Opinion Column

Furey

How the NDP became the villain

By Anthony Furey, Postmedia Network

NDP leader Tom Mulcair speaks to reporters during a press conference following the first federal leaders debate of the 2015 Canadian election campaign in Toronto, August 6, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / GEOFF ROBINS (Photo credit should read GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)

NDP leader Tom Mulcair speaks to reporters during a press conference following the first federal leaders debate of the 2015 Canadian election campaign in Toronto, August 6, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / GEOFF ROBINS (Photo credit should read GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)

A shift has happened in Canadian politics and the big losers are social democrats.

Something that was inconceivable in the last election cycle has taken root: it’s now socially acceptable to hate the NDP.

We saw this unfold big time with Elbowgate.

While the Ottawa bubble laid most of the blame on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s unprecedented conduct, many in the public focused on faulting the reactions of NDP MPs Ruth Ellen Brosseau -- the one elbowed -- and Niki Ashton, who raced to her colleague’s defence.

I saw degrading comments on social media about these two MPs and party leader Tom Mulcair that I’ve rarely seen hurled at left-wing politicians.

While there’s no denying some of the NDP’s response was overkill -- like equating Trudeau’s manhandling to domestic violence -- the public’s hostility to them is new territory.

Until recently, the NDP were usually given the benefit of the doubt, even by people who didn’t support them. They were assumed to be genuine, their hearts in the right place.

When they made mistakes, the public and media weren’t automatically inclined to interpret it in the worst way -- as they do with Conservative missteps.

Instead, they tended to rationalize and downplay it, a generosity long afforded to the left.

All that has changed, though, with the rise of Trudeau. The Liberals now own the progressive advantage.

How did this happen?

“A large part of the public opinion support from the Prime Minister has happened because he has won substantial support among NDP voters,” pollster Abacus Data explains.

“Among 2015 NDP voters, 72% say [Trudeau’s] setting the right priorities for the country, 84% say he genuinely cares about other people, and 85% say he tries to do the right thing for the country.”

We could chalk this up to Liberal policies being more progressive than the NDP platform.

But not only is this not entirely true, it also breaks a key psychological rule of the game: that politics is a team sport and a tribal one at that.

People don’t suddenly switch allegiances because of tweaks in policies. Policies can change. Something bigger has to click in their subconscious. Something cultural.

It’s not so much that the Liberals have become more progressive than the NDP. It’s that Trudeau is more of an idealist than Mulcair.

This matters immensely because the contrast between idealism and realism has long been a defining marker for where people hang their political hats.

The late Jack Layton, in addition to being a skilled politician, was also a great dreamer. During his years as NDP leader, there was always a bright future right around the corner. This idealism rubbed off on people.

If a scrappy, underdog battling cancer could whip across the country, foisting his cane with what seemed like boundless energy and an ear-to-ear grin, anything was possible.

Then along came “Angry Tom Mulcair” -- who told us to calm down and look at the numbers. It’s tough running deficits, he reasoned, because that makes it harder to be effective social democrats and create stable foundations for the new programs New Democrats want.

He was right. But it was an argument that appealed to realists, who already received their daily dose from Stephen Harper.

So who was he trying to win over? There was no way Mulcair was going to convert Layton’s dreamers into killjoy number crunchers.

So now Trudeau’s the idealist-in-chief.

And that’s how the NDP became the villain.