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Politics Ingredients of a populist rebellion simmer in Canada

Politicians take heed: Populist rebellions are under way in both the United States and Britain. Canada is not immune. If a backlash against political elites who disrespect voters ever reaches our shores, it will not be pretty.

This grey decade has left all developed nations grappling with low growth, high unemployment and way too much debt, personal and governmental.

The United States was hit particularly hard, and it is no coincidence that the Tea Party movement arose within the Republican Party at a time when one-third of all mortgages were underwater. Imagine trying to sleep at night knowing that the value of your house is worth less than the mortgage on it.

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The yellow press and blogs and Fox TV goaded these angry, frightened voters on, ultimately creating a monster. Donald Trump's candidacy consists of little more than streams of racist, sexist epithets, and yet he continues to lead the field in the Republican race for president. The party's establishment will eventually find a way to bring the billionaire businessman down. But the damage to the GOP, and to political discourse in the United States, will be enormous.

But populism can emerge on the left as well as the right. To the horror of Britain's Labour Party establishment, Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn appears likely to win the party's leadership. The radical socialist is polling far ahead of his opponents as ballots go out to party members, with the results to be announced Sept. 12.

Mr. Corbyn would renationalize the energy and transportation sectors. He would withdraw Britain from NATO and scrap the country's nuclear weapons program. He supports Russia's actions in Ukraine and calls Hamas and Hezbollah "friends." He thinks Venezuela is getting it right.

Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair has warned that "if Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader, it won't be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation." On Sunday, Mr. Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, also sounded the alarm.

"Don't tell me that we can do much for the poor of the world if the alliances we favour most are with Hezbollah, Hamas, Chavez's successor in Venezuela and Putin's totalitarian Russia," he told a gathering in London.

But Labour Party membership has tripled since the leadership contest began, driven partly by labour unions and partly by Britons fed up with years of austerity. The voters rallying to Mr. Corbyn are Britain's Tea Party. They just happen to be as far to the left as their American counterparts are to the right.

Populist movements have swept through Canada in the past, usually in times of discontent. The Great Depression spawned both the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation on the left and Social Credit on the right. Western anger at Central Canada's indifference spawned the Reform Party in the 1980s.

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So why has Canada been spared its own Donald Trump or Jeremy Corbyn? Luck, mostly. The recession in Canada wasn't as severe as in the U.S. or Britain. The Conservative government was able to bring the budget back into balance without having to impose much in the way of austerity.

More important, while politics in Canada is polarizing between left and right, it does so within a deep consensus on the importance of both horizontal (between regions) and vertical (between classes) redistribution.

But Canada is not immune to populist pressure from either the left or right. The Occupy movement, a populist protest from the left, flared in Canadian cities as well as in the United States and overseas. Doug Ford took 34 per cent of the vote in the 2014 Toronto mayoral election, despite his brother's outrages.

When any governing political elite ignores or belittles a group of voters, it risks a populist backlash. If the Conservatives win the next election, social activists may take direct action against them.

If the NDP or Liberals win, and the economy suffers because there is no political will to build an oil pipeline anywhere, expect a populist reaction from the right, especially in the West.

With luck, things will never get as extreme as Donald Trump or Jeremy Corbyn. But don't be too certain. Remember Rob Ford.

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