Daniel Drache and Marc D. Froese are the authors of the forthcoming book Has Populism Won? The War on Liberal Democracy.
To his enemies, Pierre Poilievre is a lightweight who can’t box with Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. He’ll never become prime minister because he scares Canadians with his support for convoy extremism. But to his followers, he is a populist phenom and a tenacious scrapper, a true-blue product of Stephen Harper-era Reform.
As political scientists who have recently written a book on global populism, we’re closely watching this now-familiar pattern. Establishment types write off the populist as clownish and ill-prepared even as he eliminates rivals, establishes a base of true believers and wins elections. Every populist politician seems unelectable until his political savvy pays off on election day.
Populism is a way of speaking about politics that pits people against each other by framing “us” as the true people and “them” as the evil elites who control everything. Such rhetoric is untrue, but it has the psychological appeal of feeling right. We’ve seen the mess caused by the affective politics of populism in the United States, Britain, Brazil, Hungary and the Philippines. What can we expect now that the circus has come to Canada?
Pierre Poilievre hits all the right notes. He attacks elites and threatens universities as bastions of the wrong sort of privilege. The Liberals want to keep you “woke and broke,” he told a cheering crowd in Edmonton, who then erupted into a chant of “defund the CBC.” Mr. Poilievre says he wants to defend the working class and bring government closer to the people – paradoxically by reducing spending and minimizing Western Canada’s fiscal place in Confederation. He plans to ban “dictator oil,” even though we don’t import much from Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, “taking dollars from dictators and turning them into paycheques for our people” has a nice ring to it. Too bad it isn’t true.
The long tail of Canadian populism
Mr. Poilievre may be late to the populist party but he’s not just following American conservatives; he is the newest iteration in a long history of “Made in Canada” populism. In Alberta, Ernest Manning and “Bible Bill” Aberhart came to power in the 1930s on a wave of anti-elite sentiment, antisemitism and crackpot economic theories that Central Canada owed a pile of money to labourers. Mr. Poilievre has repackaged the populist Social Credit belief that regular people are owed something extra from Ottawa because they pay too much into Confederation and the taxes are too damn high.
Quebec too has had its own dance with populism, first with the Créditistes of the 1950s and then with René Lévesque’s campaign to nationalize American-owned hydro power in the 1960s. In the 1980s and 90s he led a populist sovereignty movement that almost broke the country.
More recently, Alberta and Ontario have taken big bites out the populist apple. Doug Ford began as a “buck a beer” populist. But like other politicians before him he realized the limitations of clownish rhetoric and evolved into a mainstream conservative player by courting both the unions with an increased minimum wage and small business by cutting red tape. His Alberta counterpart, Jason Kenney, wasn’t so skilled. Mr. Kenney rode to power on promises to defend Alberta’s oil industry and kick out the free-spending NDP. But like Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Britain, he paid the ultimate political price for his bullying and lying.
Superficially, the populists resemble each other, with their social-media extremism and anti-establishment rhetoric. Yet every movement begins at home. Canada’s populist insurgency is quite different from its U.S. counterpart. We don’t have the same free-speech absolutism, Supreme Court originalism and messianic belief in a national destiny to lead the world in everything from Olympic gold medals to religious piety. We also don’t have the same enormous pool of private wealth dedicated to conservative causes. We certainly don’t have the same gun culture as the U.S. or a constitutional right to bear arms. But Canadians are still big consumers of an increasingly extreme brand of American media, and it shows.
Donald Trump’s “fake news” narrative has made startling inroads in Canada. Abacus Data recently completed a nationwide survey in which 44 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that “much of the information we receive from news organizations is false.” Even more worrying, more than a third of respondents (37 per cent) believe the racist conspiracy that “there is a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native-born Canadians with immigrants.”
The so-called “great replacement theory” ranks alongside the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion as one of the most persistent and blatant forms of racist rhetoric directed at defenceless minorities inside the United States, and increasingly this is true of Canada. The New York Times recently reported that the top-rated show on Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, amplified the theory with stories and guests more than 400 times in recent years. Fox News is watched by hundreds of thousands of Canadians a week, and is carried by Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Telus, Sasktel, Videotron and Cogeco.
No inoculation against extremism
Having signed up more than 300,000 new party members – more than all other leadership candidates combined – this is Mr. Poilievre’s race to lose. The base is excited by his blistering attacks on the Trudeau government, which he blames for everything – including “Justin-flation,” doctor shortages and carbon taxes. Mr. Poilievre is riding the rocket of rage like so many successful populists before him.
We studied 35 successful contemporary populist movements and found that each is fuelled by conspiracy theories, nationalism, sovereignty and fake news. The continuing support for convoy politics in rural Canada proves that we are not immune to the virus of populism. The embrace of disinformation by voters creates the momentum that propels charismatic leaders over the finish line.
The Trudeau Liberals are edging toward the end of their governing life cycle and in politics timing is everything. A Poilievre Conservative majority government is no longer a long shot. Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Johnson, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and India’s Narendra Modi, he stands a good chance of winning. Our national system of centrist pragmatism and multicultural diversity isn’t an inoculation against extremism, and the sooner we realize that the better. After all, populists are popular because they confidently sell simple solutions to complex problems.
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