Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.
Labour + Industry
BC Election 2017
BC Politics

Canada’s New Democrats Can Learn from Trump - Or Lose

Trump won because he targeted working class voters. Will NDP finally do the same?

Bill Tieleman 15 Nov

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog.

“Five, 10 years from now — different party. You’re going to have a worker’s party.” — U.S. Republican President-elect Donald Trump, May 2016.

New Democrats in Canada have much to learn from the shocking victory of Republican Donald Trump last week — if they are smart enough to listen instead of puke.

Because Trump won by appealing to America’s workers, boldly, directly and without fear of saying two words that almost never pass the lips of U.S. Democrats or Canadian New Democrats — “working class.”

Yet the U.S. election was fought almost solely on working class issues — who would protect and create jobs by taking on big business, ending international trade deals that export jobs to China, Mexico and other foreign countries and get the economy moving for those left behind?

Was there offensive racism, sexism, intolerance and more to Trump’s campaign? Absolutely and inexcusably.

But that clearly didn’t matter compared to Trump’s core message — an economic appeal to working class voters, primarily outside urban centres, who feel neglected, abandoned and disenfranchised after eight years of Democrat government, despite being led by America’s first black president, Barack Obama.

And that means class is back as the most dominant factor in politics, including here in Canada and British Columbia.

If the NDP looks past the Trump trash talk and focuses on his incredibly successful targeted message, it could benefit mightily in B.C. and across the country.

But if it replicates Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s spectacularly failed campaign, more depressing defeats are inevitable.

Clinton did not make the same direct appeal to workers as Trump. Instead, she used identity politics. 

As author John D. Judas wrote in the Washington Post: “Many Democrats have believed that a coalition of minorities, millennials and single women would help create a new Democratic majority for years to come. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was counting on it.”

“Why did the Democrats’ strategy fail so miserably? Ultimately, because they overestimated the strength of a coalition based on identity politics,” he concludes.

Class trumps race, gender and sexual identity and policy issues like climate change, health care, education, foreign relations or anything else.

That’s because class is still the single strongest indicator of voting preference — not the only one, just the most significant. And it has always been critical in B.C.

If you asked me to identify how a roomful of strangers would vote in a provincial election and I could only ask them one question, it would be “what is your income?” If you gave me two questions, I’d ask their occupation next.

Ironically, the NDP — founded by labour unions, farmers and progressives in 1961 — talks almost exclusively about the “middle class” rather than the working class, while billionaire businessman Trump doesn’t hesitate to use the term or appeal directly to workers.

While Clinton’s slogans were “Stronger Together” and the self-important “I’m With Her,” Trump was identifying both the problem and his solution in just four words: “Make America Great Again.”

And while Clinton talked about her aspirations for the country, Trump spoke directly to his working class target audience about their fears and needs — in their language.

“The political establishment that is trying to stop us is the same group responsible for our disastrous trade deals, massive illegal immigration and economic and foreign policies that have bled our country dry,” Trump said in “Argument for America,” a two-minute video shared online in the last week of the campaign which has more than 8 million views.

“The political establishment has brought about the destruction of our factories and our jobs as they flee to Mexico, China and other countries all around the world.

“It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into pockets into a handful of large corporations and political entities,” Trump says.

“The only thing that can stop this corrupt machine is you. The only force strong enough to save our country is us... you the American people.”

Pow! Powerful language — “robbed our working class” — that borrows from and goes even further than labour leaders and left-wingers like Clinton’s Democratic nomination opponent Bernie Sanders.

In fact, Sanders said of Trump’s victory: “Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media.

“People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids — all while the very rich become much richer.”

Sanders’ view was actually understated compared to an Ipsos/Reuters exit poll of voters that showed:

• 75 per cent agreed that “America needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful”;

• 72 per cent agreed “the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful”;

• 68 per cent agreed that “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me”; and

• 76 per cent believe “the mainstream media is more interested in making money than telling the truth.”

The success of class politics and the failure of identity and coalition politics is clearly identified in other exit polls based on interviews with more than 24,000 voters.

They show that despite being the first woman to run for president as the candidate of a major party, Clinton only received one per cent more votes from women than Obama did in 2012 and had lower levels of support from whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians and voters of other racial backgrounds.

Her only noticeable improvements over Obama were with voters over 65 years of age, those with college education or higher and those with incomes between $50,000 and $200,000.

Trump pulled more support than 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney from men, every racial group, lower income earners and every religious denomination except the Jewish faith.

Trump captured a higher percentage of the white vote than even Ronald Reagan in 1984, with 58 per cent to 37 per cent for Clinton.

And Trump was clearly the change candidate — 83 per cent of those who said the most important issue was bringing needed change voted Republican versus just 14 per cent Democrat.

Hardly surprising with Clinton being the epitome of the political establishment — her years of Washington experience as secretary of state, senator and first lady encouraged Obama to say in July that “There has never been any man or woman more qualified for this office than Hillary Clinton.”

That’s exactly what many voters feared and did not want — a Washington insider par excellence.

So will the NDP do the math and go back to the class politics that have made it and its predecessor Cooperative Commonwealth Federation successful in forming social democratic governments in several provinces since 1944?

The last winning BC NDP campaign was in 1996 under premier Glen Clark. The NDP campaign theme, “On Your Side,” contrasted sharply with the corporate campaign of BC Liberal leader Gordon Campbell. That election saw the NDP promise to raise minimum wages, freeze tuition fees and ICBC rates and generally declare themselves on the side of working people versus Campbell’s plan to cut taxes for the wealthy and public services. (Note: I was communications director to Glen Clark before and during that election.)

Premier Christy Clark is in many ways B.C.’s Hillary Clinton: entitled, personally and politically enriched by big business donations and the consummate insider. That makes her vulnerable — and she is likely already worried about it.

And NDP leader John Horgan, who I encouraged to run, can point to his background wearing a real hard hat to work in a paper mill and having other working class jobs.

It’s also very unlikely the BC NDP will run another “don’t scare the horses” campaign with a theme like “Change for the Better: One practical step at a time” that put supporters to sleep in 2013.

The federal NDP can also learn important messages after the disastrous 2015 campaign that echoed the Conservatives’ position on balancing the budget and allowed Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to outflank the NDP on the left. But will it?

It’s too soon to tell, but one possible early negative indication comes from NDP MP Charlie Angus, who is rumoured to be considering a leadership bid to replace Tom Mulcair.

“When the world gets too difficult to understand I come home to my little mining town of Cobalt,” Angus tweeted last week. “Today the boys at the garage helped make sense of the Trump election. They delivered the message in coveralls, greasy boots and biker tattoos: ‘The man is a pig, who would give power to someone who treats women like that?’ This is a town where local families are helping Syrian refugees find their way around.”

“Message to be learned: don’t go blaming the white working class for the dysfunction of big money, media and political manipulation. [Conservative MP and leadership candidate] Kellie Leitch wouldn’t deign to learn wisdom from folks like this in a million years,” Angus added.

“Yes blue collar folk have been shafted time and time again but I still set my political watch by their decency, sense of community and willingness to go to the wall to help others.”

It would be reassuring to believe Angus is right, and there’s no doubt he’s reporting is what he heard.

But we already know that “blue collar folk” voted overwhelmingly for Trump because of his class-based message and strong anti-establishment stance — something the NDP has not espoused in a long time.

As Joan C. Williams wrote in a post-election analysis in the Harvard Business Review: “Class trumps gender, and it’s driving American politics.”

Williams debunks the claim white working class voters are simply duped into voting against their interests.

“‘The white working class is just so stupid. Don’t they realize Republicans just use them every four years, and then screw them?’ I have heard some version of this over and over again, and it’s actually a sentiment the WWC [white working class] agrees with, which is why they rejected the Republican establishment this year. But to them, the Democrats are no better,” she writes.

“Both parties have supported free-trade deals because of the net positive GDP gains, overlooking the blue-collar workers who lost work as jobs left for Mexico or Vietnam. These are precisely the voters in the crucial swing states of Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that Democrats have so long ignored. Excuse me. Who’s stupid?”

She makes a further point about the error of ignoring or disdaining working class voters.

“Saying this is so unpopular that I risk making myself a pariah among my friends on the left coast. But the biggest risk today for me and other Americans is continued class cluelessness,” Williams concludes.

“In 2010, while on a book tour for Reshaping the Work-Family Debate, I gave a talk about all of this at the Harvard Kennedy School. The woman who ran the speaker series, a major Democratic operative, liked my talk. ‘You are saying exactly what the Democrats need to hear,’ she mused, ‘and they’ll never listen.’ I hope now they will.”

That remains to be seen.

British comedian Tom Walker, as fictional TV reporter Jonathan Pie, captured the left’s problem, with a video that is both hilarious, outraged and wise in its advice.

“Talk to people who think differently to you and persuade them of your argument,” Walker rants. “It’s so easy and the left have lost the art.”

“Stop thinking that everyone who disagrees with you is evil or racist or sexist or stupid and talk to them, persuade them otherwise. Because if you don’t, I’ll tell you what you get — you get President Trump!”

Will the NDP talk to those who don’t think the same way, listen to the working class and avoid a Clinton campaign catastrophe?

That will be the central challenge for the left in the months and years ahead — and class politics will determine who wins the next B.C. election.  [Tyee]

  • Share:

Get The Tyee's Daily Catch, our free daily newsletter.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

Most Popular

Most Commented

Most Emailed


The Barometer

Are You Concerned about Your Municipality’s Water Security?

Take this week's poll