Ed Broadbent is the chair of the Broadbent Institute. The rise of populism will be the focus of the Institute’s Progress Summit this week in Ottawa.
For many today, the word “populism” calls to mind a right-wing scourge: a movement animated by polarizing hatred, racism and anti-democratic designs, falsely portraying itself as an authentic voice for ordinary people.
This brand of right-wing populism certainly exists, and is being given oxygen by the failure of political institutions to deal with persistent inequality, reflect the needs of ordinary people or remain democratically responsive in an age of free-flowing global capital and powerful multinational corporations.
We have witnessed this close to home in Appalachia and midwestern U.S. states in the 2016 presidential election, and in some regions of the United Kingdom that voted for Brexit; we’ve seen it spark popular movements in regions outside of Paris in opposition to French President Emmanuel Macron just a few months ago. In all of these cases, right-wing populist leaders fed on discontent to attack pluralism, stoke intolerance, and threaten the rule of law, aiming to consolidate their power without addressing the needs of the citizens whose interests they claimed to represent.
From Donald Trump’s Republican Party and Viktor Orban’s Hungary, to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally Party and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, the populist right poses an all-too real threat to democratic institutions, civil liberties and human rights.
But in times such as these, it is important to remember that populism also has a democratic and pluralist provenance. It also speaks directly to the concerns of those threatened by inequality, democratic decline and the perceived indifference of political leadership. The most recent example of this is the kind of politics championed by Senator Bernie Sanders in the United States. Like those on the right, he, too, takes aim at elites and their self-serving use of power and claims the status quo is broken. But in place of xenophobia and exclusionary nationalism, he supports pluralism and calls for a diverse popular front with the explicit goal of strengthening and reinvigorating democracy, and uniting movements for social, racial, economic and environmental justice in a common struggle.
Throughout our country’s history, Canada has had experiences with both kinds of populism and this year, the 100th anniversary of Winnipeg’s transformative General Strike, is as good an occasion as any for Canadians to reflect on the positive contributions made by populists of the left. In the 1920s and 1930s, in the shadow of war and depression, farmers, labour leaders and socialist intellectuals came together to find solutions to poverty, unemployment, sickness and social insecurity. Their answer was the NDP’s forerunner, the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF): a coalition that took up the cause of ordinary people and challenged the political and corporate establishments of eastern Canada – a struggle that ultimately gave birth to Medicare and many other vital social programs still enjoyed by Canadians today. Committed to parliamentary democracy, the CCF’s message was explicitly populist, calling for unity and common struggle against the powerful in the face of injustice. As one verse of a song popular among CCFers read:
“From the waves of the Atlantic
To the shores of old B.C.,
We fight the people's battles
And we'll bring security;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our country free;
For champions of the people's cause
Is what we'll always be.”
The CCF’s message of democratic inclusion and popular struggle puts it sharply in contrast with various populist efforts from Canada’s political right. In the 1980s, the Reform Party – in some ways a successor of the older Social Credit movement – rose to challenge the Eastern Canadian establishment. But while its message was democratic and anti-elitist, it aimed to roll back the very public programs that are essential to equalizing social conditions.
The face of right-wing populism in Canada today looks even worse. Posing as a dissident outsider, former Conservative cabinet insider Maxime Bernier has launched a new political party by pandering to some of the ugliest corners of the internet – recently refusing, when asked by journalists, to condemn the hideous white nationalist murder of Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. The so-called “mainstream” of the conservative movement has recently been little better. In Ontario, Doug Ford has rhetorically championed “government for the people” while courting the hard-right and rewarding friends and allies with plum positions. Among other things, Mr. Ford’s arbitrary changing of election boundaries in the city of Toronto and threatened invocation of the notwithstanding clause illustrates how the populist right often sees democracy as little more than an obstacle to be pushed aside.
Unfortunately, in the face of this rising right-wing populism, those who claim to represent the centre of democratic politics have failed to offer a compelling alternative – a failure which can itself worsen the situation. Despite the initial optimism that accompanied their electoral success, figures such as Mr. Macron and Canada’s own Justin Trudeau have failed to reduce the systemic economic inequality that lies behind the growth of populist resentment. Their tax policies, for example, have continued to favour the wealthiest citizens, as evidenced by the Trudeau government’s recently announced half-measures regarding the stock-option loophole, which allows a privileged minority compensated through stock options to pay only half the tax rate of those earning a regular wage. Economic inequality today is virtually the same as it was when Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals were elected in 2015.
Too many centrists have been unwilling to make the structural shift in taxation that’s necessary for a healthy democracy. While failing to join the political left and call for the major overhaul of our tax system – as a healthy democracy requires – many in the political centre have instead preferred to equate Mr. Sanders with the Trumpian right.
But let me repeat: The key difference between right-wing populism and the populism of the progressive left – not just today but historically – is that the former is authoritarian and anti-pluralist, whereas the latter is democratic and inclusive. Projecting the imagined interests of the “real people” for whom they claim to speak, right-wing populists frequently pursue the vilification of vulnerable groups, fostering a political identity founded on exclusion. The treatment of non-Christians by Hungary’s Mr. Orban or the demonization of Latinos by Mr. Trump come to mind, as does his condemnation of immigrants from, as he put it, “shithole” countries.
Once in control of government, these authoritarian populists stack the institutions of state with their own allies, supporters and patrons – political corruption in its most naked form. Waging war on social movements and civil society, many also attack and demonize the free media. For Mr. Trump, all critical media is “fake news,” which he has described as being “the enemy of the people.” For Vladimir Putin and Mr. Orban, meanwhile, NGOs are frequently demonized and denounced as actors under foreign control.
Leftist populists, by contrast, challenge powerful systems by championing the social and material interests of ordinary people. While they also are critical of elites, they do not make them enemies. They attempt to bring all people together into the fight against inequality, racism and climate change. Far from being the left-wing equivalent of the authoritarian right as some centrists have insisted, the populist left is, in actuality, its democratic antithesis – and its worst nightmare.
Because of the pejorative connotations the word “populist” now carries due to its capture by the right, some progressive Canadians prefer to shy away from the word entirely. I understand this sentiment. But what is imperative, whether we ultimately choose to embrace the label or not, is that progressives challenge right-wing populists by offering a compelling alternative to their dangerous and divisive global agenda.
Here in Canada, the task is as urgent as it is anywhere else. A 2014 study by the Broadbent Institute found that the richest 20 per cent of citizens now owns nearly 70 per cent of our collective wealth. According to another study published earlier this year, the number of Canadians who are $200 or less away from financial insolvency at the end of each month now sits at a staggering 46 per cent – or nearly half. For these reasons and others, a great many Canadians find themselves in a precarious state.
To conclude, right-wing populist possibilities are still with us at home and abroad. Indeed, in the forthcoming European parliamentary elections there is every indication that xenophobic populists may gain significant ground. The pro-Brexit populists in the United Kingdom may be on the verge of a “hard Brexit” – from their point of view, a great triumph, but from the view of many, a potential disaster of historic proportions. Until our governments take the necessary and ambitious steps to reverse the menace of inequality and democratic decline, such forces will continue to gain ground.
The antidote lies neither in the divisive, anti-pluralist agenda proposed by the populist right, nor in the complacency of the liberal centre. Only a passionately democratic and pro-pluralist left – championing the interests of ordinary people and acting as their voice against prejudice, inequality and the domination of extreme wealth – is equipped for the task ahead.