#onpoli newsletter - Can populism be positive?

Exploring how to channel voter rage
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Sep 30, 2019
This week, Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath are joined by Preston Manning, Avi Lewis, and Erin Kelly.



Hello, #onpoli people,

Daniel Kitts here, standing in for my colleague Eric Bombicino for this edition of the #onpoli newsletter. In addition to writing the daily newsletter for TVO.org, I also co-produce episodes of the podcast — and I’m keen to tell you about this week’s.

Is populism a thing in Canada? It’s a question many are asking in worried tones as they look south to the success of Donald Trump’s aggressive, anti-immigrant brand of populist politics and wonder if the same dark impulses are gaining ground here.

Some are already sounding the alarm bell. In the Toronto Star, Frank Graves and Michael Valpy predict that “the forces of populism will be a significant presence in the forthcoming federal election,” and “in many respects, Canada is moving in lockstep with the United States — toward a class war and a vision war.”

But assuming that Canada is indeed fertile ground for populism, would that necessarily be a bad thing? That’s a question we tackle in this week’s #onpoli podcast. In addition to talking to pollster Erin Kelly about whether populism is, well, popular in Canada, we get two views on how to channel populist discontent into positive change. First, from the right, Reform Party founder Preston Manning; then, from the left, journalist and activist Avi Lewis.

In his conversation with Steve Paikin, Manning emphasizes the idea that people concerned about populist anger need to understand where that anger is coming from. One way of doing that is by actually talking to angry people. That’s something we do in the podcast: Agenda producer Harrison Lowman recently interviewed some people who attended the campaign launch of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada, which is promising voters “smart populism.” You can hear some of what they had to say during the podcast.

In co-producing this week’s episode, I also reached out to some people who support politicians labelled as populist. One person I spoke to is a Toronto man by the name of Steve Handler. He talked to me about why he likes Trump and Premier Doug Ford, and what he thinks of some of the criticisms of politicians like them. Here’s some of what he said.

Are you a populist?

Trump and Ford are routinely called “populists,” but Handler doesn’t consider himself one.

“It doesn’t mean a whole lot,” he says of the word. He points out that even though he disagrees with Trump on just about everything, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders can be considered a populist for the way he rails against wealthy bankers and fat-cat CEOs. For Handler, populism has just become a label people use to refer to the centre-right movement.

So how would Handler describe himself?

“Sometimes just to tease and bother people I want to say ‘alt-right,’” he says, referring to the movement that sees the traditional right as too moderate and has often been associated with white supremacists. “[But] I guess I label myself as conservative.”

Why Trump? 

Handler grew up liberal, but eventually became disillusioned. While he can’t remember which one specifically, he says a tax increase under the provincial Liberals was “the final straw.” He adds that growing government debt is a concern for him.

But another reason he likes politicians such as Trump and Ford is that he feels they are pushing back against groups in society that have gone too far.

“As a guy, I feel like I’m being attacked,” he says. “I could talk to a woman on the street and I can be accused of harassment…[t]he Trumps and the Fords are sort of attacking back.”

“When [Trump] says things and he hammers certain people and he weakens those people that I perceive to be maybe a bit too strong here or going against my interests, then I like that,” he tells me later in our conversation.

Handler adds he’s irritated by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s frequent messaging to feminists and minority voters. “I’m thinking ‘Why does he have to mention anybody?’” he says. “Just sort of treat everybody [the same] and talk the same way. But I guess they want to get their base to come out and vote.”

At peace with a con man

When asked what he thinks of the idea that politicians such as Trump are just con artists who pretend to be for the people but end up betraying average citizens once in power, Handler gives what I find a surprising answer.

“At the end of the day, I’m willing to let some of that con slide,” he says.

I’m surprised, because Trump supporters are often thought to believe the president can do no wrong. But Handler doesn’t think that way.

He explains that for him, politicians like Trump and Ford at least partly make up for any broken promises or dishonesty by attacking some of the groups he opposes. In his view, the left has gotten too strong over the past 15 years, and a rebalancing is in order.

As an example of the pushback he likes to see, Handler cites Ford’s more confrontational attitude toward the province’s teachers. “And they’re complaining pretty loud, the people on the left, so he must be doing something right,” he says.

A populist future?

When asked about Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada, Handler seems to think they don’t have much of a chance in the coming election, apart from maybe a few seats. But he adds things could be different the next time Canadians are asked to go to the polls.

“If [Conservative Leader Andrew] Scheer loses,” he says, “the next leader is going to be more like a Bernier, more of a populist, and a little bit more to the right.”

We’ll have to wait and see if Handler is proven correct. In the meantime, tell us what you think about our podcast and/or the potential for populist politics in Canada at onpolitics@tvo.org.

Catch #onpoli this Sunday at Hot Docs!

As Canada gears up for a hard-fought federal election campaign this fall, join Steve and John Michael for the first-ever live edition of the #onpoli podcast at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on Sunday at 1 p.m. 

Through candid onstage interviews with those who have been in the election war rooms of our major parties, we’ll examine what’s at stake for Canadians in this deeply consequential election, by breaking down the issues that divide us. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised he wouldn’t be using wedge issues this election. But what is a “wedge issue” exactly? Where does it fit within political strategy? When have they been used to fracture the electorate and pit them against one another in Canadian history? And how are they being used in this campaign? Get the information you need to make your vote count this October.

Featuring: Sara MacIntyre, Advisor at BAI Communications and Former Press Secretary for Prime Minister Stephen Harper; Scott Reid, Principal at Feschuk.Reid and former Communications Director to Prime Minister Paul Martin. Other guests TBA.  Get tickets here

#onpoli producer

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