The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Heading toward their own elections, Canadians read the U.S. tea leaves

Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre delivers remarks at a caucus meeting in Ottawa on Sept. 12. (David Kawai/Bloomberg News)

Canadian politics hunger for proof points. In the years between national elections, it is common for parties and pundits to mine provincial elections, by-elections and even municipal elections for evidence that this or that approach to campaigning is the right or wrong one.

Given Canada’s enormous cultural overlap with the United States, American campaigns provide no less insight. As Canada edges closer to parliamentary elections in the fall of 2025, next week’s congressional midterms have the potential to offer a bevy of precedents for how a certain suite of concerns plays with voters of this continent.

Inflation

Canada and the United States are both wrestling with high inflation, with both countries’ consumer price index hovering around 7 to 8 percent. This alone should suggest that the phenomenon is at least somewhat global in nature, but that hasn’t stopped parties of the right in both nations from weaponizing it as a narrow indictment of progressive rule.

In Canada, Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre has made fighting “Justinflation” one of the priorities of his party; U.S. Republicans have similarly tried to make “Bidenflation” a thing. Whatever it’s called, polls suggest that voters in both countries rank it as a top anxiety. It’s a testament to just how worried Democrats are about being blamed for it that a great deal of commentary about the midterms appears to consist entirely of observations about the degree to which inflation is the topic of conversation at any moment.

Crime

Rates of violent crime have lately been rising in both the United States and Canada, and emphasizing the issue has been something of a late-campaign pivot for the GOP — to apparent success. Like inflation, crime is a relatively easy thing for conservatives to oppose, and it’s only gotten easier as progressive politicians become (unfairly or not) increasingly associated with the extreme anti-policing rhetoric of left-wing academics and activists.

Conservatives in Canada have not spoken about crime much lately, but it’s easy to imagine this changing if it’s seen as a big Republican winner. Indeed, this might already be happening: The upset victory of Ken Sim in Vancouver’s mayoral election was animated in part by anxiety over crime, with Sim making his vow to hire 100 new police officers a central contrast with his opponent, who had cut the city’s police budget.

Abortion

On paper, the Conservative Party is extraordinarily supportive of virtually unlimited abortion rights, repeatedly vowing to never regulate the procedure and defending Canada’s extremely permissive status quo, which theoretically allows legal abortion at any stage of pregnancy. Privately, however, many Conservative politicians and intellectuals are quietly pro-life and scorn Canada’s abortion regime as being somewhere between unsustainable and absurd, and their party’s “official” stance as cynical and dishonest. The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade was cheered by these types, because it seemed to prove that the abortion debate, which some in the Canadian officialdom have treated as closed, is, in fact, open and ongoing.

That said, if Republicans are seen to pay a price for their enthusiasm for this debate — if the loud and uncompromising antiabortion views of candidates such as Blake Masters in Arizona or Herschel Walker in Georgia are blamed even partially for the GOP losing critical, winnable races — then expect the Canadian conventional wisdom that pro-life positions are electoral poison to harden.

Conservative cranks

“Conservatives should avoid the extremes” is probably the most commonly published piece of unsolicited advice in Canada’s mostly progressive papers. Yet even if conservatives have learned to tune it out, the hectoring warning might be worth heeding more than usual this time, just because one can now make a more plausible case that Conservative politicians across Canada have drifted in a wilder, more populist direction in the aftermath of covid-19.

As with abortion, if Republicans are seen as blowing winnable races because they’re running too many ideological cranks or conspiracy theorists, this could easily generate much Canadian bearishness about the electability of people such as Alberta’s new premier, Danielle Smith, who is closer to the Kari Lake end of the spectrum. On the other hand, if the GOP wins big despite running so many “ultra MAGAs” (as President Biden calls them), the consensus will likely be that public anger about crime and the economy is intense enough to overshadow any other political concern.

It is a tired saw to say that Canadians consume American political news entirely “as entertainment,” and it’s equally wrong for Canadians to feel guilt or shame for caring about U.S. politics as much as they do. I’ve been critical in the past of Canadians who treat American politics as a sort of role-play, but if you wonder how the citizens of a deeply similar country respond to similar political stimuli, observing an American election as a kind of preview of Canada’s own political destiny can be educational and illuminating — providing you know where to look.

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