Many Canadians believe that politics in the United States is polarizing along ideological lines in ways we do not see up here. That’s not true.
Both countries have a growing divide between rural and urban voters. Progressives dominate downtown; the shires are conservative. In any given election, in both Canada and the United States, suburban voters side with one or the other, which decides the outcome.
That is a manageable situation, but if the polarization becomes extreme, a rural-led populist backlash against a progressive urban agenda can produce someone like U.S. President Donald Trump.
In Canada, suburban and rural voters combined to make Doug (“I’m for the little guy”) Ford the Premier of Ontario. Mr. Ford is a pale reflection of what is happening south of the border, even if he did declare on Tuesday that “the official opposition is the media.” Canada remains an inclusive, tolerant society. But the rural-urban divide is powerful and it is here.
November’s midterm elections revealed how extreme that divide has become in the United States. Although the Democrats captured the House of Representatives on Nov. 6, they were virtually shut out in rural areas, winning only nine “pure rural” seats, according to an analysis by Citylab, a news website that focuses on urban issues. Conversely, they won every seat classified as “pure urban” and 45 out of 46 districts classed as “urban-suburban mix.”
“This election confirmed the Trump realignment, which itself was a continuation of the general trend of past decades – urban vs. rural; small towns vs. big cities; heartland vs. the coasts,” John Ryder, chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association, concluded in a post-election analysis.
Of course, geography was not the only factor. Overall, rural, white, less-educated men are heavily favoured to vote Republican, while urban, non-white, well-educated women predictably vote Democrat. But the rural-urban divide is emerging as the greatest divide of all.
“Urban folks generally approve of changes in American demography, economics and culture and seek accelerated transformations that better include those historically left out,” said Bruce Mehlman, whose government relations firm Mehlman Castagnetti recently published an analysis of the midterms. “Rural folks fear [that] changes to the America they knew are coming too quickly, increasingly leaving them strangers in their own land, unprepared for an evermore global, digitized economy.”
In an e-mail exchange, he summarized the divide as “the Go Faster coalition vs. the Go Slower coalition.”
The results are “very similar in Canada,” Ekos pollster Frank Graves said via Twitter. While other socioeconomic factors such as age, income and education are also important, “Doug Ford enjoyed a huge advantage with the rural vote, as do the federal Conservatives,” he observed.
Downtown ridings in most parts of Canada, on the other hand, incline toward the Liberals or New Democrats. Neither the city centres nor the rural areas dominate, because most Canadians, like most Americans, live in suburbs.
Suburban voters who switch between parties are the main reason the House of Representatives went from Republican to Democrat in the midterms. Suburban switchers in the swathes of seats surrounding downtown Toronto and Vancouver almost always determine the outcome of federal elections in Canada.
Political divides are natural and expected in all developed democracies, until they become toxic. Downtown voters – who are more likely to be well educated, affluent, progressive and comfortable with all kinds of diversity – too often look on their country cousins as uneducated, intolerant and unenlightened. Rural voters see the way downtowners seek to reshape the country into something they barely recognize. When tensions become too extreme, a populist backlash seeks to Make America Great Again, fuels the Brexit vote, creates political paralysis in Sweden, causes riots in France.
That’s not happening here – yet. Economically, the safety net is stronger in Canada than in the United States. And with immigrants making up more than 20 per cent of the population, nativist politicians can go only so far.
But Canada is not immune. Populist backlashes emerge when progressives push too hard for reforms that alienate rural voters. If the suburbs throw in with those rural voters, the result can range from a respectable, responsible Conservative government to something dangerous and dark.
The Canadian impulse toward compromise has never mattered more. We don’t want this country to go where others have already gone.