Moral Perfection Can Wait

Justin Trudeau’s reelection bid forces the left to ask whether it prioritizes policy victories or ideological purity.

Justin Trudeau in profile with his blurred mirror image behind him
Dave Chan / AFP / Getty

Let’s start with what’s undeniable: Justin Trudeau has achieved a progressive’s wish list of policy accomplishments. Since becoming Canada’s prime minister in 2015, he has raised taxes on the rich, legalized marijuana, put a rising price on carbon, renegotiated NAFTA, centered women’s rights in the country’s foreign policy, reduced child poverty to its lowest level in decades, and resettled tens of thousands of refugees. By any measure, Trudeau is the most progressive leader of my lifetime. So why don’t progressives—even ones, like me, who have worked for him—love him?

The answer is complicated. Canadians go to the polls on Monday in an election that Trudeau called from a position of strength. He was hoping to ride his array of policy achievements to turn his minority government into a majority one, but a new wave of the pandemic—Canada’s fourth—has changed his prospects.

The public has not been enthusiastic for an election; my progressive friends, close observers of Canadian politics, have mostly tuned out. In fact, the only people energized by this campaign are the angry mobs trailing Trudeau at his rallies, shouting obscenities at him, even throwing stones at the prime minister. They hate Trudeau as much for his support of vaccine passports as for the multicultural project he champions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Trudeau has been struggling. His poll numbers have dipped. His main opponent on the left is viewed as more trustworthy. The primary national rival to his Liberals, the Conservative Party, has seen a surge of support. Trudeau looks frazzled and defensive trying to explain why he called an election at all. The air of inevitability that characterized his previous victories, in 2015 and 2019, has dissipated.

I am in a unique position: I was a foreign-policy adviser in Trudeau’s first administration and supported him without reservation. Trudeau had swept to power with an ambitious progressive platform. He took his beleaguered Liberal Party, which had been reduced to the third-biggest party in Parliament, to an overall majority, a remarkable and, in Canada, unprecedented rise. I felt inspired and hopeful after that election, as did many young people. A new generation of progressive leaders was coming to power in Canada. Trudeau was admired around the world not simply for saying all the right things from a progressive point of view, but for his platform and the diversity of his cabinet. And I saw that, even in private, Trudeau was hardworking and well informed; he asked the right questions and was sincerely committed to the progressive agenda.

Over the past six years, he has compiled an admirable policy record, but this has been overshadowed by a number of political and ethical scandals. Trudeau got into an entirely unnecessary turf battle with his own attorney general over a criminal prosecution involving corruption at a major Canadian company. (The prime minister was found to have broken conflict-of-interest rules, his second violation of ethics laws.) During the 2019 election, photos of Trudeau in blackface surfaced. His Liberal Party lost seats in Parliament and the popular vote. It still managed to hold on to power, but not by much. The outcome this time around could be worse. Whether the Liberal Party hangs on to government comes down to whether progressives rally around Trudeau, abandon him for less flashy alternatives on the left, or, disenchanted, stay home entirely.

This election poses a dilemma for Canadian progressives—one which center-left voters face in the United States and, indeed, much of the West: When do you support someone whose policies you overwhelmingly agree with, but whose personal choices are not to your liking? When do you keep the personal and the political separate, and vote solely for platform?

These questions are not abstract; they carry serious consequences. If the other side wins, then all our cherished progressive policies go out the window. At the same time, we cannot be completely amoral, the way, for example, many supporters of Donald Trump are—evangelical voters and country-club Republicans alike who looked past Trump’s financial and moral shortcomings because he promised to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices or cut taxes for the wealthy. A line has to be drawn somewhere. Progressives must demand integrity from our leaders—especially on issues such as diversity, respect for women, and corruption.

When I worked in government, I would often ask young people what they really thought of the prime minister. After all, Millennials and progressives were the reason Trudeau had won in 2015. Every person I spoke with, even those who disagreed with Trudeau, wanted to like him. They wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. But many were skeptical. Something about Trudeau rang false to them, or seemed too scripted, which became an issue when Trudeau’s personality faults came to light.

One common occurrence on the left is the search for infallibility in our politicians. We want ideological purity and an unimpeachable record clear of misdeeds. In the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Barack Obama warned progressives about “circular firing squads,” in which people who agreed on most issues took morbid pleasure in pummeling one another. This is perhaps the greatest failing of the modern left: We seek moral perfection in a world of politics where compromise is the cost of doing business. Run afoul of progressive dogma or say the wrong thing, and one is liable to get canceled.

Purity tests exist on the right as well, but they are not about character. Instead, the right moralizes internally over who is tougher on crime, on immigrants, on China, on owning the libs. Trump likely cannot recite a single Bible verse and has a perverse history with women but still won 81 percent of the white evangelical vote last year. His handlers seemed to understand that Trump was but a mascot for a right-wing agenda. As Trump’s then–chief adviser, Steve Bannon, told Vanity Fair the year Trump was elected: He is “a blunt instrument for us. I don’t know whether he really gets it or not.” The question of character doesn’t even come up. Trump’s base is unfailingly loyal, willing to overlook even grotesque personality defects in service of its policy wishes.

Perhaps a better comparison for Trudeau is another Republican president. When I think of the prime minister now, I see him not as a dashing JFK figure but as a Ronald Reagan of the left—a former actor and drama teacher who compellingly serves as chief spokesperson for the progressive agenda. Trudeau might fumble his words at times, and stumble into controversies, but he plays the part well—and gets the job done. That ought to be part of the moral calculus in supporting him: Trudeau is an effective leader whose policy accomplishments are worth his personal failings.

Progressives like to say we are different. We hold our leaders accountable, even at the risk of losing. We take pride in living out our politics in deeply personal ways, defending our beliefs when they are tested. Trudeau knows the power of such idealism. He ran for election describing himself as a feminist, took a knee at a Black Lives Matter rally, and openly condemns systemic racism.

But progressives also want bold action. On this, Trudeau’s record is strong. The answer to his lagging numbers could be to discard the moral posturing entirely, double down on what he has already delivered, and push for even more ambitious policies, especially for working-class voters. It won’t refurbish his brand, but it would remind people why they supported him the first time.

Justin Trudeau has disappointed me in numerous ways—the ethics scandals, the dress-up photos, the glacial progress on climate change, and the delayed reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. But on election day, I will still cast my ballot for him, not out of religious devotion to the left or because I view Trudeau as infallible, but because politics requires compromise to deliver change. The future is on the ballot, as are policies that will affect generations to come. Moral perfection can wait. A country still needs to be governed.