What Joe Biden's win can tell us about Alberta politics — and where it might be going

While it still may take days to complete ballot reporting in multiple U.S. states, Joe Biden has reached the 270 electoral college seats needed to become the 46th U.S. president.

Political scientists see a malaise in Alberta resembling attitudes in U.S. Rust Belt

Jason Kenney, premier of Alberta, left, and Joe Biden, who on Saturday morning became president-elect of the United States. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press, Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

While it will still take time to complete ballot count reporting in multiple U.S. states, Joe Biden has reached the 270 electoral college votes needed to become the 46th U.S. president.

For Alberta politicians, the immediate question in the wake of Biden's victory is obvious: What's the best route forward to work with the incoming U.S. administration?

But deeper than that, political scientists say there are lessons to be learned in Alberta — namely, parallels between the election results and new data that suggests that more than half of Albertans believe the province's best days are behind it.

Jared Wesley, a political scientist at the University of Alberta, told CBC's West of Centre podcast that many of his colleagues are comparing the politics of Alberta to the battleground states in the U.S. Rust Belt, where many workers have seen their livelihoods challenged.

  • Listen to this week's full episode of West of Centre here:

"[With] the broader economy transitioning, how did they behave in this particular election?" Wesley said. "What types of appeals worked for them?"

Those kinds of lessons — which, in Wesley's view, may see Alberta shift from the "Texas of the north to the Wisconsin or the Pennsylvania of the north" — can help to contextualize the province's shifting political reality in a time of downturn.

The 'Rust Belt' of the north

The so-called Rust Belt includes U.S. swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — all three of which were crucial to Biden's electoral college victory, and all three of which are typified by industrial decline and population loss.

In areas where economic prospects decline, there is a corresponding perceived loss of status in society, Wesley said — a strong sense that one's "best days" are behind them.

"Where people's economic livelihoods were being threatened, their own political identities started to shift as a result," he said.

"And that can make for some pretty turbulent or unpredictable behaviour."

Such data is explored in research briefs from Common Ground, a research initiative at the University of Alberta.

Some massive shuttered factories in Pennsylvania have been left to decay. (Alex Shprintsen/CBC)

The most surprising part of that research, Wesley previously told CBC News, was that more than half of Albertans feel as though the province's best days are behind it.

Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, told West of Centre that there's a form of pessimism in the province he hasn't seen before — even on the unpredictable roller-coaster of oil prices.

"This seems different. And it seemed different for a number of years, that, you know, the glory days are not going to come back," Bratt said. "It doesn't mean that things aren't going to get better.

"But the days of, you know, 2007 and 2013, I don't think most people believe it will come back."

Responding to malaise

Though the 2020 election didn't turn out exactly the way some pollsters thought it might, Biden did carry the Rust Belt — states that rejected Hillary Clinton in 2016 and instead embraced Donald Trump and his promise to resurrect the struggling coal and steel industries.

Wesley said the broader question for Alberta politicians in the years ahead will be to decide which approach to take when it comes to the province's own beleaguered oil and gas industry.

"You can double down like Trump did, and promise people that the jobs are coming back, and then face the music when they don't," he said. 

'Trump digs coal' was a popular slogan on signs at pro-Trump rallies when the Republican candidate campaigned in Pennsylvania in 2016. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

The alternative, Wesley said, would be to strike a chord much like Biden did in the final debate — telling Pennsylvania voters in particular that the oil and gas industry would not be around forever, and transition needed to be considered.

"I think our research, the combination of our survey research and our focus group research, suggests that Albertans cognitively understand this in a way I'm not sure people in the Rust Belt and coal country got," Wesley said.

"So I think they understand it. Whether they're ready for politicians to have a frank conversation with them about it remains to be seen."

The politics of grievance

Common Ground's research found that Albertans are more willing to work on the province's relationship with Canada and found declining support for the Wexit movement.

Wesley said there was a sense among those surveyed that there was nothing that the provincial government could do, despite its ongoing efforts to pursue proposals that emerged from its so-called "fair deal" panel.

"[Those surveyed feel] it's not really Ottawa that's holding it back. There's something bigger going on here," Wesley said. "They don't use the term peak oil, but they talk about [global] forces and environmentalism.

"And they don't speak as if those forces are wrong. They just feel like those forces are changing their world."

A man speaks at a podium.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced the so-called 'fair deal' panel on Nov. 9, 2019, as a stated effort to claw back political autonomy from Ottawa. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Through his conversations and research with Common Ground, Wesley said he found that those affected by changes in industry didn't especially feel inclined to embrace old grievances.

"I'm not sure whether people in those communities are going to appreciate more and more tax dollars, more and more investment, and more than that, more and more attention being paid on trying to prop up old-line jobs," he said.

"They want to start this transition, and they want to rebuild their communities." 

Common Ground's research found that a majority of Albertans oppose replacing the RCMP with a provincial police force, exiting the Canadian Pension plan and replacing the Canada Revenue Agency — all considerations of the "fair deal" panel.

Despite that, Bratt said there was still positivity surrounding exploring these issues in the UCP government.

"There was a series of motions at the last AGM just a couple of weeks ago," Bratt said. "And it wasn't quite unanimous, but it was pretty darn high.

"So the most active members of the party, the government, really believe in these things. But Albertans don't."

Seeking paths forward

It's an open question whether Premier Jason Kenney pivots on the measures being proposed, considering past and future movement from Ottawa on issues like orphan wells and the fiscal stabilization program

But as the U.S. election season draws to a close, Wesley said its conclusion can teach Alberta politicians new lessons — especially as the so-called "Alberta Advantage" as a symbol of Albertan exceptionalism begins to lose its lustre.

"People [are starting] to feel like Alberta is falling behind the rest of the world and the rest of Canada and the United States," he said.

That's similar to the mythic "American Dream," Wesley said, a sort of unifying common myth, challenged in many parts of the country for reasons like the economic transition.

"So the big challenge for politicians in that kind of environment, in Canada and United States, is to try to build that common ground," he said. "That common set of values that makes up their political culture."

  • Listen to the complete West of Centre podcast series right here.

With files from CBC's West of Centre and Elise von Scheel