Justin Trudeau May Be the World’s Most Successful Progressive Leader

You don’t have to like him. But hear out his accomplishments.

To hear some journalists tell it, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s reelection last week was actually a defeat. “Justin Trudeau’s Early Election Gamble Backfires,” declared CNN in a headline. “Trudeau’s Election Bet Fails,” said the Associated Press. The prime minister, they noted, had called an election early in hopes that his Liberal Party would gain an outright majority in the Parliament. In the end, Trudeau only won a few more seats and must continue to rely on the (also left-leaning) New Democratic Party to govern. This underperformance, the AP hypothesized, “may well spell his demise in the future.” Politico’s “Ottawa Playbook” agreed: “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will now have to wear the election call, and its C$600-million price tag, and face a new series of questions about his leadership.”

Among the media, prognosticating about Trudeau’s defeat and discussing his weakening appeal is a proud tradition. In August 2019, for example, The Guardian’s Canada correspondent authored a feature entitled “Justin Trudeau: The Rise and Fall of a Political Brand.” It concluded that Trudeau faced “an extraordinary challenge” in the coming October contest because, among other things, he had pressured his attorney general to not prosecute a large Canadian engineering company charged with corruption. His reputation took an even bigger hit the next month when photos emerged of him at age 29 in brownface. His party lost its outright majority in the subsequent election.

But reports of Trudeau’s demise are greatly exaggerated. A win is a win, and as far as winning goes, Trudeau has done quite a bit of it. His third electoral victory almost assures that he’ll be the longest-tenured progressive leader in the wealthy world. Out of all the OECD countries with left-leaning heads of state, only Sweden’s Stefan Löfven has been in office longer, and, barring a sudden massive scandal, Trudeau will soon overtake him (Löfven is retiring in November). The Canadian prime minister has stayed in power during an era in which much of the world has moved to the right—in many cases, such as the United States under Donald Trump, far to the right. That fact alone makes him one of the most successful progressive leaders on the planet.

Power, of course, is only as good as what you do with it. Trudeau’s time in office has resulted in a long list of policy accomplishments. The prime minister expanded Canada’s version of Social Security—called the Canada Pension Plan—by boosting the amount of income the system replaces from one-quarter to one-third, a shift that delighted unions. He increased by 10 percent the Guaranteed Income Supplement, which the government provides to seniors who are especially poor. His parliament created the tax-free Child Care Benefit for impoverished kids. He launched and then hiked the country’s first-ever carbon tax. He passed a large infrastructure package, one that’s bigger as a percentage of GDP than the bipartisan infrastructure bill the U.S. Congress is now considering. (It is also greener.) He legalized weed. After a mass shooting in 2020, he banned 1,500 different kinds of guns. He is planning to increase Canada’s intake of immigrants to levels not seen since 1911. Last May, his government began budgeting tens of billions of federal dollars to reduce child care costs to under $10 a day.

“This might be the most left wing government in Canada’s history,” wrote the Canadian journalist Stephen Maher last week, commenting on both the Liberal Party’s progressive accomplishments and its third electoral victory. The prime minister’s track record is what you might expect the Democratic Party to accomplish had it won a landslide victory in 2020, with Elizabeth Warren atop the ticket.

Trudeau’s policies appear to have had strong results. Poverty—which was increasing before he took office in 2015—has fallen during his administration, from 14.5 percent to 10.1 percent in 2019 (the most recent year for which data is available). That’s at least partially attributable to the Child Care Benefit, which experts believe decreased childhood poverty by 20 percent in the two years after its enactment. Deep poverty, meanwhile, fell from 7.4 percent to 5.0 percent. The share of Canadians making less than half the median income was rising before Trudeau won. Since his first victory, it has decreased by 15 percent. The share of after-tax income going to the bottom 40 percent of earners, largely stagnant under his predecessor, went up. It remains to be seen how COVID-19 will shape his economic legacy, but Trudeau’s government has mounted an aggressive fiscal response. The pandemic has complicated the government’s efforts to bring in immigrants, but Canada has remained one of the friendliest nations for foreigners. Of all the refugees who resettled around the world in 2020, nearly half went to Canada. It is the third consecutive year that the country has led the world in resettlements.

The prime minister has nonetheless come under heavy fire from the left. “Trudeau’s Blackface Is Appalling, and So Are His Policies,” wrote The Nation in 2019, shortly after the scandal broke. “The mainstream media,” the piece said, “is finally waking up to just how thin the Liberal leader’s progressive veneer has always been.” At around the same time, a Guardian columnist criticized the prime minister for “basking in a progressive image he doesn’t deserve.” Last week, a Jacobin story described Trudeau as a “phony” and a “champion of the status quo.” We have come a long way from 2015, when the prime minister’s charismatic, avowedly woke campaign made him an international celebrity. There are no more Trudeau stans.

The critics are not all wrong. Trudeau has not done nearly enough to make up for the generations of oppression experienced by Canada’s Indigenous communities, and he has done far too little to tackle discrimination in the country’s criminal justice system. He abandoned an important pledge to reform his country’s electoral system. He has supported the fossil fuel industry’s pipeline building, seriously undercutting the country’s ability to fight climate change. These are clear failures, and it is important for progressives to call him out.

But Trudeau has, by and large, followed through on his liberal promises. Indeed, an independent 2019 assessment of the prime minister’s record by 24 academics found that Trudeau had wholly kept more than 50 percent of his campaign pledges and partially kept another 38.5 percent, the most of any Canadian government since 1984. He is certainly a flawed leader. But he is not, as Jacobin says, “governing to the right of the Conservatives.”

In fact, Trudeau’s accomplishments become especially impressive when one considers the Conservative he first defeated in 2015. Under nine years of Stephen Harper, Canada—never quite the progressive paradise that many American liberals imagine—was in decisively right-wing territory. Harper cut social services for the poor, including by making it more difficult to receive unemployment insurance. He pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol and systematically weakened elements of the country’s environmental protection regime. He shuttered 12 of the 16 regional offices operated by Status of Women Canada, a federal government organization dedicated to promoting gender equality, and eliminated its independent research fund. He axed a database that tracked assault rifle ownership. Harper’s control was so total that he successfully passed a law to increase Canada’s retirement age to 67 starting in 2023, something the Republican Party has never been able to accomplish in the U.S. (Upon taking office, Trudeau promptly repealed the age increase.)

Canada, with a more progressive populace and a parliamentary electoral system that does not systematically drown out liberals, is different from the United States. There are clear limits to what the country can teach us.

Nevertheless, elements of Trudeauism are making their way into the Democratic Party. They are most clearly evident in the Biden administration’s multi-trillion-dollar Build Back Better bill, an extremely ambitious piece of progressive legislation that could bring the U.S. much closer to its northern neighbor. A few parts of the plan, including the billions of dollars that would go to lowering the cost of child care, resemble some of Trudeau’s own achievements.

Other parts of the prime minister’s political formula are evident in the behavior of the Democratic Party’s progressives. The Canadian left clearly does not love the prime minister, but for the past six years, they’ve swallowed their disagreements enough to keep him in power. America’s progressives may not adore Biden, and there is a lot more they wish he would do to advance their agenda. But they have uniformly lined up behind Build Back Better because they recognize it for what it is, not for what it isn’t.

Whether that will be enough is another story. The Democratic Party’s most conservative representatives have not been nearly as supportive of the president’s policies, and several are in open revolt over multiple facets of the reconciliation bill.

It would be too simplistic to tell moderates that, based on what’s happening in Canada, they would be assured of reelection if they vote for a boldly liberal agenda. But if these politicians really do care about helping the marginalized and building a better political climate, Trudeau should at least inspire them. Not only has he passed popular, progressive legislation, he’s shifted the center of political gravity in a more liberal direction. In an attempt to defeat him, Erin O’Toole, Trudeau’s most recent Conservative Party challenger, embraced a host of progressive policies. He pledged to keep the carbon tax. He loudly declared himself “an ally to the LGBTQ community” and told voters that he’d work to keep abortion available nationwide. In his post-election speech, he criticized Trudeau for not doing enough to help Indigenous Canadians.

“Ours is a conservatism that dwells not in the past, but learns from it, to secure the future,” he told voters. “It is a conservatism that reveres strong communities and compassion for one another, for our environment, and for those in need, at home and abroad.” Hearing the speech, I was reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s famous (and perhaps apocryphal) declaration that Tony Blair was her greatest triumph. It is rare that a premier can list the ideology of her opponents as an accomplishment. Justin Trudeau, like Thatcher, can now make that claim.

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Daniel Block

Daniel Block is the executive editor of the Washington Monthly.