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In defence of political populism in the Americas

By Bruce Mabley, Phd

The election of Donald Trump as American President in 2016 has renewed interest about political populism. Some observers say it is a world-wide trend perhaps originating in Europe with the election of right-wing parties. According to this view, populism is a trigger for development of right-wing conservative and authoritarian politics. The word ‘populism’ has become a code word for claims of actual or potential racist and sexist policies and political behavior. Certain groups within the media have encouraged this view pointing to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon in the United States and to Doug Ford and Maxime Bernier in Canada. Oddly enough, these populists never succeed in rallying any more than a political rump with the exception of the Trump 2016 election where he also won less votes than Hilary Clinton.

In Canada, the election of Doug Ford in Ontario and the new People’s Party of Maxime Bernier are pointed to as examples of divisive politics pitting the ‘people’ against specific groups and controlling governmental or economic elites. Analysts also equate populism with division within the body politic – with some form of polarization or divisiveness similar to ‘populist’ distinctions between fake and real news. Recent events have shown the downside of political populism and it has been accompanied by a serious level of doubt and criticism about the role of political parties in the democratic system.  The failure of political parties to represent and move forward a people’s agenda instead of one supported by special interests and lobby groups is partly responsible for the emergence of so-called ‘populism’. The separation of powers in the USA and Canada has put the spotlight on the political parties’ anti-populist foibles.

So, the rise of political populism has had something to do with the breakdown of political parties and their ability to represent the desires of the mass of citizens. For example, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau announced just before the 2015 federal election (when his Liberal Party was lingering in third place) that the electoral system would be reformed if his party took power. Presumably he meant some form of proportional representation in order to empower peoples’ votes and enhance coalitions more representative of the popular vote. Instead, he broke the promise in his first year in power despite having a majority government and went on with the old system that elects parties like his with around 35% of the vote while disenfranchising the remaining 65%. Hypocritical and self-interested actions like this promote the growth of populism and detract from any popular belief in the vision of a party system of politics. Based on anecdotal pieces of evidence, there appears to be a direct link between populism and a) rampant cynicism about political parties and their representation role and b) hypocritical and cynical policies or broken promises by leaders and parties. So far, allegations of racism or right-wing authoritarianism are yet to be linked to political populism. Populism’s most fertile breeding ground is purely political and raises the whole question about political parties and their role in a democratic system of representation. Cynicism about the political process facilitates the growth of political populism rather than any dubious conception of racism or intolerance.

Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde has a darker view of political populism: 

Populists are dividers, not uniters.  They split society into “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other,” and say they’re guided by the “will of the people.” In contrast, Mudde places in opposition “liberal democracy,” a system “based on pluralism—on the idea that you have different groups with different interests and values, which are all legitimate,” Populists are therefore not pluralists. (from: Populism: A Very Short Introduction)

Holding that pluralism is the opposite of populism while the latter divides rather than unites the body politic is pretty tenuous. Moreover, it is highly debatable whether ‘all interests and groups’ can be declared legitimate in liberal democracy. Presumably extremist groups would be excluded a priori from such a political doctrine. 

Few would argue against the view that populism is an assault on political elites, not just one but possibly several at the same time. That populism is the end of political pluralism is an over reach and it obscures the essentially democratic impulse of a body politic poorly represented by political parties either in or out of power. In at least one of its movements, political populism is a reaction against political cynicism and the reign of special interests. Both Canada and the United States use populism as a means to counter political elites, their abuses and sometimes their use of various types of media to dupe citizens.

The story of populism in Canada goes back to the creation of a universal health care system, which appeared under a populist CCF government in the Prairies over 70 years ago.  Both Canada and the United States have known populist political movements mainly represented by third parties who sowed the seeds of a modern welfare state- the Prairie socialism of the CCF and the Social Credit revolt against the banks in Canada. In the United States, examples of populism abound with the 20thcentury Progressive Party, William Jennings Bryant and the drive for workers’ rights. 

Maxime Bernier, who is considered a populist having left the Conservative Party, has attacked the Liberal Party view of Canadian multiculturalism as a means to keeping political power by dividing immigrant groups into electoral ghettos and offering money for targeting votes. If Bernier is even half right, PM Trudeau is ‘unconsciously’ encouraging a popular revolt against the values of Canadian style multiculturalism by dividing the people, not uniting them as Cas Mudde seems to think populism does. This is an example of those who oppose populism while actually promoting its spread. This form of political strategy heralds a return to the grim Tammany Hall style politics of another century based on pitting one ethnic group against another or against a political party of government. Such is one Canadian variant of political pluralism against which populism stands as a reminder to those who have become disenfranchised against their will.

What started as a popular vote of confidence for the environment has quickly changed under the Trudeau government. At present, the Liberal Party’s climate change policy is in tatters. By purchasing the Kinder Morgan rusting pipeline with Canadian tax payer money, the specter of a populist response to promises about clean energy has been raised. The equation is pure political cynicism – by increasing oil production and export, the view is that Canada is somehow contributing positively to reducing climate change and reducing the country’s carbon footprint.  Liberal politics on climate change and pipelines only further distances the population from any faith in the goodwill of the political parties. 

In the election of 2015, many youth and millennials were seduced by Liberal promises about new policies for youth. More broken promises. The international internship programme, which provided hope and professional development for unemployed educated youth, destroyed by the Harper government, has yet to be re-instated. Aboriginals can also count themselves in this unhappy category. The Reconciliation Committee is in ruins. Subsequent use or misuse of the court system by the federal government to push through the Kinder Morgan pipeline is a clear warning sign to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

In international affairs, the Trudeau government has also encouraged political populism. Ambassador selection is still hidden from the public, the unelected Senate continues to sit with no real legislative role, the UN voting pattern of the Trudeau government varies little from the former Harper government especially on Mideast issues, Canada’s respect for climate change instruments is laughable given the Kinder Morgan debacle. 

When the will of the people is so aggressively ignored by the reigning political and economic elites supposed to represent the common good, populism can flourish and take hold. 

Critics of political populism point to right-wing extremist movements and define the doctrine by their values or lack thereof. This is to ignore the immensely positive contribution of political populism to our North American democracies in defence of families, workers and the common good.  

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