On the face of it, Bernie Sanders and Justin Trudeau have little in common.
Sanders is the self-styled democratic socialist who wants to become U.S. president. He is characterized as grumpy.
Trudeau is not grumpy. He smiles a lot. He likes to practise what he calls sunny ways.
At 44, the Canadian Liberal prime minister presents himself as hip and modern. At 74, Sanders, a Vermont Independent, is presented as a throwback to an earlier age.
But in the aftermath of Monday’s Iowa caucus votes, one singular similarity between the two men has emerged.
Both represent the renaissance of a certain kind of centre-left politics in North America — an activist politics that had fallen out of favour in both countries but is now back.
In Canada, Trudeau has defied those who dismissed him as a lightweight to become prime minister.
In the U.S., Sanders has defied those who dismissed him as a no-hoper by almost beating Hillary Clinton, The Democratic party’s heir-apparent, in the Iowa caucuses.
The Iowa caucuses represent the first stage of a drawn-out process that will determine who gets to run for the Democrats in November’s presidential election.
Sanders’ strong showing in Iowa Monday (he lost to Clinton by a whisker) doesn’t mean he will capture his party’s nomination. There are many more contests to come. Clinton is a formidable campaigner.
But it does suggest that his message to bring back the welfare state has gained significant traction since he first announced his candidacy last year.
That this has happened should surprise no one. The U.S. is in trouble. Inequality is up. Wages are only now starting to recover. The outlook for young people is bleak. The outlook for older, laid-off-workers is bleaker.
And Sanders, for all his talk of democratic socialism, is no pie-in-the-sky idealist. He is a practical politician who has been successful as mayor, congressman and senator, in large part because of his ability to get things done.
If anything, he is a New Deal Democrat in the mould of Franklin Roosevelt, the U.S. president who guided his country through the worst of the Depression.
Like Roosevelt, Sanders would reform the banking system. Like Roosevelt, he would build public works and pay for that, in part, by taxing the rich.
Like Roosevelt, he would support the creation of labour unions in order to boost wages, as well as use the power of the federal government to put the unemployed back to work.
He would return his country to a time, not that long ago, when public university tuition was free.
The centerpiece of Sanders’ platform — a universal, publicly funded health-insurance system — wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in most countries, including Canada.
But it is contentious in the U.S. where, to many, socialized medicine is akin to communism.
All of which makes it more striking that Sanders has done so well.
And yet he has. Like Barack Obama in 2008, he has scored with young people. Unlike Obama, he has done so by focusing on substantive policy issues rather than rhetorical generalities.
Comparisons between Canada and the U.S. are notoriously dangerous. The two countries have different political cultures.
And yet, there are notable similarities between Trudeau’s and Sanders’ approach to politics.
Like Sanders, Trudeau is harkening back to a time — before Stephen Harper and even before Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien — when state action was seen as useful and necessary.
The prime minister likes to present himself as 21st century. But his actual policies are tried and true measures from the 20th century welfare state: making the income tax system more progressive; directing child benefits to the neediest; expanding employment insurance; running fiscal deficits to build public works; boosting old age security.
In Canada, popular dissatisfaction with Stephen Harper’s Conservative government conspired with strategic mistakes by Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats to create winning conditions for the Trudeau Liberals. That was part of the story.
But Trudeau also took advantage of a new mood, the same mood that in the U.S. is swelling the fortunes of another unlikely candidate for high office.
The odds are against Bernie Sanders becoming U.S. president. But then the odds were also against Justin Trudeau.