Not buying it

Want to predict the future political pulse of American voters? Look at Canada.

Among the obligations of being married to a politically-astute former Canadian is to stay informed about the political trends of our neighbors to the north. While I normally resist the temptation to share my Canadian punditry (you’re welcome!), there is a startling movement in the Great White North that deserves our attention.

Let’s start with Alberta. Before its 2015 provincial election, Alberta’s voters showed a partisan orientation that was reliably conservative and pro-growth. They had elected center-right majority governments for eight straight decades. But in 2015, the liberal New Democrats, led by Rachel Notley, exploited a rift between conservative factions to score a shocking upset victory. Rachel Notley at the time was a charismatic 50-year-old who combined the left-wing policy instincts of Elizabeth Warren with the easy-going charm of Ronald Reagan.

In my own experience, I’ve never heard or read a single word from a serious person who dislikes her. Her policies, not so much. As Alberta’s new premier, Notley quickly introduced an agenda that raised taxes on corporations and high-income earners. She bumped the minimum wage by 50 percent, from $10.10 to $15 per hour. And she laid out an aggressive plan to tackle climate change that included a carbon tax, a cap on emissions from the oil sands, and imposed a 15-year phase-out on the use of coal to produce electricity.

By the next election (2019), Alberta’s voters had seen enough. With the economy sinking fast, the province’s rural voters (and what I suspect is a growing national annoyance with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) helped Jason Kenney and the United Conservatives rout Notley’s party with a 55-33 drubbing in the popular vote (with the rest going to minor parties). Notley’s loss marked the first time in provincial history that an incumbent premier had lost an election after just one term.

Canada’s growing repudiation of liberal policies was even more striking in Ontario, where Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservatives handed liberal premier Kathleen Wynne the worst defeat of a sitting incumbent in the history of the province.

The symbols of Wynne’s five years in office had been lavish spending on social programs: a costly expansion of the province’s light rail network, an income based program for free college tuition, a California-esque plan for cap-and-trade, and a government-mandated increase in the minimum wage. As budget deficits soared, her hopes for re-election evaporated. In the end, her embarrassed party sustained what was said to be the worst showing at the ballot box in its 161- year history, even failing to win enough seats to qualify for official party status.

In Quebec, the liberal government of Philippe Couillard, which had held power for 13 of the last 15 years, was swept from power in a stunning landslide by Coalition Avenir Quebec, a conservative “third” party that won 74 out of 125 seats in the provincial legislature. The Liberals retained only 31 seats.

By my lights, the primary lesson from the Canadian experience is that American policymakers who want to have an enduring impact on their country will be well-advised to spread their discussions beyond only people who already agree with them. These echo-chamber “debates” invariably produce policies that are unnecessarily extreme; they aggravate adversarial constituencies by excluding their input, and they cultivate supporters who believe in the incontrovertible certitude about the “rightness” of their policies. None of these outcomes constitutes a winning strategy.

This is well illustrated by the current silly season of American presidential politics. Watch the sharp elbows emerge as today’s army of liberal presidential hopefuls race to secure key voter blocs with policy proposals that are either breathtakingly cynical or embarrassingly naïve (or both).

Medicare for all? Great idea! Free health care for illegals? Why didn’t I think of that? Free college tuition? Yes! Over $1.5 trillion to pay off student loans? Perfect! A $15 minimum wage? Screw small business! Carbon tax? Right on. Screw big business! Eliminate gas-powered vehicles? Yes! And let’s take on bovine flatulence!

I understand how this kind of pandering might appeal to the generation of 25-year-old gamers still living in their parents’ basements. As they live their lives under the protection of Big Mother, why shouldn’t government-by-Big Brother be the next step? But serious adults know otherwise, as Canadian liberals are starting to realize. Shallow promises have no staying power. Simple solutions, it turns out, are neither simple nor solutions. They are just politics.

This issue of Thinking Minnesota underscores how these attitudes work in our own state. “The War on Greater Minnesota” discusses how the liberal urban orientation at the legislature is at odds with the rest of Minnesota.

To be fair, conservatives aren’t always immune from this behavior. It’s just the liberals’ turn at bat. Regardless, it all reminds me why organizations like Center of the American Experiment help sustain our democracy, even if in small ways, by recalling that the aspirations of our Founders did not include paying off political constituencies. (That philosophy belonged to Lenin and Marx. And they were liars.)

I say this frequently: Americans built on the Founders’ ideology to create a country that enjoys unparalleled freedom and prosperity. We’ll make it even better if we continue to reward hard work, personal responsibility and individual initiative; if we continue to create opportunities and incentives for personal growth; if we strive to enable American families to live in environments that are safe and healthy; and if we continue to provide access to jobs— well-paying jobs.

These are valuable promises.