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Populism Could Happen Here

There have been a spate of articles from university professors and political commentators in recent months warning that “populism could happen here.” There is evidently danger that some politician might garner support from the masses and replace the governing party in Ottawa and/or in some of the Canadian provinces, in the same way that Donald Trump garnered support from the common people and defeated Hillary Clinton to become president of the United States. Even Justin Trudeau seems to have recognized the danger.

One article cited research showing that 46 per cent of Canadians are “open-minded” while 30 per cent felt “economically and culturally insecure.” The assumptions and questions behind such research reveal some extreme gaps in logic. If a Canadian expresses concerns about illegal immigration, he is labelled close-minded, racist, or xenophobic. If a Canadian is in danger of losing his job due to flawed government economic policies, he is considered a dangerous extremist. Rather than admitting that governments may have been guilty of imposing bad policies, these commentators dismiss those who have been hurt by those policies as a danger to society, as insecure people open to manipulation by “populist” politicians.

In light of these articles, what is populism anyway? Is there indeed something happening? There is indeed a possibility that a politician in Canada could use popular support to get elected. It is called democracy.

There is a tendency in these articles to equate populism with Donald Trump and all of his faults. This is nonsense. According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, a populist is a “member or adherent of a political party seeking support from ordinary people; a person who holds, or who is concerned with, the views of ordinary people.” How is this a bad thing?

Wikipedia offers a list of “populist” parties in Canadian history. These include the various Social Credit parties, the Reform Party of Canada, the Liberal Party under Alexander Mackenzie and Wilfrid Laurier, Dufferin Pattulo’s British Columbia Liberal Party during the 1930s, Mitchell Hepburn’s Liberal Party of Ontario, the many socialist and labour parties leading up to the founding of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the Manitoba Liberal-Progressive Party, Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale in Quebec, John Diefenbaker’s Conservative Party, the federal New Democratic Party under Tommy Douglas, and even Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal Party. Any party on the left or right that appeals to average people can be considered populist. Indeed, any party that hopes to get elected must gain the support of voters. It is called democracy.

So, why all the furor over populist movements? It seems that the left-leaning academics and political elites who support Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are afraid that they will lose power to the Conservative Party led by Andrew Scheer (in the same way that Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals lost power to Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in Ontario). Despite their claim to speak for the common person, the poor, the marginalized, and the middle class, many of these elites see themselves as benevolent rulers who know better than the people what they actually need. Convinced of their own superiority, the rightness of their opinions, and their right to rule, they are afraid that the people might throw them and their political friends out of office. Left-leaning political parties claim to want government “for the people,” but they often fear government “by the people.” They don’t really trust the people they are claiming to help. It is why most left-leaning revolutions end in dictatorship.

Hence the many articles warning about populism. The intent of these articles is to try to tar their political opponents with the Donald Trump brush. That is, by calling their opponents “populist,” they are implying—without having to prove it—that these opponents are erratic liars, bigots, racists, extremists, and zealots who play on people’s fears to get elected. That charge might have some merit when applied to Doug Ford, although he is not nearly as extreme as Donald Trump. However, it cannot fairly be applied to mild-mannered family man Andrew Scheer. In fact, in this case, it is not the Conservatives but the liberal elites who are using fear-mongering to gain electoral success.

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