost over 15 percentage points than in ridings where the UKIP vote dropped by fewer than 15 percentage points.

While this suggests that Labour might have taken votes from UKIP, the UKIP decline was more important to Conservative success than Labour success. The fact that Labour made large gains regardless of whether riding saw a substantial UKIP collapse suggests that Labour was able to take votes from other parties (or that they were able to mobilize large numbers of previous non-voters). Indeed, UKIP’s collapse may have done more to hurt Labour than to help it. Had UKIP not lost large numbers of votes, the Conservatives may not have been able to make the gains that they did in the ridings where UKIP vote declined by more than 10 percentage points. A larger gap between Labour and Conservative gains in these ridings may have handed a number of seats that Conservatives won over to Labour.

The same dynamics do not appear to apply to the SNP in Scotland. The graph below shows that the Conservatives made substantially larger gains than Labour regardless of how much the SNP lost in a riding. Labour did slightly better in ridings where the SNP did worse as compared to ridings where SNP losses where limited, but the increase in Conservative vote share appeared to be unaffected by SNP losses. The result is a reasonably consistent gap between Conservative and Labour gains throughout Scotland.

Labour and Conservative Gains Against SNP Losses

The Labour party’s success in the 2017 election was remarkable. It is particularly notable that Labour did not need to see large UKIP losses in a riding in order to make significant gains. This suggests that, while Labour probably did win over some former UKIP voters, they also had other sources of support. The Conservatives, meanwhile seemed to be much more reliant on making gains from UKIP losses, suggesting that the fortunes of UKIP have a much greater impact on the Conservatives than on Labour.

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The Declining Importance of the Left/Right Spectrum and its Consequences for Left Parties

Two weeks ago, liberals and progressives around the world breathed a sigh of relief as Emmanuel Macron defeated far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen by a healthy margin in the French Presidential election. The victory of a pro-European, pro-immigration centrist re-assured many concerned that last year’s Brexit referendum and American Presidential election were harbingers of a global rise in far-right populism. While Macron’s victory is indeed reassuring, it is also notable that the run-off portion of the French election was fought not between a traditional centre-left candidate and centre-right candidate but between a centrist globalist and a far-right nationalist, neither of who came from France’s traditionally strong political movements. This fits with a broader trend in politics in which the traditional left-right divides that have structured politics in industrialized countries since the second world war have declined in importance. As this has occurred, issues surrounding national identity and globalization have become more important. This has presented a significant challenge to traditional left parties.

Like all political movements, left parties are a coalition of groups with somewhat different interests. Many left parties are alliances of working class and socially progressive voters. They have been able to appeal to working class voters by championing wealth redistribution, promising increased funding for a wide range of social programs, strong minimum wage laws, and protection of unions’ rights. They have been able to appeal to socially progressive voters by supporting feminist, multicultural, LGTBQ, and anti-racism movements. When traditional left-right issues have dominated politics this coalition has been stable.

The increase in the salience of immigration and globalization, however, threatens the left coalition’s stability. Significant numbers of working class voters see increased immigration as a threat to their jobs and access to social services. Far-right parties have been able to take advantage of this perceived threat. Both Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen had success in working class areas that had previously supported left parties. These working class voters perceive globalization as a threat to their well-being. On the other side of left parties’ traditional alliance, socially progressive voters are largely supportive of immigration and, in many cases, stand to benefit from increased global integration. The British Labour party, in particular, faces a challenge when it comes to finding a balance between the positions its pro-globalization and anti-globalization voters support. Both a significant number of Labour ridings that voted to leave the European Union and a significant number voted to stay.

Left parties that have to compete on both the traditional left-right and the immigration/globalization dimensions of politics end up caught between a rock and a hard place. If they take strong anti-immigrant and anti-globalization positions they risk losing their socially progressive pro-immigrant voters as well as moderate urban voters that benefit from globalization. Increasingly these voters have options beyond traditional left-wing parties. Across Europe, green parties have emerged as socially progressive pro-immigration and multicultural parties that stand ready to benefit if left parties fail to defend issues important to their socially progressive voters. The success of the Dutch Green-Left party in this year’s election (they finished 5th with more votes than any of the other left parties) highlights this. Increasingly, moderate liberal parties such as Emanuel Macron’s En Marche or the Dutch D66 appear to be viable options for moderate left voters unhappy with a traditional left parties’ opposition to globalization.

If, however, left parties take strong positions in favour of globalization or free trade, they risk losing significant numbers of working-class anti-immigrant anti-globalization voters to far-right nationalist parties. It is not an accident that far-right parties from France, to the Netherlands, to Sweden link their anti-immigrant views to concerns over employment or over a country’s ability to continue to fund generous social programs. These claims, however misguided they are, are attempts to win over working class voters that have traditionally supported left parties. Recent elections in Europe and in the United States suggest that they have been successful in doing so.

The difficulty of holding their traditional electoral coalition together can explain why left parties have been struggling in recent elections. Neither of Europe’s most recent elections were kind to left parties. In the Netherlands the Labour party finished in 7th with only 6% of the vote, a decline of 19 percentage points from their total in the prior election. In France, the Socialist party Presidential candidate failed to win more than 7% of the vote and was never considered a serious threat to win the Presidency. In Britain, there is little indication that the Labour has much of a chance of winning government. This is all part of a broad trend that I wrote about earlier this year where left parties’ vote shares have be declining steadily of the past four decades. The more important to elections immigration and globalization become, the more difficulty left parties are likely to have holding their traditional electoral coalitions together, and the more likely the decline in left support is to continue.

The changing political environment will force left parties into some difficult decisions about what they want to be. They will have to face a choice about what side of immigration and globalization issues they want to come down on. Whichever side they take, they are likely going to lose a significant group of voters. This will make it more difficult for left parties to try to challenge for government on their own. Rather, they will have to build alliances with other, and in many cases, stronger parties. Left parties that decide to hold on to their socially progressive positions will have to work with moderate liberal parties. These moderate liberal parties are winning pro-immigration and pro-globalization voters from both left and right parties, and will likely force the traditional left parties that collaborate with them to move somewhat to the right in order to accommodate some of their voters. Traditional left parties that decide to take anti-immigrant or anti-globalization are likely to lose some of their more socially progressive and moderate urban voters to green and moderate liberal parties, and will struggle to find allies amongst other parties. If left parties are going to maintain their socially progressive values and continue to influence government, they are likely going to have to work with moderate liberals such as Emmanuel Macron.

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Keep Government Responsible: Citizens of Parliamentary Democracies Should be Working to Inoculate Their Institutions Against Trumpism

The election of Donald Trump and his flouting of the liberal and democratic norms that underpin society has much of the world worried. These fears are made worse by the increasing strength of far-right parties in much of Europe, and the presence of Trump-like candidates Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary in the Canadian Conservative leadership races. The rise of the far-right should raise concerns about the concentration of power with positions such as the Prime Minister or President. When a far-right candidate, such as Trump, wins control of executive office they have a great deal of power to affect policy. In parliamentary systems, parliament is supposed act as a check, holding the Prime Minister and cabinet accountable for their decisions, and removing them from office when they put forward or implement policy ideas that are at odds with elected MPs.  In practice, however, the ability for parliament to do this is constrained by the power the Prime Minister has over MPs. Two measures, the adoption of proportional electoral systems and increased MP control over leadership selection, offer important counter-balances to a potential far-right Prime Minister.

Parliamentary systems, in contrast to Presidential ones, rely on a fusion of power between the legislature and the executive. The Prime Minister only remains in power so long as she has the approval of parliament. If the PM and cabinet put forward legislation or enact policy that parliament dislikes, parliament can remove the PM from power through a confidence motion. In theory this practice ensures that PMs and their cabinets act in a way that reflect a country’s broader interests. In practice this can hand the PM a great deal of power to implement their policy. The PM can reward those MPs that support her with promotions to cabinet positions and punish those that do not by limiting their opportunities to rise beyond the backbenches. The power that the PM wields over MPs, especially when she leads a majority government, can prevent parliament from acting as an adequate check.

The adoption of a proportional electoral system, though it would make it easier for a far-right party to enter parliament and even to become a junior coalition member, would limit the ability for a far-right party to lead a government. Because proportional systems rarely produce majority governments, parties that win office in such systems have to share power, either through coalition governments or through minority governments that make significant concessions to opposition parties. The need to obtain the cooperation of other parties can make it difficult for a far-right party to gain control of government.  Because a PM’s power over MPs is usually limited to those in her own party, forcing the PM to work with other parties weakens the power of the PM and strengthens parliament.

The current Dutch election illustrates how PR can constrain the far-right.  In the Netherlands Geert Wilders’ Party For Freedom looks poised to win the more votes than any other party in March elections but is unlikely to win a majority. Wilders, however, is unlikely to become the Dutch Prime Minister because, to this point, no other party has expressed a willingness to join him in coalition. It is more likely that other parties will form an alternative coalition that keeps him out of power. Even if Wilders does manage to become PM, he will need to temper his extremism in order to maintain power. The threat that parliament can remove a far-right leader from power immediately through a confidence vote should prevent a far-right PM from acting in the same way that Trump has since becoming President.

Allowing MPs more say over their leaders would also empowers them to act as a check on the take over of mainstream parties by far-right candidates. One of the reasons that Trump was able to win the 2016 election was that he was able to win the support of loyal Republicans- individuals who might not have supported Trump had he run as an independent. In Canada, Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary serve as similar examples of populist candidates seeking to take over a mainstream party. Allowing MPs a greater say over leadership selection or the power to remove leaders could serve as a check against this. MPs come from a diverse group of ridings and need reasonably broad support to win office. Leadership candidates often need only a subset of party members in order to win leadership election. Because many MPs need broad support to hold on to their seats they have an incentive to push back against leadership candidates that may be well-liked by a subset of the party’s base but have little appeal to the broader national electorate.

The extent to which MPs were able to push back against more extreme candidates was illustrated in the recent British Conservative leadership race. To become leader of the British Conservatives one must finish first or second on a vote of the parliamentary party (Conservative MPs) and then win a majority vote of the broader party membership. A third place finish on the parliamentary party ballot took candidate Michael Gove (who had campaigned to leave the EU during the Brexit referendum) out of the race. Indeed the other leave campaigner, Andrea Leadsome who had finished second, ended up dropping out because she did not feel she had sufficient support amongst Conservative MPs. MP’s ability to exert control over the leadership selection process helped the moderate Theresa May defeat more extreme rivals. Either increasing MPs’ ability to affect leadership races or giving them the ability to remove leaders they do not support would give MPs much greater power to check a far-right leaning leader of a mainstream party.

The way democratic institutions are set up affects the ability of individuals to win power and the ability of elected bodies to check those that wield it. Robust democracies do not grant a single individual the ability to rule by fiat, they force those that exercise executive power to be accountable to elected bodies such as parliaments. In the wake of Trump’s election victory and the threat that similar candidates could rise to power in parliamentary systems, there is a need to consider ways in which parliaments can be empowered to check such candidates. Proportional electoral systems and increasing MPs’ ability to choose or recall their leaders offer two ways through which this can be done.

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Could It Happen Here? What it Would Take for a Trump-Like Candidate to Win in Canada

The election of Donald Trump in the United States has raised important question for Canadians about whether such a candidate could be successful here. Neither Trump’s policy positions, nor his rhetoric, are unique to the United States, far-right parties now exist and are relatively successful in most European democracies. The Conservative leadership race has also seen the emergence of two anti-multicultural candidates in Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney. In light of the rise of far-right parties across Europe and North American, it is important to ask to what extent Canada is different from these countries and what the warning signs might be for a rise in a Canadian far-right party. Canada’s political institutions and demographics make the success of far-right candidate or party less likely, but not impossible.

A Party or A Candidate?

One of the notable things about Trump’s success in the United States is that, unlike most of the European far-right movements, Trump did not form his own party. Rather, he co-opted the existing Republican party. This raises questions as to whether a Canadian far-right challenge would likely to manifest itself in the form of a new party or an attempt to take over an existing one. Canada certainly has seen the emergence new parties, particularly of protest parties. In the 1990s the Reform Party and Bloc Quebecois gave voice to concerns that the interests of the West and of Quebec were being ignored by existing political parties. Similar sentiment regarding the exclusion of Western interests served as the basis for the emergence of the Progressive Party in the 1920s and 1930s. It is certainly possible for new parties to emerge in Canadian politics.

To be successful, however, a new party has to have a strong base of regionally concentrated voters. Canada’s first past the post electoral system severely punishes parties that have a small number of geographically dispersed voters. This has been a problem for emerging parties, such as the Green party, that do not have a strong regional base. Notably, lack of geographic concentration has been a problem for far-right parties in both Australia (which uses an alternative vote system) and the United Kingdom (which uses a first past the post system). Australia’s One Nation Party managed to win 8% of the vote in 1998, but did not win a single seat and subsequently saw their share of the vote decline substantially. The UK Independence Party was has also been hurt by that country’s electoral system. The first time it won a seat in a general election was in 2015, and in that election over 10% of the vote got the party just one seat. Provided Canada continues to use a first past the post (or even if it changes to an alternative vote) system, a far-right party would likely face similar difficulties in Canada. Unless it could find a strong regional base, and a comparison to Australia and the UK suggests that is unlikely, a far-right party would have great difficulty converting votes into seats.

The other option for a far-right movement would be to take over an existing party’s leadership and try to use that party’s resources and brand to win office. In my last post I wrote about how this contributed to Trump’s victory in the United States. It is possible that this could happen, but such a movement would face greater difficulty in Canada than in the US. The most likely target of a far-right take-over would be the Conservatives. Unlike the Republicans, however, the Conservative party uses a ranked ballot to decide its leader. This poses a problem for a far-right candidate. It means that a candidate such as Leitch or Blaney would have to win an absolute majority of leadership votes. This is a higher threshold than Trump needed to win the leadership. It is important to note, that with 45% of the vote (even counting votes that were cast after many candidates dropped out), it is not clear that Trump would have been able to win the nomination under such a system. A ranked ballot allows any coalition of anti-far-right voters to keep a far-right candidate from the leadership provided they make up a majority of the voters in the leadership contest and all rank the far-right candidates lower than any other candidates. Unlike in the Republican party, anti-far-right Conservatives do not need to agree on an anti-far-right candidate, they just need to agree not to rank the far-right candidate highly. It is not impossible for a far-right candidate to win a majority of votes (or to pick up a majority of second choice votes) but it is harder than winning the plurality needed for the Republican nomination.

Ridings and the Election

Even if a far-right candidate won control of the Conservative party, they would still need to win a general election. This would be more difficult than in the United States because the way that electoral institutions combine with demographics to give immigrants a great deal of voting power. Canada has a large immigrant population with a foreign born population of around 20%. Further, immigrants in Canada tend to be geographically concentrated in electoral districts, largely in urban and suburban areas. Many of the seats with large immigrant populations, particularly those in suburban Toronto and Vancouver, are swing seats that the Conservatives need to win in order to win government. One of the reasons that the Liberal party was able to hold on to majority governments through the 1990s was their ability to win large numbers of immigrant votes in these battleground ridings. Under Harper, the Conservatives realized this and made a concerted effort to win over ethnic minority and immigrant voters. It is not an accident that the Conservative majority in 2011 coincided with them reducing the gap between themselves and the Liberals amongst ethnic minorities voters. A Conservative party led by a far-right candidate would have difficulty winning key swing ridings, and therefore would have difficulty winning elections.

It is difficult to see how a far-right led Conservative party would off-set these losses. There are less diverse ridings in rural Atlantic Canada and Quebec outside of Montreal. However, these are not ridings where the Conservatives have been traditionally strong. It is not clear that campaigning against multiculturalism would change Conservative fortunes in these regions either. Notably the Parti Quebecois attempted to mobilize voters along multiculturalism and identity issues when they introduced the Charter of Values (which would limit the ability of public servants to wear religious symbols such as hijabs or kipahs) in 2014. The PQ lost that election with their vote share falling by 6.5 percentage points and their seat share falling by 24 seats. There is some evidence to suggest that the Charter of Values did the Parti Quebecois more harm than good. One could imagine that under the right circumstances it might be possible for a far-right led Conservative party to pick up enough non-diverse seats to off-set losses in more diverse areas of the country. It is not clear, though, that taking positions against multiculturalism would help them do so. A far-right led Conservative party would have a very difficult path to victory.

In Parliament

The Canadian parliamentary system would present two hurdles to a far-right led Conservative party. First, the party would have to win a majority government. While coalition governments are rare in Canada, a far-right led Conservative campaign may be enough to force the Liberals and New Democrats to work together to keep such a party for governing in a minority situation. In Ontario the Liberals and NDP cooperated after the 1985 election to replace a Progressive Conservative party that had won a minority government. Coalitions have their perils, as was demonstrated during the 2008 federal government coalition crisis, but it is hard to believe that the Liberals and NDP would not cooperate to keep a far-right led Conservative party espousing Trump-like or European far-right views from power.

Even in a majority situation, a far-right led Conservative party would have to keep control of its caucus. Unlike the American President, Prime Ministers can only remain in power if they have the support of the legislature, and in a majority situation that means having the support of their parties’ MPs. While backbench revolts in Canada are extremely rare, they are serious problems for party leadership when they happen. The emergence of the Democratic Representative Caucus as a break-away group from the Canadian Alliance in 2001 ended up playing a significant role in forcing Stockwell Day to resign as party leader. A far-right leader would have to ensure that their MPs, even the moderate ones highly skeptical of anti-multicultural ideas, fell in line with the party. If the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams of the Canadian Conservatives would be willing to forgo the cabinet and committee positions a leaders uses to keep her party in line, they could cause significant problems for a far-right Conservative leader trying to hold on to the leadership of the party.

Could it Happen Here?

The path to a far-right Prime Minister in Canada is a very difficult one. The far-right candidate would first have to win control of the Conservative party on a ranked ballot- requiring the candidate to win at least 50% of the leadership vote. The candidate would then have to find a way to win in Canada’s diverse electorate and in an electoral system that strengthens the voting power of immigrant and minorities. Such a candidate would have to find some way to off-set her inability to win in diverse suburban ridings around Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. This candidate would also have to win a majority government and would have to maintain control of their party, finding some way to stave off caucus revolts from moderate backbenchers unwilling to accept anti-multicultural or anti-immigrant rhetoric. It is not a impossible that a far-right candidate could win power in Canada. The outcomes of the Brexit referendum and the American election certainly suggest that it is a mistake to underestimate far-right anti-immigrant and anti-globalization movements. At the same time, the institutions and demography of Canada would make far-right success here very unlikely.

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A Trojan Elephant: The Election of Trump Demonstrates the Dangers of Allowing the Far-Right to Take Over a Mainstream Party

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has shocked Americans and people around the world. Many question how a candidate who was so far beyond was thought to be acceptable in American politics could end up winning an election. Two things are important to remember when reflecting on Trump’s victory. The first is that he is not unique. Far-right parties are present in almost every European democracy and they take substantial numbers of votes. Second, is that partisan loyalty can be a powerful force, it is often the case that when voters find out they disagree with their party that they change their views instead of changing the party that they support. The election of Trump offers an important lesson to Brits and to Canadians about the dangers of allowing a mainstream conservative party to be co-opted by far-right leadership.

During the American primary I wrote about how Trump’s candidacy was not particularly original. The extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric and the cult of personality are all things that are strikingly common amongst Europe’s far-right parties. The opposition to globalization (for the European parties this comes in the form of opposition to European Union integration, while for Trump this ends up being opposition to trade agreements such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) nor the anti-elitism set Trump apart either. While there are certainly some differences between Trump and the European far-right, Trump is more socially conservative than a number of European far-right parties, his campaign looked very much like an Americanized version of a European far-right one.

Trump’s primary win also fits with success of far-right parties across Europe. Trump won about 45% of the vote in a Republican party which between 40% and 45% of Americans identity with. That’s the equivalent of winning somewhere between 18% and 20% of the vote, not a stretch at all for a European far-right party. Indeed, when I wrote my earlier post on Trump’s likeness to the European far-right I noted that his poll numbers were right where one expect them to be, given the rise of other European far-right parties over the last 20 years. Up until the end of the American primaries there was little that was unique about Trump. He was running the same kind anti-immigrant, anti-elite, anti-globalization campaign that is common in Europe and was winning about the same percentage of the vote with that campaign.

The crucial difference between Trump and the European far-right, however, is that Trump was not leading his own party, he was running as a candidate for leadership in an already established party. This gave Trump two major advantages over most far-right candidates. The first is that he could use the resources of the Republican party when running in the general election. Even though he did not have the support of the entire Republican establishment he could count on many of established Republican campaigners to help him to run his campaign. This gave him a level of election expertise that most far-right parties simply do not have. As my colleague, Adam Coombs, points out in his piece on voter turnout, Trump was able to benefit both from the Republican party’s get out the vote efforts and from voter suppression laws that Republican governors put in place to provide an advantage to Republican candidates. Unlike most far-right parties, Trump was able to take advantage of all of the work that mainstream conservatives had done to try to give their party an advantage in elections.

Second, and more importantly, Trump was able to use the Republican brand. There is an extensive literature in American political science that shows that Americans have a high level of partisan loyalty. There is also a great deal of work, summarized in Achen and Bartels’ recent book, Democracy for Realists*, that shows that when voters find out they disagree with their candidate on an issue, they change their views on the issue not on the candidate that they are supporting. The confluence of American partisan loyalty and voters’ tendency to adopt the views of their candidate meant that as soon as Trump became the Republican nominee he had access to voters that no European far-right party does. Because voters tend to fall in line with their candidates, many of the Republicans who remained loyal to their party were likely to adopt the kinds of far-right anti-immigrant and anti-globalization views that Trump campaigned on. The fact that Trump ran as a Republican and not as third party candidate meant that he could reach loyal Republican voters who are willing to accept the views and arguments of a Republican candidate, but who may be reluctant to consider those same views and arguments when offered by someone running under a different party banner. No European far-right party has been able to take advantage of mainstream conservative party loyalties in the same way.

This is not to suggest that Trump did not win the support of some Democrats and independents, or that some Republicans did not vote against Trump. Far-right parties in Europe have demonstrated an ability to win the support of traditionally left leaning working class voters who oppose immigration and are fearful of globalization. There were also certainly some Republicans who voted against Trump, not all voters are blindly loyal to their parties. Trump was able, however, to build a coalition of far-right anti-immigrant anti-globalization voters (Republican or otherwise) and loyal Republicans unwilling to desert their party. Most European parties cannot build the same coalition because they are only able to win the first group voters- those who hold anti-immigrant or anti-globalization views strong enough to lead them to desert one of the mainstream parties. To get the support that Trump needed to win the American election he needed both strongly anti-immigrant and anti-globalization voters and loyal Republicans.

Trump’s ability to co-opt the Republican party should worry moderate conservatives and progressive in Britain and Canada. In both countries, like in the United States, a first past the post electoral system makes it difficult for the kind of far-right party that is common in Europe to succeed. It is notable that while the UK Independence Party now holds a single seat in British parliament, it took them over 10% of the vote nationally to win it. It is not the emergence of far-right party that these countries have most to worry about, it is the co-opting of one of the mainstream parties by far-right movements. In the UK there are a growing number of Conservative MPs that hold views of immigration and globalization strikingly similar to UKIP. In Canada the Conservative party has two leadership candidates, Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney, who hold anti-multicultural views that are similar to the ones found in far-right parties in Europe. Leitch, in particular, has made efforts to associate herself with Trump’s success.  There is a serious danger that the far-right may become significant to British and Canadian politics not through the emergence of a far-right party, but rather through the take over of a mainstream conservative party.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States shows that far-right candidates can be particularly powerful if they can co-opt a mainstream party. Like in most of Europe, there is a constituency in Britain, Canada, and the United States that will support candidates opposed to immigration and globalization. British and Canadian conservatives should take careful notice of what happened in the United States. There is a real danger that their parties can be turned into vehicles to put prejudiced and once thought unacceptable candidates in power.

*Achen, Christopher H. and Larry M. Bartels. (2016). Democracy for Realists: Why American Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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