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Fear of an Orange Planet: Canada and the Harper Majority

Dear America,

A cursory glance at Monday night's Canadian federal election results (and cursory is probably the best you'll get outside of the True North strong and free) might give you the impression that after years of flirting with social and economic conservatism, our formerly progressive country had finally decided it was time to go steady. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative Party had indeed achieved a majority government (on their third try since 2006). With a strong majority guaranteeing years of uninterrupted rule, Harper will likely continue to pursue a range of right-wing domestic and international policies, most of which have proven to be divisive at home and vexing to international observers: The environment, not Canada's problem! Security Council, who cares! Tea Party economics, looking good! In contempt of Parliament, we'll just shut it down!

For progressives around the globe, the May 2nd national election likely turbo-charged Canada's fall from grace. And, for you left-leaning Americans (I assume you are left-leaning given where this is published), the Harper victory may well tempt you to choose another country to threaten to flee to each time there's a Republican victory at home.

But, just hold on a second... don't give up on Canada just yet. If you look closely, the country isn't just a conservative blue, it's multi-hued, with large swathes painted orange, tiny bits in red, and even a Green (yes, that capital-G Green) speck way out west. May 2nd will go down in history not so much as a day of Conservative victories, but as realignment day.

After decades of Bloc Quebecois dominance, Quebecers overwhelmingly turned their backs on the separatist party, leaving it with a paltry four seats, leaderless after Duceppe quit in disgrace, and with its official party status in question. Instead, Quebecers turned to the left-of-left New Democratic Party (or should it now be called the Nouveau Parti democratique even in Anglo Canada given Quebec's pivotal role in the NDP's sudden ascent to the Official Opposition with 102 seats and over 30% of the country's vote?).

Under leader Michael Ignatieff, Canada's 'natural governing party,' the Liberals, won only 34 ridings, a historic low. Like Duceppe, Ignatieff has already tendered his resignation as leader. Ignatieff's downfall is perhaps the most disturbing story of the 2011 election. He said of his foes, "of course they engaged in an absolutely unscrupulous campaign of personal attack." The viciousness with which he was attacked has rarely been seen in Canadian politics because Canadians usually can't stomach the vitriol that you Americans endure regularly. Why was it allowed? Ignatieff was too smart (Ivy League), too European (Oxbridge, LSE and the Beeb) and, worst of all, too American (he kinda called himself an American in the past) for the average Canadian. Forget partisanship. Forget ideology. If there's one thing that unites Canadians, it is anti-Americanism.

Unfortunately, this nastiness hovered over the Liberals and Ignatieff throughout their campaign. And, this is where the personal and the progressive clashed, allowing Harper to win a majority. Under Ignatieff, the Liberals were unable to get any serious traction. Under Jack Layton, the NDP played Quebec brilliantly and were gaining popularity in the rest of Canada. Many centrist Liberals, aware of how weak the Liberal Party had become under Ignatieff, are thought to have made a last minute decision to vote Conservative to stop the NDP's orange surge.

So, what does this all this say about Canada's political culture? Well, don't worry America, Canada is today arguably more left leaning and progressive than ever: over 30% ultra-left NDP; almost 19% left-of-center Liberal; and almost 4% Green. That's approximately 54% for the left. If the 6% who voted for the Bloc are added (they're certainly more left than right), that's 60% left compared to the just over 39% who voted for Harper's folks, the only right-leaning party in the country.

Still, it is clear that too much orange makes blue. While some of the NDP's ideas sound exciting (a credit card interest rate cap of 5% above prime -- wow!), most aren't tenable in the long run and do blur the line between progressivism and socialism. Despite the caricatures propagated by Republicans during the health care debates, Canadians just aren't that wild about extremism in politics, whether it be left or right. So, fear of an orange planet (well, country... but then the play on Public Enemy doesn't work as well), led many Canadians to vote blue.

But, have those Conservative-voting-Canadians given the country over to a different type of political extremism in order to slow the orange surge? The conventional wisdom is that a Canadian conservative or Conservative is hardly a Republican or even a Blue Dog Democrat. At the same time, it is important to remember Prime Minister Harper was always reigned in by his party's minority status in the past.

Ohh boy...

How bout this? Check in with us from time to time to see how we're making it through the Harper majority years. In the meantime, keep using our progressive politics and ideas in your aspirational rhetoric and your threats to leave home. We're still who you think we are, even if a strange series of events conspired to give us a government that's far more conservative than we are.

Getting nervous...

Better yet, keep a really close eye on us over the next few years. You never know, we may need a regime change or two.

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