Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Federal Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre speaks at an anti-carbon tax rally in Ottawa on March 31.PATRICK DOYLE/The Canadian Press

Until about five minutes ago the conventional wisdom on Pierre Poilievre was: can win the party; can’t win the country. Sure, he might thrill the Conservative base, but to Mr. and Mrs. Moderate Voter he was about as appealing as a cold sore. Only a fool would bet on him becoming prime minister.

The new conventional wisdom? Only a fool would bet against it. Hasn’t he been packing them in at campaign appearances across the West – even in Toronto! – in numbers not seen since the dawn of Justin Trudeau? Doesn’t this suggest he has tapped into something real, the first stirrings of a genuine popular movement? Isn’t this a sign that, as usual, the pundits were wrong, too hasty to dismiss a phenomenon they don’t understand?

Golly. Maybe. Before we get too carried away, however, we should recognize that the new conventional wisdom is more the mirror of the old than its opposite. Both are rooted in that most powerful of journalistic instincts, the quest for narrative – for turning points, unexpected twists, and yes, for upended conventional wisdom: the triumph of the underestimated, as inevitable in hindsight as it seemed unlikely in advance.

So: Maybe Mr. Poilievre’s crowds are evidence of a hitherto undetected groundswell of popular support, beyond his existing base. Or maybe it’s just the same story as before: He excites the excitable. Once, in the days before social media, a candidate’s ability to pull a crowd was a fairly good indicator of their appeal to the voters at large. In today’s world of concentrated enthusiasms, where the more narrow the cause the more intense its adherents, it’s harder to know what to make of it. Donald Trump, it is true, attracted big crowds to his events. So did Elizabeth Warren.

Part of Mr. Poilievre’s appeal is genuinely cross-partisan and non-ideological. Voters, whatever their stripe, are drawn to a candidate who does not apologize for who he is; who stands up for himself and his beliefs whatever others may say of him or them; who is, as they say, “authentic.” But partisans like a fighter. For them, what makes Mr. Poilievre authentic is not his consistency on the issues or his record of truth-telling, neither of which are much in evidence, but his willingness to be as belligerent toward his political opponents as is humanly possible.

The Conservatives’ torment: Constantly losing to a Trudeau

Finally, a Conservative leadership race with more than one shade of blue

Indeed, whatever is new in politics that Mr. Poilievre might claim to represent, what is not new is the readiness of people to believe what they want to believe. There is always a constituency for the politician who tells people that they don’t have to do what they don’t want to do, or that they don’t have to pay for things they don’t want to pay for.

Just now we are living in an age when people have been told they have to do and pay for a lot of things they don’t want to. Because of the worldwide COVID pandemic, they have to get vaccinated, or wear a mask. Because of global warming, they have to pay a carbon tax. These are large enough impositions to be annoying, yet small enough, individually – for both are problems to be solved not by the heroic actions of a few, but tiny adjustments by the many – not to be visibly effective.

So when a candidate comes along who tells them, in effect, you don’t have to – you don’t have to pay the carbon tax, you don’t have to get vaccinated, because the problems these were meant to address can either be waved away or ignored – well, of course a certain kind of voter is going to be very excited about that.

And when this feckless abdication of responsibility is dressed up as a principled devotion to “freedom,” then yes, the same people are going to get even more excited. People like to feel good about themselves. They like to feel their refusal to make sacrifices, however infinitesimal, for the common good is not because they are lazy or selfish or paranoid, but in the service of some larger ideal.

It is an emotion even more intensely felt when the threat to their freedom or whatever else is on their minds can be blamed on a particular group of people: the various unnamed “gatekeepers” or “elites” or even “global elites” who are somehow holding them back, pinning them down, preventing them from achieving their goals in life. This is textbook populism: not only the pandering to popular sentiment, but the division of society into The People and the people who are Not The People, who are indeed hostile to The People, or at least standing in their way.

I see that some of Mr. Poilievre’s supporters find this label objectionable. What’s so wrong, they ask, about standing up for the little guy, about listening to the concerns of the common people? Nothing. But if that were all populism were about, we would not need a separate word for it. Every politician running for office must care about the concerns of common people, or profess to, to have any hope of getting elected: That’s democracy, or at least demagoguery. What marks out the populist, whether of the left or right, is the particular rhetoric of Us versus Them, the conjuring of unseen enemies in the place of real solutions.

For in truth Mr. Poilievre has yet to offer much in the way of substantive policy proposals. The ludicrous class-war cosplay, much in vogue in certain sections of the right, to the effect that the “elites” are afraid of him because he speaks for the “working class,” is singularly lacking in any explanation of why the elites should be afraid of him. What, specifically, is he proposing to do to any of them?

The notion, likewise, that he stands for a particularly robust form of conservatism, is equally unsupported by the evidence, beyond some inflammatory rhetoric. Certainly we know, given his enthusiastic support for the Ottawa hostage-takers, how seriously he takes law and order. But what else? Does he have a plan to balance the budget? What taxes would he cut? What programs would he privatize? He’d defund the CBC – so would I – but what about the subsidies to newspapers and other private media?

In fairness, he has made some policy disclosures. For example, he has said he would not touch supply management – perhaps the single most obvious example of privileged “gatekeepers” using the power of the state to stick it to the little guy. He also has a policy on inflation: He would encourage people to “opt out” of higher prices by buying alternate forms of money like bitcoin – as if there were not already ways to hedge against inflation, at a fraction of the risk.

I get why this sort of thing, like his endorsement of the anti-vaxxers, excites the fringes. It might even be enough to carry him to the party leadership. It’s just not clear yet why it makes him a serious contender for prime minister.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe