Americans often look at Canada with longing eyes. From the Tory exiles of the Revolution to Harriet Tubman’s fugitive slaves to Vietnam draft-dodgers, the Great White North has been repeatedly cast as a refuge of sanity from the tumultuous politics of its southern neighbor.
The longstanding thesis—encouraged in no small part by boastful Canadians themselves—posits Canada as the continent’s calmer, more sensible half, governed by a sort of Midwestern reasonableness that eschews the radical and divisive in favor of the pragmatic and practical. Even Donald Trump conceded that single-payer healthcare “works” in Canada but wouldn’t in America, a tacit concession that things are just… well, different up there.
Small surprise, then, that legend has started to grow in the United States that Canadians have found a way to do conservative politics better. In a recent Washington Post column, Canadian Matthew Hays advised America’s chronically unsuccessful Republicans to “look north to Canada’s Conservatives” under the leadership of three-term prime minister Stephen Harper for some pointers. Similar pleas have been heard in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and wherever David Frum happens to be at any given moment.
Alas, as is so often the case with flattering Canadian stereotypes, the simple tale of how Canada’s Conservative Party became an unstoppable electoral juggernaut through moderation, compassion, and minority outreach hides Canadian complexities under a simple us-versus-them dichotomy. It’s actually far from clear if American conservatives can learn much of anything from the Harper example—the Canadian political system is distinct enough to make a recipe for victory in one country a formula for failure in the other.
Canada’s Multi-Party Dynamics Are Different
Consider this: in Canada’s last federal election, Harper was re-elected with 39.6 percent of the popular vote. That’s less than Michael Dukakis got in 1988. Although Harper is often applauded for his strategic foresight in merging Canada’s two center-right parties—thereby ending a decade of conservative vote-splitting—the other half of the story is that Canada retains two center-left parties that continue to split the vote on the other side.
Canada’s Liberals and New Democrats have won a combined total of the popular vote larger than Harper’s Conservatives in every election he’s contested. Lovely for Harper, sure, but beyond encouraging the emergence of another Ralph Nader, this isn’t exactly a path to victory the GOP can readily emulate in America’s solid two-party system.
The fact that a Canadian prime minister can be elected on such a thin plurality is also relevant when we consider the other thing Harper’s supposedly doing much better than his Republican brethren—winning the minority vote.
To be sure, the 31 percent share of the nonwhite vote Harper won in Canada’s 2011 election was nearly twice the 17 percent Mitt Romney won in 2012. But 31 percent is still far from a majority, and given the fact that Canada is a considerably whiter country than America (around 80 percent of Canadians are white, compared to just 63 percent of Americans), the strategic importance of minority voters is decidedly smaller.
Canadian Minorities Are Different
Canada’s nonwhite voters also hail from quite distinct cultural backgrounds when contrasted to minority voters in the United States. An American who speaks of “visible minorities” will usually be thinking of blacks and Hispanics, but in Canada these communities are surpassed numerically by Asians and what Canadians call “East Indians”—those from countries in or around the Indian subcontinent.
To a large extent, the Republican Party’s “minority voter problem” is really just a black problem. In 2012 Romney won 26 percent of the Asian vote and 27 percent of the Latino vote, Harperesque numbers that would be considered impressive in a Canadian context. It is only the absurdly lopsided nature of the black vote, which went 93 percent for Obama last time, that warps the average.
Both Harper’s Conservatives and the GOP have enjoyed modest success with recent immigrants by pitching their parties as the friends of small business, middle-class boot-strapping, and principled religiosity. But such appeals, which rely heavily on lazy and often condescending generalizations, have a low ceiling. The right often clings to the flattering assumption that minorities only vote Left because they’ve been deceived with lies about right-wing racism. In reality, many simply prefer progressive politics. Republicans don’t have a strategy for dealing with this reality, and neither do Canada’s Conservatives, although a divided Left makes it less of a problem for the latter.
That Harper is a clever and creative politician can’t be denied, and the policies he’s passed and leadership he’s shown offer much for American conservatives to admire. But the prime minister’s success is inseparably tied to the peculiarities of the Canadian political system—and that’s something no Republican strategist can import across the border.