#onpoli: Can populism be a force for good?

In this episode of TVO’s politics podcast, activist Avi Lewis and Reform Party founder Preston Manning talk grassroots movements, angry voters, and democratic change
By Eric Bombicino - Published on Oct 03, 2019

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Author and progressive activist Avi Lewis and Reform Party founder Preston Manning may not agree on much when it comes to politics, but they do have some common ground: both see populism as a potential force for good.

“Whether or not we can have a robust left-wing populism … that’s the question of our time,” Lewis says in this week’s episode of TVO’s #onpoli podcast. “Populism is the terrain on which the survival of humanity will be fought.”

Manning adds that Canada’s history is filled with “many positive developments that came about through populist movements.” He describes populism as “a bottom-up boiling-up of energy from ordinary people who are discontent about something and alienated from their establishment and looking for alternatives.” But, he asks, “Does it become destructive? Or can it be managed and harnessed to positive objectives?”

To help make the case for the positive side of populism, Manning takes listeners on a brief tour of Canadian history.

The Progressive Party of Canada that rose to prominence in the 1920s, he says, championed the involvement of women in politics. The “first woman that was elected to the Parliament was not elected as a Liberal or Conservative,” he says. “She was elected as a Progressive.”

The Great Depression, Manning says, gave rise to two populist movements in Western Canada: the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the predecessor to the NDP) and the Social Credit Movement. “I disagree with agrarian socialism,” he says, “but [the CCF] brought in Medicare, which most people would think was a positive thing. It came through a populist party.”

“This country has had a long experience with populism,” he adds, “and it’s important that we learn the lessons from it — particularly for today.”

Lewis thinks today’s left can build “a movement, both politically and in the streets, to go and get our money back and massively reinvest — not just in universal public services, but in the kind of climate action that’s required to save the world.”

But, as Steve Paikin observes, “We’re in an era where right-wing populism is certainly winning the argument over left-wing populism.” He asks Lewis: “Would you subscribe to that?”

“Not for a second,” Lewis says. “I think lazy journalism has presented right-wing populism as the only kind, and populism is now being considered a kind of pejorative term. Of course there is right-wing populism. It leads to authoritarianism

and fascism, and it’s a terrible thing, in my view. But there is also left-wing populism. I think it’s also emerging and surging.”

Lewis points to the “huge move to the left” sparked by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 Democratic Party leadership campaign in the United States and the “grassroots revolution that it unleashed.”

“It has spread like wildfire through the new generation of young left Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” Lewis thinks this surge of “democratic socialism” in the U.S. is having an impact in Canada.

“I feel like I’ve watched it with a front-row seat at the emergence of the Green New Deal conversation in this country,” although he says he doesn’t believe mainstream media is willing to give left-wing populism “the time of day.”

Manning, for his part, says the media establishment and the political establishment react in “precisely the wrong way to populism.”

“There’s this negative reaction that says, ‘Well, these are a bunch of uneducated, ignorant people that are easily led away by demagogues to support negative political activities,’” he says.

This attitude, Manning adds, “fuels the populism even more. People say, ‘Okay, you don't respect me, so I don't respect you.’”

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