In the forthcoming election campaign Canadian voters intent on preventing a Conservative government will once again be told that they must choose between two progressive parties, the Liberals and the NDP, as if the ideological and policy differences between them were not of much significance. Even Nathan Cullen, MP, one of the leading lights of the NDP, tweeted at the end of March 2019, “Fool me once … tell me if you’ve seen this movie before. Liberals … steal progressive/NDP ideas … fail to enact them while in power.” This implies that the most important difference between the two “progressive” parties is that New Democrats are sincere and trustworthy while the opportunistic Liberals cannot be trusted to put into practice the ideas espoused by both parties.

In an essay entitled “What does ‘Progressive’ Mean? The Political Theory of Social Democracy and Reform Liberalism in Canada,” David McGrane, Saskatchewan political science professor and erstwhile president of the Saskatchewan NDP, decries the habit of referring to both parties as “progressive.”1 While acknowledging the partial similarity of the NDP and Liberal projects, he writes that progressive is “too broad and imprecise a term and its use by both parties has led to confusion about their respective ideologies.” It would be better for both parties to recall and reinvigorate their distinctive intellectual foundations: social democratic and liberal reform. This “might help the NDP in its deliberations on how to revitalize the party after its disappointing electoral defeat, and aid the now-governing Liberals in defining their direction.”

McGrane appreciates the distinction between the ideological and policy levels of political orientations, a distinction which I emphasize in my recent essay on “The Deep Culture of Canadian Politics”:

Deep culture ought not to be conflated with the explicit positions taken at particular historical moments on matters of public policy. The magnitude of the policy differences among political parties waxes and wanes relative to changing local and global circumstances … Political actors frequently converge on policy while underlying deep cultural legitimations continue to diverge, more or less subliminally.2

However, McGrane does a superb job of showing that in Canada, Britain and Europe, there has been a steady continuity of substantial policy differences “undergirded by differences in values.” McGrane’s resources are the writings of theorists such as John Rawls the reform liberal and Anthony Crosland the social democrat, together with a detailed comparison of the Canadian Liberal and NDP election platforms of 2015.

For social democrats, “the individual’s place in society is as part of a greater whole and the interests of the collectivity come before those of the individual.” For reform liberals like Rawls, on the other hand, society remains, just as much as it was for classical liberals, an association of naturally free and autonomous individuals entering into a social contract for their mutual benefit as self-seeking individuals. For social democrats, says McGrane, the free market, not “human nature,”

is the main barrier to a more caring, altruistic, and cooperative society. The … unfettered free market forces people to pursue their own selfish interests … For reform liberals in contrast, cooperation is good, but it is founded upon mutual self interest … The free market, property rights and wealth accumulation are fundamentally good things … A rising tide lifts all boats.

Liberals are in theory devoted to equality of opportunity. That is the basis of their justification of the welfare state and of limited state intervention in the economy. Social democrats, on the other hand, believe that the purpose of the welfare state should be not simply to advance a phantasmagoric equality of opportunity but to secure a real, basic equality of condition, a basic level of “material well being … for all citizens regardless of merit.”

These fundamental differences at the level of deep culture give rise, according to McGrane, to significant differences at the level of public policy and party platforms between social democrats like the NDP and reform liberals like the Liberals. Social democrats are much more favourable to “a mixed economy … of public, cooperative, and private ownership … a more comprehensive and generous welfare state … decommodification of certain essential goods and services which should lead to greater economic equality.” Child care would be one such service. Social democrats also favour higher taxes and “a higher level of coordination of the free market.”

People who consider themselves to be the True Left frequently criticize social democrats by saying, “You don’t want to abolish capitalism. You just want to reform it – you are just like the liberals.” To which I sometimes respond, “Liberals want to reform capitalism in order to save it. We want to reform the hell out of capitalism. When we’re done, you’ll hardly recognize it.”

McGrane and I would concur that in the coming election campaign the NDP should accentuate the positive social democratic difference and eliminate the negative implication that the difference is no more than a matter of “progressive” sincerity or trustworthiness.


1 In David McGrane and Neil Hibbert, eds., Applied Political Theory and Canadian Politics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019), pp. 69–91.

2 Inroads, Winter/Spring 2017, The Deep Culture of Canadian Politics.