This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Stewart Prest is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. His research focuses on civil conflict and non-violent resistance, and the role of local institutions in shaping patterns of contentious politics. He can be reached on Twitter @StewartPrest.
I. The Global Rise of Neo-Nationalism
Though its expression varies markedly from country to country, two aspects recur with remarkable regularity in the new populist nationalisms now sweeping much of the developed world: 1) a newfound, or perhaps rediscovered, suspicion of outsiders that often veers well into the territory of xenophobia and outright racism, and 2) a powerful new distrust of certain aspects of globalization and those who seem to benefit from it. Two different themes, but they co-occur to a remarkable degree. When they do, the result is often coloured by xenophobia and explicit racism. For ease of use, for the purposes of this essay I’ll refer to the occurrence of the two of them together as “neo-nationalism,” as some others have done.
The United Kingdom has the UK Independence Party, and last spring voted to leave Europe during the Brexit referendum. The United States elected Donald Trump President-elect. France seems to be headed for a presidential run-off including the explicitly anti-immigration and protectionist Marine Le Pen. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán makes the same kinds of arguments in more strident, nakedly racist terms. He has referred to asylum seekers as “a poison,” and has claimed that Muslim immigration would lead to a “parallel society, destroying Europe.” He also would like to see sovereignty re-centred at the national level within a restructured European project.
It is a sign of the times that much of the world exhaled with relief when Austria’s Freedom party finished second in the country’s recent national election with “only” 46% of the vote. Meanwhile even in Germany, the explicitly anti-Muslim Alternative for Germany party has crept into third place in opinion polls, behind the country’s two traditional major parties. The fact that Angela Merkel, often seen as the chief global opponent to such politics, recently floated the idea of a legal ban on full-face veils in certain public venues provides an indication of how German public opinion is shifting.
The Netherlands, a seeming bastion of tolerance and progressive politics, saw Geert Wilders lead his Freedom party (PVV) to a third place finish in the 2010 election there, and leads opinion polls in the run-up to next March’s general election. Scandinavia is not immune either. Leaders from Norway’s normally moderate conservative Progress party have sounded dire warnings about the risk of Islamization there, endorsed the idea of a ban on full burkinis, and plan to ban full face coverings in schools and universities. Progress is now part of a coalition government with the Conservative party, and together they are considering a ban on face coverings. Their government has also placed new restrictions on some migrants and asylum seekers while making it easier to deport “criminals, radical Muslims and people who have come to Norway just to live off the generous welfare system,” as the Daily Mail puts it.
It’s a puzzle why neo-nationalism has become such a force. Why now? Why has the effect been so powerful, and yet varied both across countries and within them? It would be foolhardy to provide a single explanation accounting for them all. Foolhardy, and yet irresistible and even important, for there is clearly *something* linking its widespread occurrence, some common set of factors producing similar but distinct outcomes in country after country. In this essay, I am going to extract what seem to be several common streams, and compare them against a key outlier—Canada—in an attempt to move towards a coherent explanation for what is clearly a worldwide, yet not yet universal phenomenon, one that grapples with that dual nature of the neo-national appeal.
What are the common links? One remarkable feature, I believe, is the explicitly moral language used by neo-nationalist politicians. Common themes include re-establishing “equality” of process and restoring “fairness” of outcomes. UKIP, for instance, is motivated above all by the desire to separate the UK from the European project. UKIP is a party of enthusiastic hypothetical free traders, arguing that the UK will be better positioned to make better, fairer deals once free of Europe. There is a similar moral tinge to its immigration policies as well; for instance, the party’s platform includes a commitment to “establish an ethical Visa system for work, and study to be based on the principle of equal application to all people.” (Emphasis added in throughout.) The recurring theme is that the current system is unfair, unjust, and therefore immoral.
Trump makes similar points using even blunter language. The appeal that originally brought him success was to restore fairness to immigration by removing those who had immigrated illegally and erecting a wall to stop more from arriving, and to restore fairness to international economic agreements. The principle of fairness, of restoration of some natural order, dominates.
Another common feature is the way in which its appeal is most evident in the less economically prosperous areas of the country. The Brookings Institute put out a now famous graph charting Clinton and Trump’s success in terms of the GDP of each county they won; Clinton effectively won regions accounting for nearly 2/3rds of American economic activity.
By now virtually every country has some form of this two-speed economy. Most countries feature a subset of urban areas, often heavily integrated with global markets via sectors such as finance, technology, and so on, where incomes dramatically exceed the rest of the country. Neo-nationalist appeals have far greater take-up in the other regions of the country. In France, Parisian incomes are 60% more than the rest of the country, even as Paris is the least receptive region of the country to Marine Le Pen’s explicitly anti-immigrant and protectionist Front National. During the last French presidential election in 2012, Le Pen made major inroads across the country, finishing third overall in the first round of presidential voting. Her support was weakest in Paris and its environs. In many other areas—what Le Pen herself describes as the “France of the Forgotten”—she performed far better.
In the UK likewise, incomes in London are more than double those found in the poorest regions of the country; London also proved the centre of the “Remain” vote during the Brexit referendum, and thus the most resistant to appeals from UKIP. Other significant correlations tend to reinforce this account. Trump voters and Brexit supporters both tended to be older and less well educated than those who voted for Clinton and Remain, respectively. Clearly, some common theme of feeling “left behind” has spread in the last decade, a feeling that falls along stark geographic, educational, and generational lines.
If economic malaise is one dimension of neo-nationalism, the other—anti-immigration, and quite often anti-Islam or simply anti-minority—is the more worrisome, and in what seemed like a short time ago an increasingly progressive and tolerant world, the less explicable. Certainly, it is not clear why areas least exposed to migration—for new arrivals in virtually all countries tend to settle in large urban centres that are most resistant to neo-nationalist appeals—would become the most reactionary, and why it would happen now.
Those in the regions and populations that feel “left behind” have considerable grievances—some valid, others not, some correctly directed, others perhaps not—against those others who appear to have benefited by joining the that larger cosmopolitan exercise. The grievance takes on a strong moral component, because it is a violation of what those left behind perceive as a fundamental and essential—even if implicit—agreement for all to share in the burdens and benefits of social life.
In places where such appeals catch hold, that feeling of betrayal is often directed against both the “others” and the central government perceived to take care of their interests ahead of those feeling “left behind”. One finds this in various forms in different countries. In the U.S., Arlie Hochschild’s exhaustive ethnographic work documenting how Tea Partiers, and subsequently Trump supporters, view politics has helped her to identify what she views as the “deep story” underpinning the politics of many of these voters. It’s worth quoting in full:
You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.
An avowed willingness to take on such perceived line jumpers was obviously one part of Trump’s appeal. Just as important was his vow to take on “the establishment,” to “drain the swamp” as he put it—at once targeting those who both help others jump the line and appear to profit excessively from that unfair two-speed economy. As Hochschild’s “deep story” makes clear, beyond that economic basis, there are clearly cultural elements as well, some without any direct link to economic activity, though there is a clear clustering of associations. In the U.S. these take on distinctly racial overtones. One can imagine similar stories in each country, in each case tailored to political concerns and international contexts. Thus, whereas in the US neo-nationalists rail against Mexican imports and Chinese currency levels, in Europe, the question concerns the degree of integration in the larger European Union project and the role of both refugees and intra European migrants in displacing worthy locals from work.
Simply put, neo-nationalism is not reducible to either racial or economic factors. It is a product of the interaction of both such forces, and at present is highly adaptable to a range of political circumstances. In most cases, the movement attracts passionate supporters motivated by quite successful appeals, expressed not just in terms of interest, but morality.
II. The Canadian Exception?
And what of Canada? To date, the country has seen no major party embrace a broad neo-nationalist agenda at any level of government. Just as strikingly, the current Liberal government, led by Justin Trudeau, campaigned and won on a platform diametrically opposed to neo-nationalist themes, that included an inclusive concept of what it means to be Canadian, strong support for free trade, and a commitment to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015.
Though the country has yet to see a major party embrace the entire anti-immigrant, anti-globalization package, it has seen politicians in different contexts endorse aspects of neo-nationalism. At the federal level, though the previous government under Conservative Stephen Harper remained committed to fairly robust immigration targets and a staunch proponent of international trade, it also dabbled in a variety of symbolic politics aimed politicizing the definition of what it means to be “Canadian.” The symbolic measures included a ban—later struck down by the court—on taking the oath of citizenship while wearing a niqab. The party also vowed to strip the citizenship of convicted terrorists, including those born in Canada. During the 2015 election campaign, the party also proposed to implement a hotline for Canadians to report “barbaric cultural practices”, a move that earned the party and the idea’s chief proponents, cabinet ministers Kellie Leitch and Christopher Alexander, considerable scorn on social media. The tactics did resonate with some Canadians, particularly in Quebec and rural parts of the country, but the party lost in the October 2015 federal election. Many subsequently viewed the result as a strong repudiation of such politics.
Related issues continue to flare up however, as for instance during a recent right wing rally in Edmonton, Alberta. While the rally was ostensibly about the province’s planned carbon tax, it got decidedly off topic at various points, most notably when the demonstrators started to chant “lock her up” during a speech by Alexander, now a Conservative leadership candidate. (The “her” in this case is Alberta premier Rachel Notley, a decidedly moderate centre-left politician who faces no criminal allegations of any kind.) Reaction to the episode provides evidence of the strong crosswinds swirling around “Trumpism” in Canada, particularly on the political right. Some prominent Conservatives quickly condemned the episode in blunt terms. The party’s interim leader referred to the chanters as “idiots,” for instance, and Alexander took considerable heat for not trying to shut the chant down from other Conservative leadership hopefuls. At the same time, another leadership candidate expressed regret he had not been at the rally to join in the chant.
Leitch is also running for Conservative leadership, and she has gone the farthest in embracing neo-nationalist themes. She has built her candidacy in large part around a call to screen all new arrivals, including visitors, for opposition to “Canadian values.” Neither the lack of a definitive list of such values, nor a practicable way to actually screen for them, has dampened her ardour for the cause. The former cabinet minister, orthopaedic paediatric surgeon, and associate professor at the University of Toronto has also come out as staunchly opposed to Canadian elites. So far, the strategy has produced modest fundraising success and significant controversy, allowing her to remain among the early front-runners in a wide-open leadership race. UBC graduate Eric Merkley recently demonstrated the extent to which her campaign has benefited from media coverage of her incendiary proposals, despite a lack of either previous celebrity or the performative circus that accompanied Trump’s rise. The race for Conservative leader is far from over, however, and it remains to be seen whether such attention will last and, if it does, if Leitch can translate it into votes.
There are relevant examples beyond federal politics as well. In Quebec, politicians of all stripes have engaged in anti-Muslim politics. For more than a decade, the province has struggled with the idea of “reasonable accommodation”: how much should the majority Quebec society, concerned as it is with preserving its own culture as a minority within the larger Canadian context, accommodate the religious needs and preferences of minority groups within its own borders and vice versa? Ultimately however, ethno-nationalist appeals have proven no sure-fire path to victory in Quebec, either. The most recent election saw voters reject the Parti Quebecois and its controversial “Quebec Charter of Values,” a document widely interpreted as an appeal to ethnic nationalism targeting visible minorities.
Finally, there is the late Rob Ford, former mayor of Toronto, whose populist campaigns were deeply anti-elite in method and message. He did not attempt to stir up ethnic nationalism in support of his cause, however. He was champion of the suburbs, not of a white majority. It is perhaps for this reason that his surprisingly regular racist outbursts did not cause him to lose the support of many visible minorities in Toronto’s outer suburbs.
The bottom line is that the country has not seen a major political party fully embrace the neo-nationalist platform. Parties that have in recent years engaged in limited versions of such politics have not won elections as a result—at least, not yet. If that seems a low bar, it’s nonetheless one that few other developed democracies clear.
III. An Inductive Explanation
So why is this? What’s so special about Canada? When one thinks about the differences between Canada and elsewhere, various things come to mind: a massive imposing geography, a harsh climate, bilingualism, tolerance, multiculturalism, healthcare, and so on. None of these in isolation is novel to the Canadian experience however.
One possible explanation is institutional. One school of thought suggests that single member plurality systems are less vulnerable to extremist politics, since they tend to encourage two-party centrist politics. This may have some merit. Though Canada is something of a Duverger deviant, with three, four, or even five parties contesting national elections (Johnston 2008), the country has nonetheless had a small number of relatively centrist parties hold power for the entirety of its history. J.J. McCullough provides another form of this argument in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, focusing on the ability of parties to manage their own nomination processes and enforce party discipline on MPs.
However stated, the institutional explanation remains insufficient on its own. Single member plurality systems—indeed systems of virtually every description—have proven vulnerable elsewhere. Trump won in the American plurality system, even if he didn’t quite win a plurality of the vote. Likewise, an outright majority of UK citizens voted to leave Europe, and Le Pen is poised to get into the final round of the 2017 presidential election in France. It may be easier for neo-nationalist parties to gain a foothold in PR systems, but they clearly can succeed in plurality and majoritarian contexts as well. Indeed, the experience of Trump suggests that plurality systems might be more vulnerable to outright takeover by neo-nationalist politicians, should they manage to secure the leadership of a major party.
Another set of explanations focus on economic factors—what one might call the “economic anxiety” thesis. Canada exhibits the same characteristics of a “two-speed” economy as are found elsewhere. Indeed, there are significant disparities between average incomes in the relatively affluent major urban centres like Toronto and Vancouver, and other regions of the country, as well as between the regions themselves. Despite this however, and in contrast with many other places, there is no anti-globalization/anti-elite movement. On the contrary, Canada continues to exhibit a multi-party consensus on trade to the effect that the country must push forward with new trade agreements in order to preserve its prosperity. Canadian voters are generally in favour of trade as well, though many remain ambivalent about particular agreements, or specific elements of individual trade agreements. For instance, certain aspects of the recently completed Canada-EU trade agreement came in for challenge, primarily from the left. In general however, CETA constitutes an example of how commitment to free trade crosses party line, as the agreement was the product of considerable labour by successive Conservative and Liberal governments. Even the left-leaning federal New Democratic Party (NDP) found itself internally divided over the issue, rather than squarely opposed. In short, though Canada is as economically divided as many other countries, that division is not reflected in its national politics. There must be some intervening factor at work. It is an issue I return to below.
A third set of explanations for neo-nationalism focus on ethnicity and intergroup conflict. Here Canada’s outlier status becomes clearer. Canada ranks sixth among OECD countries in terms of foreign born as a share of the total population. On balance a majority of Canadians continue to like the idea of immigration as well. One study in October found that overall, 67% of Canadians were “satisfied” with how well new immigrants are integrating in their communities, and another recent survey found that a majority of Canadians say they prefer the current level of immigration. More tellingly perhaps, when a governmental advisory panel recommended the country increase annual immigrant intake from 300,000 to 450,000, the reaction was decidedly muted. Indeed, there are voices across the political spectrum calling for increases to meet coming labour challenges, and no major politician calling for a significant reduction, let alone a freeze.
Even so, the robustness of that consensus itself requires explanation, for Canada has no lack of “raw materials” for neo-nationalist politics grounded in appeals to xenophobia and racism. Even as Canadians express satisfaction with the integration of newcomers, a majority also agrees with the statement “minorities should do more to fit in better with mainstream Canadian society.” The country witnessed an outbreak in racist events in the weeks following Trump’s U.S. victory. Canada has a long history of institutionalized racism with regard to its in treatment of, and attitudes towards indigenous Canadians (Backhouse 1999). The country still has not squarely faced that past, or effectively dealt with the ramifications that continue into the present. Black Canadians often face an undue burden of suspicion when interacting with Canadian police forces. It is not for lack of racists or racism that Canada lacks racist neo-national politics, as it were.
So, how then to account for the fact that Canada appears to be keeping its small-l liberal head, when all around it are losing theirs? I begin my explanation focusing on another distinctive, yet perhaps more often overlooked Canadian feature: its borders. Bounded on three sides by ocean, and on a fourth by the U.S., virtually no one gets in or out of the country without submitting to government procedures that are broadly accepted as legitimate in the eyes of most Canadians. This isn’t true of any other country in the world. The U.S. has long-running issues around its southern border, while E.U. countries confront two dimensions of population movement—not only the recent influx of Syrian refugees, but 20 years of free movement among EU members under the Schengen Agreement. Even Australia has a numerically small but persistent and seemingly enervating issue regarding asylum seekers and other economically and politically motivated migrants arriving regularly by boat.
This lack of immigration crisis, and the high level of confidence Canadians have with their immigration institutions makes it easier to maintain another unusual Canadian characteristic: its procedurally defined legitimate membership in society. Where most countries—even, increasingly, the United States—place great emphasis on preservation of a dominant culture or cultures in the face of new arrivals, Canadians for the most part continue to resist the articulation a particular and limited concept of national identity to which new arrivals are expected to adapt. Canadian expectations remain more procedural and behavioural, focused on adherence to law and a relatively thin set of norms governing daily life. There is no essential quality to being a Canadian that might be used to arbitrarily exclude some new arrivals, or indeed existing residents and even citizens.
This inclusivity of social membership helps to explain the lack of ethno-nationalism in Canadian politics. It also enable’s the country’s commitment to the universal provision of a range of public goods—most notably, but not solely, universal publicly-provided health care—despite that multicultural, multi-ethnic and indeed multi-national context. This clearly runs against the finding of studies that associate multi-ethnic societies with a reduced provision of public services—a finding that applies to developed countries as well as developing ones. In contrast, countries like France and the U.S. continue to demonstrate how racial politics can shape everything from the provision of health care, to education, to housing.
Of course, Canada has some serious problems on these fronts—problems that actually act as interesting sub-cases within the larger Canadian context. The most notable and disturbing set of issues related to inter-group integration relate to Canada’s indigenous peoples. Though Canada is in principle committed to the preservation of indigenous ways of life, many continue to live on federally administered reservations in conditions more often associated with the poor areas of developing countries. Likewise, minorities have a rough go of it, particularly in Quebec, where politicians from multiple parties have experimented with imposing restrictions on religious expression.
Intriguingly, both these conflicts involve distinct, institutionally reinforced rules of membership and belonging. Indigenous groups seek to preserve their own cultures in part through racially determined rules of membership (the subject of episode one of the excellent Colour Code podcast). Likewise, Quebeckers at the moment are more engaged than other Canadians in defining what behaviours and customs can and cannot be “reasonably” accommodated by the majority and, by extension, the state—an exercise that in part grows out of the province’s long struggle to articulate a distinct Quebecois culture in the midst of a majority English country.
IV. A Deductive Theory
Let me take a step back, and provide a stylized account for what I think is happening. It begins with the idea of the social contract, that venerable liberal democratic attempt to account for how individuals can live together in a well-governed society. In its most common form, the social contract is viewed as existing between the state and its citizens: the state agrees to provide certain goods and services necessary for survival of the polity, and the people pledge their loyalty in return.
Less often discussed, but no less true, one can conceive of the social contract as an agreement amongst inhabitants to share in the burdens and benefits of society, so long as others do so as well. Margaret Levi (1989) refers to this as contingent compliance, and identifies it as a crucial mechanism in the construction of the modern state. In a separate context, Elinor Ostrom’s research shows how smaller groups can overcome collective action problems through the development of institutions driven in part by some form of that same principle of contingent compliance.
It applies equally, if more abstractly, to larger society. When all is well, we think to ourselves, I am ok doing my part, because a) I believe the goals to which I am contributing are legitimate (normally ensured via some institutional mechanism such as democratic election), and b) I trust that those around me will do the same—and that those who do not will be found out, and sanctioned accordingly. We tend to think of the social contract as a thought experiment, but in this latter sense perhaps more akin to a folk theorem, a set of intuitions guiding people as to how best to resolve otherwise vexing collective action problems.
That agreement can break down in different ways. When some members are perceived to received outsized benefits without sharing the burdens equally—effectively, when a subset of the population engages in something akin to free-riding or rent-seeking, capturing a greater share of the wealth of the nation than others believe they are entitled to—others may object. Taken to an extreme, offended members may take action, either against the offenders or the institutions entrusted to prevent such behaviour. Given the importance of fairness to one’s own compliance—I do my part, because I trust others to do the same—such violations can take on a moral character. Those who feel they complied while others took advantage feel like suckers. They feel cheated.
Another equally serious kind of breakdown occurs when identifiable groups within the society are perceived by the majority to exist outside the bounds of the contract, to have entered into the society by illegitimate means, or to threaten the community in some manner. Another of Ostrom’s key insights—one that I have seen at work in my own research in Bolivia—is that boundaries matter. Institutions must incorporate all parties with a stake in the shared project in order to function well. The ones best able to do this are those that define legitimate membership in open, procedural ways, often grounded in geography, and avoid recourse to cultural or ascriptive characteristics, markers that tend to separate one cultural, religious, or ethnic group for another.
Of course, the idea of “legitimate membership” in a polity is an inherently political and endlessly contestable concept. Every country sets its own rules, both formal and informal, for how to become a member in good standing. Adherence to institutional procedures is one part of it, but there are cultural components to membership as well. The effects can be pervasive, yet hard to discuss rationally, since rules about in-group/out-group status register at very basic psychological level—what some refer to as the human “lizard brain.” Further complicating matters, formal and informal rules of membership can change within countries over time.
Simply put, a country can talk itself into a crisis of identity and belonging, and once such a process is under way, it takes on a life all its own. It’s hard to overstate the role of perception in this process. Perception can become widespread and durable on little or no evidence, and initial suspicions can create self-fulfilling prophesies in which evidence is sought, found, and highlighted without due attention to the larger context. Work by scholars such as Joseph Heath highlight how modern communications processes can exacerbate such processes. As politics speed up, voters are forced to make rapid judgements. In order to do so, they depend on rapid reaction driven by emotion and gut instinct rather than the comparatively slow processes of reasoned decision-making.
However it occurs, once triggered, such an outcome again triggers the feeling of being played a sucker. Instead of targeting the distant rich however, it targets the all too vulnerable members of minority groups, marked out by their distinctive name, culture, language, and appearance.
V. Canada: Outlier or Laggard?
This then (finally!), is the claim I make about Canada, what sets it apart from other countries. Its particularly procedural, non-ascriptive approach to legitimate membership—and the trust that citizens have in the processes of legitimation, aided in no small measure by the lack of any kind of immigration “crisis” thanks to the country’s naturally secure borders—renders Canada less exposed to the dual pathologies exploited by neo-nationalist politics. Canadians broadly trust in the integrity of immigration and refugee systems, making a backlash against continuing immigration comparatively unlikely.
In turn, the lack of deep politicized divisions between the still relatively white Canadian majority and new arrivals creates fewer political obstacles to the continued provision of crucial public goods to all Canadians. In this, the less generous nature of Canada’s public goods programs in comparison with more social democratic European states may have even aided the cause of universality. As a result, most Canadians see backlash campaigns to retrench benefits—such a prominent feature of American politics—as either intrinsically unfair, or at least more trouble than they are worth.
The lack of obstacles to universality might in turn be an important factor in accounting for the comparatively robust Canadian support for trade. Even the IMF has (rather belatedly) recognized that countries must redistribute gains from trade in order to protect those who lose out if such policies are to remain broadly popular. Accordingly such universal redistributive policies may play a large role in ensuring Canadians, even those outside the major urban areas, do not feel as “left behind.”
In contrast to Canada, in many countries, I argue “left behind” voters perceive a “dual violation” of the social contract. They at once see rich urban elites seemingly profit excessively from the processes of globalization. At the same time, they see movements of people over which the government seems no longer willing or able to control—whether the movement of Mexican labourers to the U.S., the free movement of workers in Europe, or the arrival anywhere of refugees fleeing conflict, economic stagnation, and other intolerable situations at home. Left without trust in those profiting from globalization (the “elites”, as it were), parties seeming to aid and abet such profiting, or in government institutions failing to adequately regulate movement of people into their societies, they vote to sanction those who cheated and broke the social contract. In short, they vote to restore what they view as the proper moral order.
Of course, it’s equally possible that Canada is just slower than the U.S. and most European nations to respond to the neo-nationalist wave. Certainly, Leitch and several other Conservative leadership candidates see considerable advantage in trying to bring such politics into the Canadian mainstream; likewise, the Canadian media has so far demonstrated an eagerness to cover the issues at great length.
As a result, it seems likely that the country’s next major political fights will be fought precisely on the ground discussed above, over the question of just how inclusive Canadian society is. The result of those contests will tell us much about the viability of neo-nationalism in Canada. Given the continuing lack of objective immigration crisis, should Leitch or someone espousing similar views win the Conservative leadership—or indeed become Prime Minister—it would constitute evidence that the structural institutional factors I focus on here may be less important than some other mechanism driving the diffusion of neo-nationalist ideas from one polity to another.
Beyond the federal level, two provinces offer intriguing “subcases” within the larger Canadian case. The first, briefly discussed above, is Quebec. It is no coincidence, in my view, that the province which so often finds anti-Muslim rhetoric in its political debate is also the part of the country that most resembles the rest of the world in its attempts to cultivate and safeguard some conception of a founding “nation” with its own distinct culture. So long as Quebec remains committed to a nationalist project, one requiring institutionally reinforced rules of it will also remain vulnerable to the darker neo-nationalist politics seen elsewhere.
Alberta provides another kind of example, illustrating how neo-nationalist politics may diffuse from one country to another even in the absence of obvious structural affinity. For many years Alberta has been the most reliably conservative province in the country. It has also been the most receptive to trends in American right wing politics. Accordingly, if there is to be a broad transmission of Trumpism to Canada, we may see it in Alberta first. There are a number of potential beachheads for such ideas in Canada—outposts of the “angry right”—and many focus their attention Alberta politics.
The most visible of these is perhaps “The Rebel Media,” a self-styled online news advocacy organization known for taking positions to the extreme right of Canadian politics, which enjoys a moderate following online (its YouTube channel has more than 450,000 subscribers, for instance). Though based in Toronto, it has taken a strong interest in opposing Notley’s centre-left NDP government. In addition to organizing the rally in Edmonton described above, The Rebel has quickly latched onto a number of Trumpisms, going so far as to trademark and merchandize the phrase “Make Canada Great Again” (and, for good measure, “Make Alberta Great Again” too). If American-style neo-nationalism does catch on in Canada, it may well do so first in Alberta, and organizations such as The Rebel will likely be prominently involved, providing as they do so strong evidence of diffusive processes at work.
In short, time will tell, and soon, if Canada is simply a laggard or a true outlier with regard to neo-nationalist politics. Either way, the country’s experience in the next few years will tell us much about the power of such ideas, and whether and how they may best be countered.
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