A competition once managed by Michael Kinsley, who was then the editor of The New Republic, asked readers to write the world’s most boring headline, one that could top the headline placed over an Op-Ed by the notoriously earnest Times columnist Flora Lewis: “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” Those of us raised north of the border grinned and bore it whenever that joke got repeated—and it did. After all, when rationality still held place in America, it was a tolerable gag.
The election results announced on Monday night in Canada brought that line back to mind. On the surface, this was because the results were a victory for a broad, boring, liberal/social-democratic consensus of the kind that used to be commonplace in the liberal democracies. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party ended the evening with fewer seats than it began the day with, but he did far better than his legendary father, Pierre, had done in his second election, in 1972, when he barely backed into a minority government, hand in hand with David Lewis, the leader of the progressive New Democratic Party. Trudeau fils, given the number of seats retained—a hundred and fifty-seven, out of three hundred and thirty-eight—and the near-certain reluctance of the minority parties to go back to the polls anytime soon, should be safely in place as Prime Minister for another couple of years, perhaps longer.
The popular vote ended narrowly, with the Liberals nearly tied with the Conservatives (who took one percentage point more votes but won just a hundred and twenty-one seats), but there was a majority for the center-left parties, of which Trudeau’s is the largest. Indeed, he’ll have to govern with the frequent support of the social-democratic New Democratic Party, whose leader, Jagmeet Singh, was one of the stars of the campaign. If the results were, from the Liberal point of view, imperfect, it is also true that, had they been reversed, the Conservatives would have trumpeted them as a repudiation; it’s not wrong, then, for Trudeau to see the outcome, as his late-night acceptance speech made it plain that he does, as a vindication. It was a limited but clear—even worthwhile—victory. On the CBC, one commentator even pointed out that the defeated Saskatchewan Liberal M.P. Ralph Goodale had been the only one “to serve with Pierre Trudeau, the father, and Justin Trudeau, the son,” a comment with alarmingly religious overtones.
The result may be surprising to Americans who were led to believe that Trudeau was on his political deathbed, or running a losing campaign. He did less well than before, but he was always going to. The Times made much of Trudeau’s missteps during the campaign, particularly those involving youthful costume parties and a bad choice of makeup. The brown- and black-face pictures of Trudeau were obviously grievous, but also, ultimately, forgivable: people didn’t really think that Trudeau was a racist, just that he had been a long time growing up. The real reproach against him was that, had the shoe been on the other foot, or the makeup on the other face, the Liberals would never have allowed Andrew Scheer, the Conservative Party leader, to live it down. Various other issues, of various degrees of consequence, troubled Trudeau and his campaign.
The most serious charge involved the legal treatment of the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, which led to the resignation of the First Nations attorney general, who said that aides to Trudeau pressured her not to pursue corruption charges against the company, and to Trudeau’s actions being condemned by the parliamentary ethics commissioner. But the affair turned out to have, if anything, reverse political consequences in Quebec, where SNC-Lavalin is headquartered and defended as a matter of local pride, and where the majority still supported Trudeau, who wanted to fine the company but not criminally prosecute it.
Yet American reporting on the election tended to ignore the more bizarre scandals that bedevilled Scheer, who had padded his résumé (quite trivially, but he had) and, more significantly, had long quietly held American citizenship, though he says he didn’t renew his American passport. That is not in itself a scandal in a country where many people have dual citizenship, but it is broadly symbolic of his importation of some American manners and positions. These included his personal opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights—standard on the American right, but radical in Canada—and, more alarming, the bursts of incipient Trumpism in his campaign. This climaxed in a truly ominous moment when the crowd at a Conservative rally, late in the struggle, began the shout of “Lock him up!,” apropos of Trudeau. Scheer, to his clear and Canadian credit, redirected the chant to “Vote him out!,” but the seepage of Trumpism into Canada was a more genuinely worrying development than Trudeau’s follies.
Two divisive trends were apparent. One was the isolation of the West, where not a single Liberal held a seat in Alberta or Saskatchewan. The other was the persistence of Quebec nationalism in the form of the resurgence of the Bloc Québécois, which sits in the Canadian Parliament as an anti-federalist faction, a little like Irish nationalists did in the nineteenth-century British one. The Bloc is more “nationalist” than “sovereigntist” these days—meaning that it is more inclined to push Quebec’s interests in Ottawa than to seriously contemplate independence—but its surprising success (it came in third, with thirty-two seats) still effectively kept Trudeau from a majority. Both these trends—Western alienation and Quebec nationalism—were as evident, and worrying, in 1972 as they are now. Some insist that the problem in the West is now more acute: there is talk of “Wexit,” a secessionist movement in Alberta, and, although no one takes this quite seriously, it is a new kind of talk to be hearing.
These days, every national election tests the strength of elections; every liberal democracy tests the strength of liberal democracy itself. Monday night’s result was, like Emmanuel Macron’s revival in France, or the election of Pedro Sánchez, in Spain, one of a few stirring signs that all may not yet be lost. Watching the results, there was much congeniality, a surprising amount of crabbiness—Trudeau’s partial-victory speech overlapped with Scheer’s partial concession (not a usual thing)—but absolutely no crazy. The one truly Trumpite, populist figure, Maxime Bernier, of the People’s Party of Canada, failed to gain a single seat. No one in the campaign offered to buy Alaska or told a stream of lies, much less casually proposed betraying an ally or making foreign aid to a country dependent on its pursuing conspiracy theories. This was what an election ought to be—a spectrum of parties, running from the socialist left to the free-market right, fighting for specific ideas and regional interests and arriving at a result that, more or less aptly, and however imperfectly, reflects the mood and interests of the country. (Even Bernier’s semi-sovereigntist speech allowed that the result might not be what Quebec wanted, but that Quebec had learned to live with what it could get.)
The spirit persists not because there are not deep and distressing divisions in Canada but because there is sufficient respect for liberal institutions to understand that there is no way forward except to go on fighting them out at the ballot box, with a respect for pluralism and a more or less cheerful acceptance of the inevitable oscillations of power. Nothing could have been more pleasing to see—or, for Americans, perhaps, more surprising—than the speech by Singh, the N.D.P. leader, a Sikh who is proudly turbaned and uncontroversially Canadian. There is room in a liberal democracy for a liberal government; for a strongly free-market conservative government; there is a place for democratic socialism and regional nationalism and for green politics, too. There is no place in a democracy for gangster government. That reminder made Monday night a truly worthwhile Canadian initiative.