1. It’s easier to get elected in Canada — even if you’re unpopular
In both Canada and the United States, politicians can get elected without a majority of the popular vote — either via a narrow plurality in a three-or-more person race, or through the convolutions of the electoral college or parliamentary system, which prioritize representation for states or provinces over the national vote.
In Canada, however, an entrenched three-party-plus system makes politicians elected with very low levels of popularity more norm than exception. Justin Trudeau holds the dubious distinction of being Canada’s most unpopular prime minister by vote share, elected three times with his party receiving less than 40 percent of the popular vote. Almost every provincial government currently serving has been elected with under 50 percent of the popular vote as well.
Americans have gotten used to the phenomena of presidents who fail to win a popular majority. Yet the U.S. two-party system still all but guarantees even unpopular presidents win comparatively large percentages of the electorate. Former president Donald Trump lost the presidency in 2020 with a higher percentage of the popular vote than any successful Canadian prime minister has won in nearly 40 years. American governors are almost always elected with majorities.
American parties accordingly remain far more obsessed with cobbling together majoritarian blocs than their Canadian counterparts. The aftermath of Democrat losses in Virginia, coupled with declining numbers for President Biden, has seen many liberals anxiously worried that their party’s delicate center-left coalition may not be big enough. One hears this sort of thing far less in Canada, where even a party disliked by more than 60 percent of the country or province can still easily win and wield tremendous political power — albeit during a reign which will almost certainly be marked by consistently underwater approval ratings.
2. Canadian political parties are much more powerful
A source of ongoing drama in the United States has been incessant wheeling and dealing over the fate of Biden’s domestic agenda in the Senate, where two centrist Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), have been leveraging their votes to extract concessions from an administration more progressive than themselves. Such maverick lawmakers can exist in the United States because U.S. political parties are weak and non-hierarchical. In Canada, by contrast, political parties are extraordinarily hierarchical and free-voting lawmakers are virtually unknown — even the most “rebellious” member of parliament still votes with his party leadership 96.6 percent of the time. And why wouldn’t they? Party leaders can expel rebels from the party and deny their ability to run under the party name.
This has made Canada’s rubber-stamp parliament a vastly less interesting institution than the U.S. Congress — one of many reasons Canadian political junkies often prefer to follow U.S. politics. But it also makes governing much easier for prime ministers than presidents, with significant consequences for who accomplishes more — for good or ill.
3. Canadians vote less than Americans
Both U.S. parties are waging high profile battles for their “souls,” with outcomes generally settled through party primaries. Millions of ordinary Americans vote in these candidate-nominating elections, which are run by the state. Canadian candidates, by contrast, are picked by extremely small numbers of fee-paying party “members” through intraparty procedures that remain nonstandardized and opaque. Last year, just 175,000 Conservative Party members (about 0.45 percent of Canada) elected Erin O’Toole their prime ministerial candidate — a number smaller than those who voted in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire alone.
American democratic reform advocates, such as Andrew Yang, often argue democracy in the United States will only improve when primaries become more central to the American political process. Increasingly popular “jungle primaries” basically seek to eliminate partisan gatekeeping of general election candidates altogether by allowing multiple self-identified Democrats and Republicans to run against each other simultaneously. No one promotes anything like this in Canada, where the political culture instead revolves around assumptions party bosses should be held personally accountable for every politician nominated under “their” banner — further incentivizing conformist, unambitious candidates.
Which system sounds better? To some extent, everyone wants a government that gives voters maximum control over politicians — but they also tend to want a system in which it’s easy for their side to win, some ideas are never entertained, and leaders (they like) can govern without restraint. No one democracy can provide all these things, however, and Canada and the United States illustrate the consequences of the trade-offs.