On the face of it, the election of Donald Trump in the United States this month and last year’s election of Justin Trudeau in Canada had precious little in common.
The American election was a vile affair, filled with misrepresentation, outright lying, racism, hate and character assassination. The Canadian election was a relatively clean, though hard-fought, campaign that for the most part stayed within the bounds of acceptable political discourse and conduct.
The two elections, however, turned on the same factor – the public’s desire for change. As I noted in a column back in August, the desire for change is the most potent force in politics today. Politicians ignore it at their peril.
Before the long Canadian election began, the polls were reporting that 60 per cent of voters wanted a change in Ottawa; by election day in October 2015, the percentage had climbed to 70 per cent. With the incumbent Conservatives content to defend their record of nearly 10 years in office and to promise four more years of the same, voters who were dissatisfied with the status quo had two choices: the New Democrats, who were the official opposition in the Commons, or the third-place Trudeau Liberals.
In the early going, it appeared as though the front-running New Democrats would be the chosen agent for change. But they made a catastrophic mistake when they attempted to move to the right by adopting an economic agenda that voters could not distinguish from the Conservatives’. That left Trudeau and the Liberals as the realistic option for many electors who wanted change.
South of the border, the winds of change that carried Barack Obama into office in 2008 had run their course. Significant numbers of both Democrats and Republicans were looking for a change of direction. That led to a swelling anti-establishment sentiment in both parties, represented among Democrats by the left-wing populist Bernie Sanders and among Republicans by the rogue populist Donald Trump.
The Democrats might have won if they had nominated Senator Sanders or, better, if they had chosen a younger progressive with fresh ideas (an Elizabeth Warren, perhaps). Instead they chose the experienced but widely distrusted Hillary Clinton, the poster girl of the Washington elite.
We may never know with certainty but it appears that as many as one-third of Bernie Sanders supporters from the Democratic primaries either stayed home or moved across to support Trump in the election. They were attracted by Trump’s populism, his anti-establishment pose and his promise to shake up Washington, to “drain the swamp,” as he put. For these erstwhile Sanders voters, the desire for change proved stronger than party affiliation or ideology.
The two national elections are not the only stages on which the desire for change has played out. The world saw it last June in the Brexit referendum in Britain where voters dumbfounded all the heavy thinkers by choosing to withdraw from their nation’s four decades-old membership in the European Union.
We saw it in Canada in May, 2015, when the desire for change in Alberta was so powerful that voters turned on the Progressive Conservatives who had ruled the province for 44 years, dumped them into third place, and handed a majority government to Rachel Notley and the NDP. New Democrats running Alberta? It still takes some getting used to.
The question in Ontario is whether Premier Kathleen Wynne and her Liberals will also fall victim to the forces of change when they meet the electorate in June 2018. Their poll numbers are dismal, for the party and even more for Wynne personally.
It’s still a long road to the election, but for the moment Liberals are comforting themselves with polls that show that their principal opponent, Tory leader Patrick Brown, manages to be both unknown and unpopular.
Brown could never be elected premier of Ontario, could he? Nah! And Donald Trump could never be elected president of the United States.