If McGill political science professor Kelly Gordon had to make a prediction about the upcoming federal election, she would predict a Liberal minority. Interestingly enough, Dr. Gordon was more willing to make predictions about the upcoming election than are most political scientists, despite her not being an analyst of political behaviour. But as our conversation unfolded, it became apparent that Dr. Gordon’s willingness to make a cautious prediction is not despite, but precisely because, her research lies outside of voting behaviour.
Dr. Gordon made the prediction of a Liberal victory based on party history, recalling that “the Liberal party has been one of the most dominant political institutions in the world in terms of winning elections.” This approach mirrors her broader research, which also relies on higher-level units of analysis.
Rather than examining politics in terms of the individual voter, Dr. Gordon researches how politics plays out at the level of discourse. Her PhD dissertation, which was recently awarded the Governor General Gold medal, analyzed how victimhood is mobilized in conservative discourse in Canada. In a recent book, co-authored with Paul Saurette, Dr. Gordon similarly looked at discourse by examining how rhetoric employed by the anti-abortion movement in Canada has changed over time.
Currently, Dr. Gordon is working on research which argues that populism is misunderstood in Canada. While populism in other countries looks like an anti-immigrant project, Canadian populism has historically been regional: it has been anti-Quebec rather than anti-outsider. This ongoing research has made the current election campaign especially interesting for Dr. Gordon given the emergence of the right-wing populist Peoples’ Party of Canada (PPC).
PPC leader Maxime Bernier has attempted to replicate the anti-immigrant populism that exists in other countries, but has been failing in part because this type of rhetoric doesn’t typically resonate broadly with Canadians. Scholars often talk about the rule-of-thirds when it comes to immigration, which identifies that one third of Canadians are happy with contemporary levels of immigration or want to see it raised, one third want to see levels reduced, and one third of Canadians move between these two poles. Bernier’s anti-immigrant populism simply doesn’t seem to be moving this volatile third of Canadians, says Dr. Gordon.
If immigration hasn’t been effectively mobilized by the PPC, the place where it has resided this election is with the controversial Bill 21 in Quebec, which restricts public servants from wearing religious garb. Bill 21 provides yet another example that anti-immigration looks different in Canada: it isn’t rooted in populism (the way anti-immigration is mobilized in the United States), but rather in the specific Quebecois context of laïcité.
Bill 21 is an interesting factor in this election because it leaves all parties in a precarious position. It is an especially delicate issue for the New Democratic Party (NDP) given that their leader is a racialized Sikh man and that Quebec is the province where the NDP has the most seats to lose. The Liberals have also tried to lay low on this issue, with leader Justin Trudeau avoiding any high-profile statements on the issue.
This falls in line with the Liberals’ overall approach this election, which has been one of putting the party in front of the leader – a stark contrast from 2015. As Dr. Gordon puts it, Trudeau’s lower profile “is somewhat to be expected because running for your second term as leader is often harder than running for your first.” Whereas Trudeau was performing almost at the level of celebrity in 2015, voters are growing tired of Trudeau this time around. This has been amplified by the SNC-Lavalin and Blackface/Brownface scandals, which further tainted Trudeau’s image.
On SNC-Lavalin, Dr. Gordon explains that discourse operated on two registers. On the one hand, a regional populist rhetoric accused the Liberals of favouring Quebec elites. On the other hand, Trudeau’s pro-diversity persona collapsed with the situation surrounding Jody Wilson-Raybould. With the Brownface scandal, Trudeau appears to have emerged much more unscathed. In part, this is because the NDP didn’t go after Trudeau in a nasty way and the Conservatives lacked the necessary credibility on this issue to attack Trudeau effectively.
Even without being hugely affected by its leader’s scandals, the Liberals are in a tight race this election. This is in large part due to support for third parties like the NDP and Bloc Québécois. Support for these parties highlights a more general sentiment of dissatisfaction with the traditional options, explains Dr. Gordon.
If this dissatisfaction continues into election day, we may well end up with a surge of third parties and a decrease in the strength of traditional parties. Such a reconfiguration of Canada’s party landscape won’t just direct the country’s governance over the next few years: it will also impact how Canadian politics are understood by party-oriented political scientists like Dr. Gordon.
Edited by Evelyne Goulet.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Image by Ishmael N. Daro via Flickr Creative Commons.