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Trying to understand 'populism'
By Eric Bombicino - Published on Aug 29, 2019
In a future episode, the #onpoli podcast will explore whether populism will have an impact on the federal election.



Hello, #onpoli people,

Words are funny things. Generally, the more we do something, the better we understand it. Like coding, for instance. Or playing the violin. It’s the basic rule behind the concept of learning.

Lock someone in a room to practise violin for five years and they will (potentially) emerge with a deep understanding of the instrument. (And severe trauma — let’s not lock people in rooms.)

Words, however, don’t always follow this rule. Sometimes, the more we use words, the more their meaning becomes stretched, and contorted, and bloated beyond recognition.

For example: Walk into a tech conference about “innovation.” You’ll enter with a general understanding of terms such as “leverage” and “ideation” and “iteration” and “disruption” and “synergy” — and then you’ll walk out confused about all of them. But — good news! — you’ll be able to get a super high-paying consulting job while saying things that you don’t understand, like: “You need to leverage synergy across all disruptive technologies while maintaining an iterative approach to your ideation process.” 

Graphic of people working in an office.

This quirk of language may never be more true than in politics. I used to understand what “socialism” meant, but now I’m not sure. Is it the government providing a service such as health care? Or is it this scary thing that always ends up with people in gulags? Ditto “neoliberalism,” a watchword of the progressive left that is apparently the cause of all that ails us.

Another word I’d add to that ever-evolving list is one we’ve heard a lot recently, especially since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump: populism. It has increasingly become a force in politics in the past few years and I think it is essential to understand its role in the upcoming federal election on October 21. But what exactly is it? 

What is populism?

I’m going to phone a friend for this one. Political scientist Cas Mudde, author of the 2017 book Populism: A Very Short Introduction, says populism “considers society to be separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’…” It posits that power should be removed from the elites, who are bad, and restored to the people, who are good.

Seems simple enough? Okay, then: Populism can come in different forms, but the one we talk about today is primarily a right-wing phenomenon, according to Mudde.

The “most successful populists today are on the right, particularly the radical right,” he said, speaking to the BBC in 2018, adding that politicians “like Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Donald Trump in the U.S., combine populism with [anti-immigrant] nativism and authoritarianism.”

Populism, then, is a vessel — a mode of politics for directing emotion — that can be filled with any number of ideas, including nativist beliefs and nationalism. It is less ideologically bound and more about emotion: a deep well of anger and resentment that builds up over time. 

How should we understand populism in the Canadian context?

This is the $64,000 question leading up to the federal election and one we will explore on the #onpoli podcast this season. (Yes, that’s two game-show references in this newsletter for those keeping count.)

Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates, doesn’t see much difference between the situation in Canada and how populism has played out in Europe and the United States. “You’d think that what has happened there should be a clue for us here,” Graves wrote in the Toronto Star in July. “But no, we are Canada the Narnia bear, believing that somehow we are standing apart from the rest of the world.”

I’ll see your pollster and raise you ... another pollster: Michael Adams, president of the Environics Institute and author of Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit, sees populism playing out differently in this country. “There is a myth that whatever happens elsewhere, eventually happens in Canada,” Adams said in a 2018 interview with Global News.

“I don’t think we are going to get the kind of populism we are seeing in the United States and Europe, where the populism is going to be anti-minorities, anti-immigrant, anti-refugees.” 

Two men at an audio board.
Producers Eric Bombicino and Matthew O’Mara pretend to do post-production work for the camera.

What influence has populism had on conservatism in Canada?

Another big question. Let’s phone another friend.

Reform Party founder Preston Manning, about whom I apparently write every week now (Hi, Preston!), has compared populism to an out-of-control drilling operation.

“Populism is like a wildcat — or a rogue oil or gas well — where there's so much pressure from the bottom, it blows the platform, it blows oil all over the place. It could catch fire, it could be a very dangerous type of thing,” he said in a 2017 interview with CBC.

Manning’s solution for conservatism in Canada is to drill a relief line to release the pressure — it has to be deep enough to release it, but not too deep or it’ll blow up. Translation? It poses a threat to his brand of conservatism, but populism can be harnessed in a productive way.

"I think that's the challenge for, particularly, the Conservative Party. Can they tap into that unrest in such a way that it reduces pressure but not to get blown away by it?"

Manning will likely get his answer in this federal election.

However, there are some numbers that provide us a window into how conservatism has changed in recent years: an EKOS poll in the spring found 69 per cent of Conservative supporters think too many visible-minority immigrants are being allowed into the country. That’s up from 47 per cent in 2013. (Among Liberal supporters, that figure was at 34 per cent in 2013 and down to 15 per cent in 2019.) 

What influence has populism had on the left?

Let’s use Manning’s analogy here: the big question for me is can the progressive left tap into the same well of emotion? In other words, can they drink the Conservatives’ milkshake? 

Scene from the film "There Will Be Blood" with the words "I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE!"

As Graves pointed out in that Star article, there are a few conditions or ingredients that are driving populism in Canada. One is a backlash over progressive values displacing socially conservative ones. That’s obviously a no-go for the left — you can’t exactly tap the stuff that opposes your values. But another factor that he cites comprises a waning middle class, wage stagnation, and the hyperconcentration of wealth at the tippy-top of the socio-economic ladder. That’s the bread and butter of the progressive left, or at least it used to be: economic reform. This could be an opportunity to dismantle the very system that, in their view, has ushered in gilded-age levels of inequality: neoliberalism (whatever “neoliberalism” means).

Do you think the progressive left could tap into this well of anger and resentment? Does it present a window of opportunity that progressives have awaited for decades?

As always, hit me up with any of your thoughts, concerns, questions, queries, recipe ideas etc. at onpolitics@tvo.org.

That’s all for this week!

#onpoli producer 

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