Duverger says it can happen here too
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
If Americans have learned one thing over the past four years, it's that they shouldn't feel too comfortable with the phrase "it could never happen here." Democratic norms were flouted, and America's institutions were pushed close to the breaking point. Time and again, their only solace was a belief in America as exceptional, as somehow immune to the problems of other democracies.
Thankfully, the worst didn't happen. America has been pulled back from the brink, but they're not in the clear just yet. Just as Americans saw their democracy attacked and were comforted by notions of their immunity to authoritarianism, across the border we've been comforted by the notion that Canadian politics could never be that bad.
All those who've been termed the "Canadian Donald Trump" have never really been as bad as Donald Trump, and certainly not as powerful. More broadly, the political problems of the United States -- polarization, the unchallenged dominance of two unappealing parties, a few states deciding elections, etc. -- don't seem to be affecting Canada in the same way.
But, like our American friends, we might want to collectively get over "it can't happen here." Established theories in political science show exactly how we might end up the way the United States is now, and complacency will only accelerate us down that path.
Duverger's Law is a theory in political science that all first-past-the-post systems tend towards two-party systems. Essentially, when the winner takes all, smaller parties are incapable of justifying their existence, and disappear, while the two largest parties absorb their support. The result is two centrist parties, fighting over miniscule margins of votes.
This is obviously a pretty apt description of the political situation in the United States. The U.S. is a clear example of the effects of Duverger's Law because it is, in many ways, the "first-past-the-post-iest" democracy: The executive is elected in one winner-takes-all election, which is not even determined by the popular vote, but by the states.
However, Canada is also a first-past-the-post democracy, and thus also susceptible to the dangers of Duverger's Law. In this article, I'll lay out the how exactly Canada would become a country with only two parties, and what that would mean for Canadian politics. This is not a prediction, but rather taking Duverger's Law to its logical conclusion in Canadian politics. This will also hopefully be a helpful examination of the dynamics of Duverger's Law.
Step 1: The emergence of two parties.
Canada's most famous believer in Duverger's Law is former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper believed that Canadian politics did not have a place for the centrist Liberals, and that they would eventually be pushed out by his Conservatives and the NDP. For a moment in 2011, it looked like he may have been onto something. Harper didn't just want to beat the Liberals, he wanted to eliminate them entirely, and create a two-party contest between the Conservatives and NDP.
In 2015, the Liberals came back with a new leader and a more progressive platform, while the NDP centered themselves. The Liberals managed to take a majority in parliament, in part because they moved out of the centre that Harper was trying to eliminate. Since then, the Canadian left has somewhat coalesced: While the Liberals -- especially in the pandemic -- have continued to push left, the NDP and Greens have put an increasing focus on fiscal responsibility.
It seems that what Harper had predicted may be coming to pass, but not in the way that he expected. Rather than the Liberals being absorbed by the NDP, a new, more progressive Liberal party is absorbing the left-wing parties. Since 2015, support for the NDP and Greens has only increased, despite Duverger's predictions. However, it is not impossible that the Liberals fully eclipse the left-wing parties in the near future.
Obviously, the Liberals ability to absorb the support of NDP and Green voters has always been influenced by the success of the Conservatives. Whenever it seems that the Conservatives are a threat to form a government, the "Natural Governing Party" steps in with the support of left-leaning Canadians voting for their second or third choice. A Conservative surge in the next few years, perhaps under O'Toole's more working-class-friendly Conservatives, could lead to the complete coalescence of the left.
Step 2: Regional polarization.
One of the things Americans have lamented over the past few years is that they "no longer talk to one another." Polarization seems to have reached a point where Americans do not communicate with people that have different views. This too is a part of Duverger's Law, and it has a lot to do with how FPTP works.
Under FPTP, the winner is not the winner of the most votes, but the most ridings (congressional districts, states, etc.). This means that having voters in certain areas is beneficial to parties. Take for example the Bloc Quebecois, which won a similar share of the popular vote as the Green Party, but 29 more seats, because all of their voters were concentrated in Quebec.
This means that parties will target certain regions to bring into their "base." In recent years, this has lead the Democrats to target more urban and diverse regions, while Republicans target whiter, more rural regions. No wonder that Americans of different parties "don't talk to each other" — they live in completely different places.
There could emerge in Canada in the coming years the equivalent of "red states" and "blue states," (blue ridings and red ridings) that vote consistently for the party that has them in their base. The Conservatives may put an even greater focus on the Prairies, while the Liberals dominate areas like BC and the Maritimes. Like in the States, this will lead to polarization, as more and more of the country becomes dedicated to a particular party.
Step 3: The emergence of "swing ridings."
When both parties have effectively captured a large enough base, they turn their focus to those regions that are caught in the middle. In the U.S., both parties have so many states that are guaranteed to vote for them that elections usually come down to a few privileged states. In Canada, a few regions caught between the two parties may serve the same purpose as "swing ridings."
Quebec is obviously a strong candidate for this position. As mentioned, the Bloc Quebecois actually benefits from FPTP, despite being such a small party. Future elections may come down to which party can take the most votes from the BQ. Conservatives may appeal to Quebec by fighting for regional independence, as they would for the West. Liberals may appeal to them with more social democratic policies.
Elections in Canada operate on the level of ridings, not provinces. Therefore, the swing ridings may be more specific, such as the Ontario suburbs. Either way, the swing ridings are going to have a disproportionate say in the parties' priorities. Joe Biden, despite having an ambitious climate policy agenda, did not include a ban on fracking in his platform. This is because of fracking economic importance to Pennsylvania, a swing state he needed in order to beat Donald Trump.
Similarly, we may see the Liberals and Conservatives set their agendas with a focus on the interests of Quebec, Ontario's suburbs, or wherever will get them over 50% of the seats in parliament. Once both parties have 50% of the country decidedly on their side, electoral politics becomes a competition for the "plus one."
This is all highly speculative. I don't believe that most of these predictions will come to pass, and if they do, it won't be how I've laid them out here. There are plenty of reasons to think that Canada may continue with more than two parties: The NDP have been around for a few decades, and have certainly carved a niche for themselves in Canadian politics. It may be that Duverger's Law means that all democracies tend towards a particular equilibrium point, rather than all democracies tending towards two parties. Canada, slightly less "first-past-the-post-y" than the States, may have found its equilibrium point with two parties that can form a government, while a third can sometimes sneak its way into the opposition. Furthermore, Duverger's Law is highly contentious, and some suggest that it isn't even applicable outside of the U.S.
However, the tendencies that Duverger's Law predicts are already in our politics: A focus on regional politics that leads to polarization (as in the West), the outsized power of the "swing voters" (Quebec), and only two parties that can actually form a government. Is Canada doomed to two parties, both with 50% of the vote in the bag, fighting over whichever voters will push them over the top? Probably not. Are the dynamics that lead to that state-of-affairs already affecting our politics? Most certainly. Either way, we shouldn't indulge in "it couldn't happen here" too much.