Is the political centre disappearing along with the middle class?

Posted on June 27, 2015 in Equality Debates – News/Insight – According to former U.S. labour secretary Robert Reich, politics is becoming more polarized because of a growing rich-poor gap.
Jun 26 2015.   By: Susan Delacourt, Parliament Hill

Suddenly, the polls and pundits are telling us that the next election could boil down to a stark, two-way fight between the political right and left in Canada — between the ruling Conservatives and a surging New Democratic Party.

That’s a neat and tidy choice, certainly less confusing than a race between three or four or five parties. It’s also very American, where the political map is split between Republican red and Democrat blue.  Concerns about the American-style polarization of our politics bubbled up in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 election, with the ascent of the NDP to official Opposition and the dramatic fall of the Liberals.

This week we also saw another American-style import to our system — the short-lived “Harper PAC,” or political action committee, raising funds on the right to counter what they allege is essentially another PAC on the left, called Engage Canada.  “Harper PAC is a group of concerned Canadians looking to fight back against the flood of big union money that has been earmarked to take down the Harper government,” said the website set up to herald the existence of the right-wing PAC, which has since been shut down.

We keep hearing that the big issue in the coming election will be about Canada’s shrinking middle class and the growing divide between high-income and low-income earners.  It would seem, though, that we might also want to pay attention to the shrinking middle of politics, a game increasingly played at the far edges of the political spectrum, hard right versus hard left.

As it happens, those two conditions, one in our economy, one in our political culture, may be linked.

In his 2013 documentary, Inequality for All, former U.S. labour secretary Robert Reich says that political polarization works hand in hand with a widening gap between rich and poor.  Earlier this month, Reich was in Ottawa to speak at a conference called Funding Democracy. While moderating a question-and-answer session with him, I had a chance to ask why the political and economic middle tend to shrink in tandem. More to the point, is it possible that Canada has escaped some of the U.S.-style polarization of politics because our multi-party system is less starkly divided between right and left?

Reich didn’t venture a guess on the second question, though he did acknowledge Canada’s inequality has been growing — albeit not at the pace seen in the U.S. But his explanation of how inequality feeds polarization in any country was not a pretty picture.

An economy with a beleaguered middle class is one in which fear and frustration flourish, Reich said.  “The working class becomes more and more frustrated,” he said. “They’re working harder than ever and not getting ahead … They suspect that the game is rigged, the dice are loaded, the deck is stacked, whatever metaphor you want. They get angry.”  Angry citizens are cannon fodder for politicians who like to wage their battles at the extremes, Reich explained.

“That frustration and that anger is easily utilized by demagogues on the right or the left to channel into a kind of politics of resentment — against scapegoats, whether the scapegoats are immigrants or they are minorities … or they are government or they are trade unions or they are even the rich themselves. The politics of resentment is easily ignited when you have so many people who are frustrated — and scared.”

Though Reich said he knew less about Canada’s inequality than that of his home country, he warned that the shrinking fortunes of the middle class, as well as their shrinking hopes, create a breeding ground for the politics of fear, too.  “In the direction our economies are evolving, fewer and fewer people know they will have their job and that job will pay what they hope it will pay, next week, next month, next year … That means fear. And fear itself ignites that kind of politics of resentment.”

I don’t know about you, but an election campaign fought over scapegoats, rife with fear and resentment, sounds like the kind of thing we would want to avoid. It’s fun for the demagogues and the writers of over-the-top fundraising letters, perhaps, but a nasty business for the citizens.

Here in Canada since the last election, we’ve seen a lot of volatility in public opinion polls. That’s good, not bad, news.  If it’s taught us nothing else, for instance, it’s that we can’t count anyone out — not the NDP, not the Bloc, not the Conservatives, not the Liberals. All have credible bases of hope for electoral gain this year.  This multiplicity of hope is the opposite of the political polarization that we see south of the border.

We’re going to hear a lot about the economic middle in this year’s election. It would be good to keep our politicians focused on expanding the political middle, too.

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