One of the main differences between Canada and the United States is
the presence of relatively successful third parties in Canada. Arguably,
the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), renamed the New Democratic
Party (NDP) in 1961, has been Canada’s most influential and idea-generating
party. How this came about may be of interest to those who wish to
study whether a possible, relatively successful, third-party movement
could ever get under way in the United States.
The Canadian federal system — consisting of provinces that typically
are territorially larger than most U.S. states and more regionally
and culturally delineated than them — has clearly encouraged
third parties. The parliamentary system by tradition has no set election
dates. An election may take place at any time within five years from
the previous election, at the discretion of the prime minister or premier.
However, when the ruling party holds fewer than a majority of seats
in the legislature, an election may take place any time a more important
bill — termed “a matter of confidence” — is
voted down by the opposition parties combining against it.
One of the biggest illusions of Canadian politics is that the federal
and provincial NDPs — and the extraparliamentary left-wing coalition
groups that often work with the NDP — are comparatively weak
and rarely able to significantly exercise power. It is true that on
the surface the official NDP appears to be comparatively weak. It won
a mere 29 seats out of 308 in the federal Parliament in the latest
federal election in January 2006 and now holds only one provincial
In reality, however, the NDP possesses an unusual degree of ideological
strength and depth rarely seen in any of the other Canadian parties.
The result is that it wields more real influence than, for example,
the federal Progressive Conservatives (PC) in earlier decades. Despite
its minority status on the federal level, the NDP was able to bring
about such major, transformative changes in the Liberal and federal
PC parties (especially in social and cultural areas) that it hardly
needed to be in power.
The NDP has counted on the support of tens of thousands of university
professors, journalists, civil servants, dedicated social activists,
and teachers — all of whom wielded a far greater amount of influence
than the large number of more-average people who supported the Reform
Party in the 1990s or the federal Progressive Conservatives in the
1980s and before. And, quite apart from the gradual percolation of
its social and cultural ideas into Canadian society, the NDP has been
able to enter into highly advantageous political collaborations with
the Liberal Party at critical junctures. The Liberals have largely
carried out NDP policies.
The result? Most people embrace multiculturalism, high immigration,
feminism, and gay rights. To a social conservative, the triumph of
fiscal conservatism is all but irrelevant when compared to the cultural,
social, moral, spiritual, and religious crises.
Ironically, old-fashioned social democracy (such as that represented
by the CCF) could be seen as largely socially conservative. While ferociously
fighting for the working class and for social programs that benefited
the broad Canadian majority, it largely supported traditional notions
of nation, family, and religion. Since the 1960s, however, old-fashioned
social democracy has mutated into left-liberalism. While becoming ever
more conciliatory to capitalism and fiscal conservatism, it became
increasingly hostile to traditional notions. Its claim to represent
the working-class majority became less and less credible.
The savants and elitists who represented the leadership of the NDP
realized that they could exercise meaningful power within the structures
of current-day capitalism. And what they increasingly cared about was
not the well-being of the working-class majority but rather the trendy
new issues of multiculturalism, feminism, and gay rights — issues
of comparatively little interest to traditional social democracy.
Today, the NDP has wrapped itself in the cloak of compassion, decency,
and concern for “average, ordinary people.” In fact, it
could be argued that the NDP has acted largely against the working
majority of Canadians for decades. In places such as Saskatchewan where
it has avoided the excesses of left-liberalism, the NDP’s success
has been largely congruent with the remnants of social conservatism.
The typical impact of the NDP in Canada, however, when deployed in
support of the excesses of left-liberalism, appears as damaging to
society as the consumerism and globalization that it sometimes quite
Regardless of apparent return of fiscal or economic conservatism in
Canada of today, the NDP has been able to fundamentally transform the
social and cultural ideas and policies of the Liberal Party and most
of the Progressive Conservative Party (and thereby of most of the country)
away from social conservatism. Its outlooks have triumphed in social
and cultural matters. At the same time, it has partially continued
the traditions of fighting for a more generous welfare state — whose
universality is now being undermined not only by fiscal conservatism
but also by the NDP-led social and cultural directions of promoting “designated
groups” — rather than the commonweal.
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