It's important not to confuse American social problems with the Canadian context, argues Sean Speer in the Sun. The political conditions that gave rise to American's populism are simply not present here.
by Sean Speer, August 1, 2016
Back-to-back Republican and Democratic conventions have blasted U.S. political news and ideas into Canadian living rooms. We’ve been saturated with American facts, stories, and experiences every day for two straight weeks.
One of the results is to reinforce the pre-existing tendency for Canadian politicians to wrongly draw on American evidence for the Canadian context. It’s a mistake made by both liberals and conservatives that we should all agree to stop. Canadian policy debates should be based on Canadian facts and evidence.
Canadian progressives are frequently guilty of conflating America’s lack of social mobility with the Canadian experience in their calls for more wealth redistribution. The 2016 federal budget described a scenario of wage stagnation, social immobility, and economic anxiety that might reflect the circumstances in parts of the United States but resembles few communities in Canada. As one Canadian-born, U.S.-based scholar has put it: the American Dream seems to have migrated to Canada.
Canada’s median income had matched and now exceeds that of the United States.
Consider a 2014 New York Times project that found that while U.S. middle-class income growth had largely stalled over the past 30 years, it's climbed by nearly 20% in Canada. The result is that, by 2010, Canada’s median income had matched and now exceeds that of the United States. It’s the reason the New York Times declared Canada the home of the world’s richest middle class.
Consider another study produced by TD Bank that shows Canada’s median household income went from lagging that of the U.S. in the mid-1970s to establishing a nearly 10% income advantage by 2010. It’s no surprise, then, that the authors described it as a “tale of two countries.”
The list goes on. Yet, despite this clear evidence of social mobility and wage growth in Canada, there’s a tendency among some politicians to attribute the American experience of immobility and stagnation to the Canadian context. The result is a set of policies – such as tax hikes on the wealthy – that don’t reflect the Canadian experience.
And this isn’t just a problem amongst liberals. It’s also increasingly a trend among conservatives who seem to see the potential conditions for Trumpism across the 49th parallel. Headlines such as “Trump a cautionary tale for conservatives” suggest that Canada is susceptible to Trump-like populism. This, too, is mostly a consequence of simply assigning U.S. facts and figures to Canada.
despite this clear evidence of social mobility and wage growth in Canada, there’s a tendency among some politicians to attribute the American experience of immobility and stagnation to the Canadian context.
One can argue about the various factors that’ve led to Donald Trump’s surprising political success but most would agree that the root causes – such as the dysfunctional U.S. immigration policy, concerns about free trade, and a nostalgia for a perceived golden era – are less evident here in Canada.
Reforms undertaken by the Harper government to reorient immigration policy to Canada’s economic needs and to enforce immigration rule-breaking have given Canadians more confidence in our system. Roughly six in 10 Canadians view trade as Canada’s top foreign policy priority even if support for specific deals is a bit lower. And the general mood of the country is positive, according to a series of different polls.
Moreover the type of socio-cultural and economic dislocation in parts of the U.S. (see for instance J.D. Vance’s recent book, Hillbilly Elegy, on the tragic decline in parts of the Appalachia) that has contributed to Trumpism is not present in Canada save perhaps for certain First Nations reserves.
This isn’t to say that Canada doesn’t have problems or that we shouldn’t be cognizant of the conditions that have led to social immobility or economic anxiety in the United States. But it is a caution that Canadian politics cannot take its bearings from the U.S., which is facing a unique set of challenges.
Sean Speer is a Munk Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute