How did Canadians avoid the extreme political, cultural and social polarization afflicting the United States?
In a nutshell, America’s political centerline skews to the right compared to most other advanced, industrialized democracies.
Indeed, the deep social and cultural fault lines dividing America are largely absent in Canada. Perhaps more importantly, a relative dearth of money and corporate influence in the Canadian political system helps to sustain its vibrant middle class.
A comparison between Canada’s Conservative Party and the Republican Party illustrates these striking differences. In stark contrast to Republicans, the leader of Canada’s Conservatives is pro-choice. A Conservative Party source tells me that merely hinting at restricting abortion in Canada would amount to political suicide for any party seeking to govern.
But what explains this extraordinary cultural disconnect between America and its northern neighbor?
For one, the 1980s saw the rise of the Religious Right in the United States. In the span of a few years, Jerry Falwell & Co. mobilized millions of evangelicals – historically ambivalent about abortion – and conservative Catholics by weaponizing religion for political gain. No similar mass movement materialized in Canada.
Similarly, American conservatives may be surprised to learn that Canada’s Conservative Party supports reasonable gun control measures.
To be sure, Canada does not have an American-style Second Amendment. But guns only became a deeply divisive political and cultural issue in the United States after the National Rifle Association's (NRA) rise to prominence in the late 1970s. Before then (and for the majority of its existence), the NRA was a moderate, non-partisan organization that supported – and even helped craft – sensible gun control legislation.
Indeed, for most of American history, gun ownership was viewed through a strict constitutional lens; that is, as a collective right in the context of a “militia,” rather than an individual right. The rightward shift of the NRA helped change the course of American politics.
In another striking example, Canada’s single-payer health care system is sacrosanct among voters (just as the UK's system is to Britons). Most Canadian Conservatives would never dream of shifting their popular, government-run health system towards the wasteful, bankruptcy-inducing, for-profit American insurance state.
As my Conservative Party source makes clear: “No one in our political system would eliminate any part of the social safety net… We, unlike your conservatives, have trust in our government.”
Beyond the relative absence of deep cultural and social divisions in Canada, America’s skewed political spectrum helps explain why Canada boasts a much stronger middle class (and far less homelessness) than the United States.
Amid Canada’s election campaign, the Conservative Party vowed to strengthen protections for “gig” workers while promising to increase benefits for working-class citizens — policy positions opposed by many Republicans.
Canada’s Conservatives also vowed to include workers on the boards of federally regulated companies. As the Conservative Party leader recently said, “Too many decisions at major corporations are being made without the people who helped build the company – the workers – at the table.”
Make no mistake: It's hard to imagine Canadian-born Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSchumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks Bipartisan senators to hold hearing on 'toxic conservatorships' amid Britney Spears controversy GOP senators seek to block dishonorable discharges for unvaccinated troops MORE (R-Texas) uttering such a statement. Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFranken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Pelosi says House members would not vote on spending bill top line higher than Senate's Groups push lawmakers to use defense bill to end support for Saudis in Yemen civil war MORE (I-Vt.), on the other hand, would — and does.
At the same time, Canada’s Conservatives support a carbon tax and pledged to appoint a vaccinated minister of health if their party wins the election. Amid the GOP’s climate change denial and the politicization of public health in the United States, a Republican presidential candidate emulating Canada’s Conservatives seems unfathomable.
Ultimately, Canadian Conservatives – like mainstream conservative political parties in virtually all advanced, industrialized democracies – are far more closely aligned with Democrats than Republicans on many issues. Perhaps most strikingly, a “radical” American politician such as Bernie Sanders would be closer to a centrist in Canadian politics.
The consequences of America’s rightward slide are deeply troubling. Indeed, this ideological shift now poses a profound and growing threat to democracy.
Thanks to the corrosive influence of money in American politics – which, over four decades, contributed to diminishing wages, dwindling worker benefits, mass outsourcing of jobs and the decline of unions – America’s once-proud middle class is struggling. Homelessness and “deaths of despair” from opioids and alcohol are surging to unprecedented rates. In their desperation, millions of Americans are increasingly susceptible to extreme political rhetoric.
Republicans might argue that America’s rightward shift fostered an explosion of innovation and economic growth. But such claims do not stand up to close scrutiny.
American innovation surged and the economy boomed in the decades following World War II. Yet back then, Americans could rely on both Democrats and Republicans to guarantee the strong social safety net that protected a once-vibrant middle class. At the same time, top marginal tax rates hovered between 70 and 90 percent.
More recently, deep-blue cities and counties fostered the tech revolution — the most profitable, innovative private sector advance in generations. Meanwhile, many of the reddest states and counties languish in economic stagnation and decline, leaving their citizens vulnerable to dangerous demagoguery and fringe ideologies.
Ultimately, American conservatives seeking to make sense of the intractable issues dividing and threatening their country may want to look to their Canadian counterparts.
Had the Republican Party not veered rightwards four decades ago, Canada offers a glimpse of the healthier, friendlier and more tranquil country that America could be today.
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.