The appeal to “targeted” groups of voters has added a new element to election campaigns, supplementing the general campaign slogans of the past (such as “It’s King or Chaos” or “the Land is Strong”). Parties now look for a broad catchphrase to both encapsulate the thrust of their policies and lead them to where they believe the votes are.
Appeals to Canada’s Middle Class voters, like other appeals to mythical, loosely defined targets of political campaigns, are yet another in this sequence of monikers. Most prominently employed by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party beginning in 2013, Middle Class stands in contrast to the Conservatives’ previous emphasis on “hard-working Canadian families” (or “working Canadians”) – shorthand for law-abiding, traditional nuclear families who are sceptical of government and taxes.
Middle Class was most prominently used by Tony Blair’s Labour Party in Britain and Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. In Blair’s case, the term rhetorically moved his party to the centre, replacing more left-wing language about the “working class.”
“The Liberal Party of Canada’s purpose will be to enhance the prospects of middle-class Canadians,” wrote Trudeau the day after winning the party leadership in April, 2013. Nearly all elements of the Liberals’ 2015 election campaign somehow involved the Middle Class. The term moved from election rhetoric to government messaging and Middle Class became ubiquitous in government communications.
Despite its ubiquity, Middle Class has no single definition. Middle Class first appeared in a 1745 British pamphlet that had more to do with wool than politics. Who is Middle Class is really in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the politicians. This is a key appeal of such a moniker – most Canadians see themselves in it. The Conservatives believed the same thing about “hard working Canadian families.”
The strategy of targeting the Middle Class is not without pitfalls. Opposition parties are using the Middle Class for their purposes as well, pointing to any slip-up as proof that the government has lost touch with the Middle Class. Recent polling shows fewer Canadians identifying as Middle Class (despite the New York Times calling Canada’s Middle Class the world’s richest) and more saying they’re part of the “working class” – raising the potential that this catchphrase will have a second life (move over Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders!)