“In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said during the 2020 presidential campaign. “But in America, we are.”
AOC was making a point about the fact that, these days, the United States is essentially a political duopoly. Every member of Congress—except Maine Senator Angus King and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—is a Republican or a Democrat. And the two independents caucus with the Democrats.
In the United States, both major parties are election machines that focus primarily on defeating each other. Reliant upon special-interest money, the parties and their media echo chambers embrace a system where progressive voters are told there is no alternative to a Democratic Party that often bows to centrist blackmail, while the few remaining principled conservative voters are told there is no alternative to a Republican Party that mirrors Donald Trump.
It is different in other countries.
In Germany, where voters go to the polls Sunday, September 26, voters will choose from six parties that have a realistic chance of winning substantial numbers of parliamentary seats. Under the German system, the next government will likely be a coalition including as many as three of those parties.
In Canada, where voters go to the polls today, at least five parties are positioned to win parliamentary seats. There, a coalition is also possible—perhaps involving the Liberals led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the New Democratic Party led by 42-year-old criminal defense lawyer and human rights activist Jagmeet Singh.
During the Trump interregnum, Trudeau was celebrated by American liberals for presenting a stark contrast—both stylistically and on a host of issues—with the infernal president. But in Canada, many progressives have been frustrated by the prime minister’s tendency to talk a good game on the global stage while governing cautiously at home—especially when it comes to addressing economic inequality, strengthening the country’s national health care program, responding to historically neglected Indigenous communities, and taking the necessary steps to tackle the climate crisis.
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Trudeau has been good on a number of issues. But not good enough, say Singh and the left-leaning New Democrats, who argue that Canada is “Ready for Better”—with an emphasis on expanding the welfare state, raising wages, reforming the criminal justice system, and taxing the rich.
Plenty of US Democrats are cheering on Trudeau, who called a snap election in hopes of increasing his party’s parliamentary majority. Last week, former president Barack Obama effectively endorsed the Liberal Party leader, with a tweet that read, “Wishing my friend @JustinTrudeau the best in Canada’s upcoming election. Justin has been an effective leader and strong voice for democratic values, and I’m proud of the work we did together.” Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton was even more enthusiastic, tweeting, “I have seen my friend @JustinTrudeau show leadership in the fight for accessible child care, protected reproductive rights, and ambitious climate action. I’m wishing him and our progressive Canadian neighbors the best in Monday’s election.”
“Canada goes to the polls Monday,” the former presidential candidate announced last Friday. “There’s one party that stood up for working people in the pandemic. One leader who has the courage to make the wealthy pay their fair share so everyone gets the medication they need. That’s why I support the NDP and Jagmeet Singh.”
Singh responded: “Bernie, you have fought courageously for public health care, affordable medication, making the rich pay their fair share, and tackling the climate crisis. We’re doing the same here. Canada, better is possible. But, you have to vote for it!”
Endorsements from abroad may not carry much weight. But this is a hotly contested election. The latest polls show Trudeau’s Liberals with around 31 percent support, the Conservative Party led by Erin O’Toole at around 30 percent, and Singh’s NDP at 20 percent. So a cross-border boost from Sanders could count for something.
It’s clear why he gave it.
The NDP is the political descendent of the radical Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, which under the leadership of the late Tommy Douglas laid the foundation for Canada’s national health care system. Historically backed by progressive labor unions, the NDP positions itself to the left of the Liberals. Singh has certainly done that in the current campaign, especially on environmental issues. “Justin Trudeau promised to tackle climate change in 2015 and 2019,” says the NDP leader. “But he has the worst climate record in the G7—and he increased subsidies to big oil. We can’t afford another four years of broken promises.”
In the United States, where the political system is weighted against dynamic democracy in general and alternatives to major parties in particular, Singh’s critique might be dismissed as valid but insufficient to make the case for breaking with the two-party duopoly. However, Canada’s parliamentary system is considerably friendlier to third, fourth, fifth, and sixth parties. Smaller parties have an easier time gaining ballot access, get more coverage in the media, and often have regional bases of strength, as does the Bloc Québécois in Quebec. The NDP has historically enjoyed significant support in Canada’s far west and in a number of heavily unionized communities, and it has made considerable progress in recent years in the country’s most populous province, Ontario.
While the NDP is unlikely to form the next government, the party could be part of it. If the Liberals fall short of an outright majority, they’ll turn to the NDP as a coalition partner. That would position Singh as “a kingmaker“—allowing the NDP to demand cabinet positions and stronger policies to address the climate crisis and challenges facing the health care system.
When left parties join coalitions, they can leverage their position to push centrist and center-left parties to govern more boldly.
That’s one of the advantages of a multiparty democracy, where there’s often a greater emphasis on ideals than personalities. Voters and elected officials can find political homes that make sense to them, rather than compromising principles because “there is no alternative.” Perhaps that’s why so many American progressives have been attracted to the Canadian competition.
AOC joined Singh last year in a livestreamed video game competition that raised money to address food insecurity. This year, after Sanders signaled his support for Singh and the NDP, Michigan US Representative Rashida Tlaib circulated the senator’s tweet with the declaration, “I endorse this message.” Tlaib’s Detroit district is just across the river from Windsor, Ontario, a historic auto-making city with a multiracial and multiethnic population.
The NDP member of parliament for the Windsor-West constituency, Brian Masse, is campaigning for reelection today with a strong endorsement from Tlaib, a democratic socialist who notes that Masse crossed the border in 2018 and helped knock doors for her breakthrough Democratic primary win as one of the first two Muslim women to serve in the US House.
Like Sanders and Singh, Masse and Tlaib are practicing something we could use more of: international solidarity.