Why Justin Trudeau is betting everything on middle class voters

What’s with his obsession with average folks?


On the morning after his election as Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau has published an opinion piece in the Globe & Mail under the headline “Why it’s vital we support the middle class.” While it contains no new policy, the article served as a bookend to his six-month campaign. The plight of the middle class was a major theme of his launch speech and the subject of his first position statement, published as a column in the Toronto Star entitled: “Canadian middle class left out of the growth equation.” Improving economic conditions for Canadian middle class families was the first and last item on the agenda of Trudeau’s leadership campaign. We can expect it to be the bloody-minded focus of his leadership as well.

As we explained in our recent cover story, Trudeau’s entire economic agenda is built around a single motto: “A strong economy is the one that provides the largest number of good jobs for the largest number of Canadians.” It’s a phrase designed to appeal to the middle class, who have felt cheated by the country’s economic policies over the past generation, according to Trudeau. “Canadian politicians have made a deal with the middle class that we put forward economic policies that are focused on growth,” Trudeau told Canadian Business in an interview for our story. “And the middle class will benefit from that. The reality is the Canadian economy has doubled in size, but median family income has increased by only 13%. That leads to a sense the system isn’t working for Canadian families.” And so, whatever the economic issue—foreign direct investment, the GST, the Keystone XL pipeline—Trudeau links it to its implications on the middle class and bringing them better jobs.

But why this single-minded focus on the middle class? Part of it is a matter of smart politics. As Aaron Wherry noted over at Maclean’s, 64.9% of Canadians consider themselves either “upper middle class” or “lower middle class.” Trudeau says “I want to help the middle class.” Voters hear: “He wants to help me.” It’s a similar gambit that’s been employed by Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Jack Layton and every other politicians striking a populist pose in the last decade.

But for Trudeau, there’s something a bit more subtle afoot. For one, when he says “middle class,” he defines what he means—an income of $65,000 after taxes for a two-parent family. Secondly, this focus on the middle class isn’t  an empty rhetorical device but a governing principle for the party as it renews itself. The Liberals last two election platforms felt like they were written for academics, not voters (It didn’t help their last two leaders were, well, academics). It’s no wonder they were beaten by Stephen Harper and Jack Layton, two masters of policy with populist appeal. In focusing the discussion on the middle class, Trudeau’s ensuring the party’s actual policy is headed in the right direction. “I’m not so worried about how we talk about economic policy, what matters to me is that we get it right,” he told Canadian Business. “And the way we get it right is to frame it in a way that people understand.”

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