The politics of the welfare state have been reshaped by the complex diversity that lies at the heart of this project. Historically, the development of the welfare state took place within the framework of the nation state, and was driven by the simple diversity of industrial society. The politics of redistribution were rooted in class-based politics, with the most expansive welfare states emerging in societies with high levels of union density, strong labour organizations and dominant parties of the left. The primacy of class politics was never absolute, as religion left its imprint on the social policy regime in many countries, often through the influence of Christian Democratic parties. But the centrality of class was clear.
The contemporary politics of redistribution has been redefined by complex diversity. At the level of political institutions, new patterns of multi-level governance multiply the number of authoritative decision sites. At the level of political coalitions, historic class alignments have weakened, and cultural differences cross-cut traditional economic divisions. At the level of policy debates, new agendas focusing on the recognition and accommodation of cultural difference compete for attention. As a result, the politics of recognition seem to be in tension with the politics of redistribution. Multicultural diversity is central to this debate. Many analysts argue that immigration and ethnic diversity erode trust and solidarity among citizens, fragmenting traditional redistributive coalitions. As a result, they insist, contemporary democracies face a trade-off between the accommodation of ethnic diversity on one hand and support for redistribution on the other. This concern has been labelled the the “progressive’s dilemma.”
Complex diversity represents a compelling challenge in Europe. Canada, however, offers an instructive comparator on two levels. First, the highly decentralized Canadian federation reveals striking parallels to European institutions, and comparison between the two cases can increase our capacity to understand the relationships between institutional complexity and social policy outcomes. Second, Canadian experience can contribute to the assessment of the political sustainability of a multicultural welfare state. Canada is no multicultural utopia. Tensions rooted in complex diversity shape its politics as well. Nevertheless, the evidence about public attitudes there stands as a challenge to assertions that ethnic diversity inevitably weakens support for social programs. In this, Canada can represent a useful counterweight to the U.S. experience. Many European commentators see the United States as the key test case of the relations between ethnic diversity and solidarity, and there is certainly considerable evidence that the politics of race does erode support for redistribution in that country. But the United States has a distinctive history of race relations, and it is important to expand the range of countries under consideration, in order to explore the variety of possible relationships between diversity and solidarity. Canada provides one such contrasting narrative.
This section of the project addresses one of the most compelling challenges facing western democracies. How can we maintain and strengthen the bonds of community in ethnically diverse societies. How can we reconcile growing levels of multicultural diversity and the sense of a common identity which sustains the norms of mutual support and underpins a generous welfare state? Can we find a stable political equilibrium among immigration, multiculturalism policies and social redistribution?