Like it or not, and whether it is indeed an accurate assessment, the terms “populism” and “class war” are increasingly creeping into our political language the closer we get to this fall’s federal election. Numerous pundits have spent the past year assuring Canadians that nothing like Brexit or the Trump phenomenon would happen here in Canada, yet a growing section of Canadians wonder if that isn’t the direction we are headed. It’s a fear, rather than an actual reality. But fear, as we all understand, is perhaps the most primal of human emotions.
The warning from the joint article by Frank Graves and Michael Valpy in last week’s Toronto Star titled Why Canadians Need to Wake up About Populism was likely the most compelling argument yet on the dangers this country has with the global populist phenomenon. And, emerging just prior to the Graves/Valpy piece, Andrew Coyne’s National Post examination of how class is becoming an appealing target for political disruptors (Why Conservatives Have More at Stake Than Liberals in Canada’s Class War) reminded us just how pivotal educational background can be when it comes to electoral motivations.
But the real cause of both the class distinctions and the rise of an anti-institutional populism is the declining expectations of and the anger emanating from just one group: the middle class. Seriously, the potential turbulence of our political future won’t be premised on the rich-poor, elite-common frictions, but the temperament of this country’s once vaunted middle-class core. It has become a very difficult exercise for any political party to guarantee the advancement of the average Canadian family. The slow crumbling of the oil industry’s boom years, loss of manufacturing, and the inability to move whatever wealth is being created to middle-class individuals leave governments with a declining stock of revenue to keep the country’s economic infrastructure in a healthy condition.
You can see evidence of this everywhere, should one choose to look beneath the surface of our apparent Canadian opulence. The Trudeau government’s introduction of the child benefit along with extra funds put into affordable housing have had a clear and beneficial effect, and yet the numbers of those visiting food banks across the country remains stubbornly high. That’s because the nature of work itself has transformed, leaving an increasing number of Canadian breadwinners in low-paying, precarious, or vulnerable jobs – no benefits, no pensions, no hope. Long-term retirement investments are declining for these workers, as are possibilities for travel, job upgrading, or a sense of economic stability.
A new generation of students carry ominous debts and are more than aware that their prospects for a better life can’t compete with the opportunities their parents enjoyed. The ability to pay one’s own way into the future is receding, leaving an increasing number of Canadians in need of economic intervention – from parents, friends, government programs – just to hold their own.
This is the world the average Canadian worker knows and he or she lives in ongoing frustration at the lack of upwards mobility. In fact, what they are experiencing is movement in the opposite direction. On the surface, Canada still seems to be economically stable, but these workers know the true story. And since meaningful employment has been the essence of middle-class empowerment, it will inevitably erode as their work prospects decline in meaning and value. They are downwardly mobile and no amount of political jingoism can change that.
The Canadian middle-class was always the great gold standard for political parties, but as it declines, especially in expectations, so do the fates of the parties themselves. Canadians experience greater difficulty in believing that the political class can truly affect the middle-class. What such citizens gave for decades they can just as easily take away as their fortunes slip – a stable hegemony
In such a world, everything is on the table, including vented anger and loss of hope. All parties are endeavouring to reverse the decline of the middle-class but the failure to do so in significant terms is changing all the political equations. Even politicians themselves have begun to wonder if they can actually produce or legislate the prosperity required to overcome the present malaise. As German politician, Jeffrey Fischer, put it when he first entered the Bundestag:
“One of my biggest shocks was the discovery that all the imposing government palaces and other trappings of government were in fact empty palaces. The imperial architecture of government palaces masks how limited the power of those who work there really is.”
The Canadian middle-class is dangerously close to taking away the stability that made Canada an object of envy in the world. It is not irreversible, but it will take two key components to hold the centre: 1) the refusal of all political parties to play the class and anger card; and 2) the government of the day discovering new and innovative ways of giving the future back to the middle-class through capturing the new wealth that seems to elude us. Fail in either endeavour and we’ll be talking much more about class conflict and populism in the coming years.