Newsom cut the fire budget - then guess what happened (JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

September 15, 2021   5 mins

Canada and California might be more than 4,000km apart — but their respective electorates have been forced to endure strikingly similar political torments. In both cases, seemingly glamorous, progressive leaders now find themselves under assault from electorates who remain in a highly surly and volatile mood. Both Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (who opportunistically called a national election last month based solely, it seems, on a few good polls registered during the summer) and Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom (who is on track to survive yesterday’s extraordinary recall election with at least 60% of the vote) are nonetheless experiencing significant, and unexpected, voter discontent.

Even if, as it now looks likely, Newsom is not recalled, or Trudeau wins re-election, that we’re even discussing their downfalls indicates that both the “Golden State” and Canada, a country long known as the Scandinavia of the Western Hemisphere, are no longer political exemplars for the rest of the world. Instead, their governments now represent more of the same kind of political disappointments that have characterised Western liberal democracies for the past 40 years.

In Canada, polls suggest the Conservatives and Liberals are locked in a tight race, as many voters turn to the opposition Conservative Party, whose “blue-collar” policies under leader Erin O’Toole closely resemble those of Boris Johnson’s British Tories. Meanwhile, California, long considered one of America’s most progressive Democratic states, was almost confronted with the spectacle of a Republican governor, in the form of black Right-wing libertarian radio host, Larry Elder. The very fact that the recall vote got this far indicates that the “Golden State” no longer glitters with opportunity for all.

This month’s elections in Canada and California — preceded by 18 months of rolling lockdowns, job losses and Covid-related chaos — can roughly be described as a collective “Howard Beale” moment. Echoing Network, Paddy Chayefsky’s classic satirical black comedy-drama film, voters in both places are “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore”.

Even though vaccine mandates have been broadly accepted by the majority of Canadians and Californians, this compliance is increasingly transcended by contempt for their respective governments, which have failed to address a range of non-pandemic-related issues: from rising economic precarity (concurrent with the growth of the so-called “gig economy” and all of the attendant insecurities that come with it) to the fact that both places are being ruled by hypocritical, out-of-touch technocratic elites who are clueless about the everyday life for ordinary Californians and Canadians.

As far as Covid itself goes, despite some missteps, Canada and California have done relatively well in introducing measures to restrict the speed of the pandemic. Both have also secured relatively high rates of vaccinations; Canada now has a greater proportion of its population fully vaccinated than either the US or UK, while California ranks among the highest vaccinated among American states.

Despite their relative success stories, this month’s elections have unleashed longstanding grievances, spurred on by disgust with the perceived hypocrisy of the two administrations. In the case of California, Governor Newsom’s ill-timed visit to a Michelin-starred restaurant amid a Covid-19 surge last year sparked outrage, as did his admission that he was sending his own children to classes at a private school while most public schools remained closed.

But Newsom, despite his recall victory, has failed on a host of other issues — a number of which he shares with Trudeau. For instance, California is often heralded as a model US state in terms of decarbonising its economy. But the truth is that the governor’s push for renewables has degraded the reliability of the state’s electrical grid, resulting in multiple blackouts this year. These have occurred against a backdrop in which some of California’s Latino leaders have filed lawsuits to halt several climate-focused regulations due to their negative effect on low and middle-income Californians. Yet for many families it is too late: the ostensibly progressive state has the highest poverty rate in America and a level of income inequality that exceeds of all but five states.

Similar charges of sanctimony have had increasing resonance in Canada, home to a Liberal government that has consistently trumpeted its desire to move to net zero carbon emissions. Yet recently, this same administration has also taken the extraordinary step of promoting oil sands exports to global markets after it nationalised the Trans Mountain pipeline for CAD$4.5-billion — even though its former owner had cancelled the pipeline expansion because of fierce opposition from environmentalists, indigenous groups and the provincial British Columbian government.

By the same token, Justin Trudeau, a leader who has long trumpeted his progressive credentials, has steadily seen that image erode, notably in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin scandal which provoked the resignation of two female cabinet ministers. Both ministers accused the Prime Minister of inappropriately interfering in a prosecution effort against the engineering company, which had been charged with fraud in connection with a series of Libyan business dealings. That one of the resigning ministers, Jody Wilson-Raybould, served as Canada’s first indigenous justice minister was a particular blow to the Prime Minister’s diversity agenda.

Yet Trudeau may have had plausible grounds for his actions: in the case of the controversial pipeline, Canada is still a heavily resource-based economy, and the fossil fuel industry continues to be a source of high-paying skilled jobs for the working and middle classes, especially in western Canada. And as far as SNC-Lavalin goes, it is a large, Quebec-based company employing thousands of Canadians in a province that is a key stronghold for the Liberals.

But while Trudeau at least has plausible grounds to explain his perceived hypocrisy, the same cannot be said for Newsom. The California governor may have survived his recall vote — but now there is no hiding from the very serious structural problems that have long afflicted his state. Indeed, as author Michael Shellenberger has persuasively argued, Newsom’s policies have actually made them worse: “Rather than put forest management on war-time footing, Newsom in 2019 actually cut the budget for forest fire prevention, which resulted in a full halving of the forest area treated for fire in 2020, all while accusing his political opponents of climate denial, and suggesting that the deployment of weather-dependent renewable energy will somehow address the state’s high-intensity forest fires.” Extensive fires have also played a significant role in the state’s rolling blackouts.

Likewise, California’s housing affordability ranks last among the 50 states with the result — as Shellenberger notes — that the number of homeless people in the Golden State “rose 31% over the last 10 years even as the number of homeless in the rest of the U.S. declined 18 percent. Where New York City shelters 95% of its homeless, California cities shelter one-third.” Meanwhile, Newsom acts like a helpless bystander, even though he has a Democratic super-majority in the State Assembly. Remarkably, new housing construction actually fell 10% last year, with just 100,550 new building permits issued, one-fifth of what Newsom promised when he was elected back in 2018.

That might explain why a solidly blue state started to contemplate a radical alternative to the incumbent governor. Larry Elder, a Black radio talk-show host in the state, a is pro-life cultural conservative who has explicitly opposed any minimum wage (let alone increase it). He has also come out against vaccine mandates, and has railed against critical race theory and transgender politics.

In Canada, however, conservative politics north of the border are somewhat more prosaic. The Conservative Party’s capable new leader, Erin O’Toole, has run a smart campaign and given voters a positive reason to vote Tory (in contrast to his hapless predecessor, Andrew Scheer). Evoking Boris Johnson’s successful 2019 election strategy, its manifesto features a new kind of pro-worker conservatism, at a time when most centre-left parties have increasingly abandoned working class interests in favour of launching progressive campaigns. Among its notable features are benefits for gig workers (who are largely exempt from adequate social coverage in the US), German-style worker representation on corporate boards and protections for pensions from corporate bankruptcy.

These are policies far more likely to engender support among middle and working-class Canadians than, say, proposals to support an LGBTQ agenda or linguistic “reforms” to abolish gendered pronouns. All of which has helped O’Toole’s Tories make headway in the election. While the most recent polls show an incremental movement back to the Liberals, they still point to a hung Parliament.

And so both Newsom and Trudeau have, in recent weeks, cast their political futures in increasingly melodramatic “life and death” terms. But such rhetoric — even if they win, as Newsom has — fails to address the central issue: namely, the shredding of a once sacrosanct social contract between the elites and the rest of us. No matter who wins these elections, the corresponding anger and social fallout that has resulted is unlikely to dissipate. From Canada to California, the people are “mad as hell” — and neither Trudeau nor Newsom seem capable of remedying that.

Marshall Auerback is a market commentator and a research associate for the Levy Institute at Bard College.