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nik nanos

Pollster Nik Nanos.The Globe and Mail

Nik Nanos is The Globe and Mail's pollster and chairman of Nanos Research.

When citizens feel democracy is failing them, they punish the establishment. We saw it with the Brexit referendum and with the U.S. presidential election.

The results of both of those events were symptoms of a larger problem in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

When people lose hope for the future, when they see their jobs or livelihood at risk, they want to rail against the system. The anger, the xenophobia and the raw emotions we see in the U.S., the U.K. and other countries are a manifestation of a more basic problem.

It would be fair to say that based on my 25 years of experience examining the views of citizens, if one could distill all those voices, the one key message they would have for politicians would be "don't mess things up." Citizens are generally averse to risk, and see elections as times to tick a box on a ballot beside one of a series of imperfect choices.

One way to look at the U.S. presidential election is that it addressed the concerns and anxiety fuelled by the scars of the housing crisis and the hollowing out of jobs in middle America.

The Wall Street Journal reported an estimated 9.3 million Americans took a hit from the collapse of the housing market, whether it was losing their home or being forced into a distressed sale. If there is a cause of anger, this has to be the top candidate. Should it be surprising that even with the Great Recession behind them, the scars are still deep? Donald Trump told Americans that Washington and Wall Street were rigged and the business and political elites were responsible. It was punishment time.

When you think of the reach of that housing-provoked anger, think of the amplification effect. A U.S. household has on average about 2.5 people – that brings the reach to 23 million. Say a person has a sibling or a parent: Now you have the base for Trump nation. Finding out who to blame and how to punish was their priority, and in their anger they were blind to the imperfections of their agent of change, Donald Trump. After all, if you lost your home, would you be willing to put up with a lying politician if they promised to punish Washington? Judging by the outcome, you don't need party machinery to deliver the anger vote.

Brexit, the British vote on whether to leave the European Union, was a riff on the same anger. Between 2007 and 2014, wages in the U.K. dropped a whopping 10 per cent, according to the OECD as reported by The Guardian. For Britons who were told of the negative fallout of a pro-Brexit vote, that things could get worse, it didn't matter – things were already worse. London benefited from the EU connection while a large chunk of the country languished. In a sense, this was a variation of the languishing and left-behind Midwest that Mr. Trump activated, motivated and won over on election day.

The key lesson here is that when large swaths of citizens lose their homes or their wages go down and they have little hope in sight, the system has let them down. Citizens are cynical about politicians creating wealth, but there is a base expectation that the democratic system will do no harm to the people it is supposed to represent and work on behalf of.

For those who believe Canada is a sunny island of happiness, you should be cautious. A CTV survey conducted by Nanos suggested that six of 10 Canadians thought it was likely or somewhat likely that the lies and negative personal attacks in the current cycle of American politics could come to Canada. This should be a cautionary note for the Trudeau Liberals. Being positive is important, but making sure that the economy is stable is likely the antidote to avoiding the turmoil seen in other major democracies.