This is an odd time for those on the Canadian left who are used to Americans looking longingly north of the border. For now, as long as the Bernie Sanders campaign continues to mobilize thousands of new supporters each week, the tables have turned.
Even if he’s really only offering a pragmatic form of social democracy, Sanders has created a political space in the mainstream left that’s sorely missing in Canada. His insurgent campaign for the Democratic Party nomination has put inequality and systemic injustice front and centre in the United States.
The NDP and the s-word
Policy proposals aside, merely having the word “socialism” back on the agenda in the United States signals a massive shift. Compare Sanders’ unabashed use of the term to recent NDP history.
Canada’s traditional social democratic party has spent recent years downplaying and scrubbing away the last vestiges of socialism from its public presentation. Under pressure from party leaders and bureaucrats, the NDP removed all but one reference to it from its constitution in 2013. The s-word is now only mentioned in passing in the party preamble.
With the party convention and a leadership review fast approaching, NDP members and leaders are busy debating the lessons of last fall’s election disaster.
It’s useful to take a broader view than just the recent botched campaign. For years, the NDP’s leadership and top advisors have taken their cues from their counterparts in control of the Democratic Party — an electoral machine that has been effectively captured by a small coterie of the rich and powerful.
While Sanders and his campaign is speaking to a broad section of the working and middle class from the left for the first time in ages, the NDP has been unable to tap this majority for support in Canada. And while Sanders’ critique is systemic, the NDP has been largely focused on the edges of power, messaging to voters about big banks raising transaction fees rather than big banks rigging the economy.
Inequality and revolution
Of course, it’s fair to point out that the “political revolution” Sanders is calling forth would look different in Canada. Some things are less radically broken in our country: our campaign finance system is not as out of control as that in the United States, the financial sector is not as dominant, and some basic social welfare programs the United States still lacks, such as universal health care, were secured long ago.
On the other hand, while the gap between rich and poor is smaller in Canada than in the United States, it has recently grown wider and faster here. Canada’s levels of inequality, furthermore, do not compare well with other countries of the Global North.
Similarly, although we sometimes like to think of ourselves as a North American Sweden, we’re much more of a “USA North.” Canada is closer to the United States than Scandinavia when it comes to the ability of the welfare state to redistribute income. While racial inequality is front and center in the United States, Canada has largely evaded its racist legacy with respect to First Nations and Aboriginal peoples, who today face barriers as high as those faced by African Americans.
When it comes to keeping tabs on elites, we also score poorly. Media ownership is highly concentrated, and ever more so. In Canada, as in the United States, diversity of opinion is lacking and many opinion-makers are disconnected from the reality of everyday life for the majority. It’s noteworthy that Sanders continues to denounce the “establishment media” in his stump speeches, recognizing their role in legitimizing the system.
Finally, Canada is also a relatively small open economy that is at the mercy of international pressures much more than the United States. This means that it is much easier to sell austerity policies and job losses that hurt millions as hopeless necessity; just ask southern Ontario. That we are subject to vicissitudes of the world economy to a greater extent, however, only means we have to think more creatively, not lower our expectations.
With all these differences in mind, the surge of support for Sanders nevertheless surely calls for a rethink of Canada’s left politics, especially after the Liberals swept to power in 2015 on anti-austerity rhetoric that may turn out to have little substance. If and when a movement like the one building behind Sanders comes to Canada, what should it say?
Tax the rich
One of Bernie Sanders’ big successes has been to break with decades of anti-tax ideology posing as common sense.
How to raise revenues to pay for a social democratic program is a hard question. The right’s pocketbook rhetoric has effectively prevented discussion of this matter, lowering expectations year after year: every tax increase must be modest and have a tit-for-tat tax cut for someone else.
Sanders has smashed through this dogma, making it clear the rich and big business have to pay more. In Canada, ever-lower taxes and copious opportunities for evasion have resulted in less capacity for government to provide even basic services. Canada’s one-percenters can pay more. Billions more for social spending could be gained from top tax rates not higher than those that existed in the 1950s or ’60s. Less noticed, Sanders has emphasized that the middle class, too, could pay more to help fund social programs that, like universal health care, end up saving most people money but also move things off the capricious and inegalitarian market.
The NDP should take note: a message of taxing the rich is not only necessary, but can also be extremely popular.
Universal pharmacare, child care and eldercare
One modest place where a new politics could surely start is with the unfinished business of the welfare state. We have universal health care, but no universal pharmacare. Care for the vulnerable sick is a public, social function, but what about care for children and the elderly? Just in terms of health care, only about 70 per cent of spending in Canada goes through the public system. Why are some areas of health care such as dentistry left to the market and to very unequal access?
Here, even today’s NDP has been clear that we could do more. Its proposals go from relatively comprehensive on pharmacare to very incremental on child care. This is a start, but we have to remember that it is not only what is done and how much by the public sector but also how. It is not enough to pump more resources into services; we should be thinking about how to do things differently.
Bernie Sanders wants to transform how the United States delivers health care from an inefficient private system to a better public one. In Canada, we can propose more. Public healthcare can be done differently with greater patient autonomy and more democratic accountability. It is harder to undermine a system in which we are invested more than simply as passive consumers.
Universities are public institutions in Canada so free tuition could have an even bigger impact here than Sanders’ plan in the United States. Critics say this is a handout to the rich, but there is a broader context. Is it that troubling that Frank Stronach’s, or some other one-percenter’s, children don’t have to pay tuition if we can recoup more from them in higher taxes? Much more important are the far greater numbers of working- and middle-class youth who will have the chance to graduate without or with much less debt. Remember that total university revenues from tuition are below $10 billion across Canada. (That’s less than 4 per cent of the federal government budget).
This is the way universal services work: with broad buy-in from a society that gets high-quality services, while the rich have to go along and pay their fair share. And if we get better social control over these services (say elected university boards or greater student involvement in curriculum development and so on), it might well be easier to develop lasting support to keep them public and accessible.
If it is mostly young people who feel constrained by high tuition and rising student debt, then many more are affected by unaffordable housing. Working- and even middle-class families are finding themselves priced out of their own cities and neighbourhoods. The condo booms in Toronto and Vancouver have shown the economy is adept at producing investment vehicles that double as overpriced homes. Unlike the United States, Canada’s housing price boom kept going through the global financial crisis and house prices have grown 10 per cent faster than incomes over just the past five years. The house price to income ratio is higher today in Canada than other similar small countries, nevermind cities like Vancouver where the ratio is a whopping 10:1.
That some working-class families have won the property value lottery during the boom is no mitigating factor; it only means many now have to choose between enjoying a more secure retirement or staying rooted in their communities. Like free higher education, affordable housing could be central to rebuilding the kind of working class and youth coalition that is propelling Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom. It too is an opportunity to ask for more: not just more public housing to make homes affordable again, but better housing with more citizen input in everything from design to management to urban space. One of the authors recently summarized a range of attainable ideas.
Not afraid to slam Big Oil
In the federal election campaign, the NDP tacked hard to the “responsible” and “moderate” political centre on the issue of pipelines and expanded oil exports. On the big issues like Kinder Morgan and Energy East, their central messaging was barely distinguishable from the Liberals, neither for nor against these two contentious pipelines.
Sanders has been willing to take clear stands on particular pipelines. More importantly, he has sharply critiqued the oil and gas industries as a whole for obstructing climate action and corrupting the political process. In Canada, we are overdue for a political left willing to make this critique of Big Oil. Until we have that, it's hard to imagine a political movement emerging in Canada as youthful or as dynamic as the current Sanders surge.
Jobs for all with less work
Who will do everything suggested so far? Well, what if we stood ready to provide good jobs to all who wanted them and work that is socially useful? This is a simple yet politically hard idea: a federal job guarantee. It is no cure-all but it could alleviate unemployment, stagnant incomes, growing inequality, and ongoing racial and gender discrimination.
Everything we’ve discussed — from necessary new social services like child care to dealing with climate change, to building out affordable housing — will need people to take them on. Today we have a federal government that regulates and spends in favour of big business with a system of subsidies and regulations aimed at benefiting the wealthy few. A jobs program could turn this on its head with benefits for the many rather than the few. And more jobs are compatible with less work for all. While some countries in Europe are experimenting with the 6-hour work day, it’s useful to remember that our horizons should be even broader. Writing a century ago, Keynes thought we’d only be working 15-hour weeks by now.
First things first: build a movement
The equality of fundamental rights and needs is at odds with a system that rewards some far, far more than others. If health care, education, and housing are rights, then providing them to all in with genuine democratic control makes more sense than the “one dollar, one vote” of the market.
Higher taxes and social democracy are not the end of the conversation, but just the start. If an oligarchy runs our political democracy due to its economic power and weight, it is high time the left started again to reconsider the meaning of economic democracy, something that goes far beyond a trip to the ballot box every few years.
What is perhaps most valuable about Bernie Sanders is the fact that he is willing to call for a broad-based mobilization. His campaign can show us what it means to think bigger, to go outside the bounds of the stifling consensus that has seen the wealthy think big about how much they can gain, while the rest of us are left to think small, focused solely on what is “good enough.”
The point is not to copy or even approximate the specifics of the Sanders campaign here in Canada. A revitalized left that responds to the problems the vast majority of us face in one way or another, and that recognizes the economy as a playground for elites, can reignite a political movement to take back power from elites across the board.
At least in this case, maybe it wouldn’t be too bad to be USA North?