Polarization or Realignment: What is the Moral of this Story?

Maxwell A. Cameron

Politicians are storytellers. At best, their stories become part of the narrative of the nation. At the least, they offer us reasons to support them—reasons to believe that their cause is ours.

Stephen Harper offered a compelling narrative to his supporters. The election was not about him, he insisted. It was an unnecessary election, brought on by squabbling politicians, and it threatened to derail the economic recovery that his government had achieved.

For those who did not support Harper, his attacks on the other leaders for their excessive ambition seemed pretty rich. But that did not matter because Harper framed the election debate so that it was not about him but about the other leaders and their desire to replace the government with a coalition that would be nobody’s first choice.

The strategy worked against Michael Ignatieff, the target of most of the Tory attack ads. Ignatieff was particularly vulnerable because he had spent his life outside Canadian politics, and could be dismissed as “just visiting.” Worse, he appeared ambitious without explaining the source of his lust for power.

Ignatieff failed to provide a competing narrative that would frame the election in a way that people could identify with. Having supported the war in Iraq he could hardly be an avatar of Pearsonian internationalism. As someone who called himself an American, he couldn’t captivate Canadian nationalists.

Layton benefited from Ignatieff’s weakness. His feisty debate performance reframed the election as a three-way fight. His expressed desire to be the Prime Minister was crucial to making the case that he was a real contender. Ignatieff’s ambition became an embarrassment, but for Layton it was critical to his credibility.

Layton was able to frame the debate, not in ideological terms, but as a choice between change and more of the same. With a leaf taken from the Obama campaign (“We can do this” rather than “Yes we can”), he argued that Ottawa was broken. His success in Quebec—a long sought prize for the NDP, it must be stressed—eliminated the single biggest barrier to the growth of the NDP elsewhere. This produced a massive realignment.

As the official opposition, the NDP will be in a good position to develop the narrative of change that has worked so far. It would have been very difficult to be leader of the opposition in a hung parliament. But for New Democrats, victory is bitter sweet.

A Tory majority means the better part of half a decade more of inaction on the climate crisis, to name but one example of the kinds of issues that will rile the NDP (and part of the Liberal) base. If Liberals and New Democrats think the Conservatives governed undemocratically in a minority government, they can anticipate a much more radical approach from a Conservative majority.

The big question we are left with is whether Canadian politics will now polarize along left-right lines or will the NDP find a way of working with the Liberals (and, at last, one Green MP) to reclaim the centre? Already there are voices calling for a new liberal democratic party to represent the 60 percent of the electorate that did not want this election result. For this to work, however, the Liberal Party must examine itself and come up with a better message about why it matters and a better messenger to deliver it.

2 Replies to “Polarization or Realignment: What is the Moral of this Story?”

  1. Max, thanks for your clarifying comments. I think that Canada may be heading toward the same kind of polarized politics as the US. I’ve heard Paul Krugman say that this is the result of the great disparity in wealth and income in the US, and Canada is developing similar inequalities. The Tories are using Republican tactics such as negative campaigning, cultivating a culture war (not too advanced yet, but just wait) and making parties reliant on private donors. The NDP and Liberals will probably have to join forces to create a party that can effectively oppose the Conservatives in the next election.


  2. I could not agree more. With inequality comes a decline in the value placed on the public good. Public goods are things we all enjoy and value. But as incomes rise, we don’t need public goods as much. Consider healthcare. Who needs public health care when you have a high enough income? Who needs public schools, when you can afford private ones? The more income polarizes the more money is put in the hands of those who have no interest in public goods. This is why the wealthy want low taxes. Not to create more jobs, but to reduce their contribution to public goods they neither want nor need. When people say government should be run like a business they are really just saying that the government should not provide public goods. By definition, public goods are not provided by businesses because people can’t be excluded from their benefit. If you can’t exclude people, you can’t turn a profit by providing the good. Maybe we need to invite Paul Krugman to come here and talk about how the disparities in income in the US have polarized politics.

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