Visions of shaking pitchforks are dancing in the heads of our political elite. The thought of sharp metal biting broad, tender buttocks – or worse, puncturing inflated sinecures – is almost too much to bear. The imagined threat of imminent assault by scruffy mobs in diesel-belching trucks or thundering Harleys has those who feel entitled to call the shots without being questioned grasping for answers. The apparent rise of political populism in Canada and elsewhere represents the “end of the Enlightenment,” warned Peter MacKinnon, former president and dean of law at the University of Saskatchewan, in a recent column, while Dan Breznitz, the Chair of Innovation Studies at Toronto’s Munk School, has called “the current wave of Populism…mainly fear mongering and burning down the house.”
Anti-populist angst has spiked with the candidacy of Pierre Poilievre for the Conservative Party of Canada’s leadership. Poilievre’s focus on the impact of inflation – which he calls #Justinflation – soaring housing costs and other issues that are making life hard for regular folks has obviously stuck a chord. The large and often vocal crowds at his rallies respond to his plain talk about the “gatekeepers” who, he alleges, are blocking our ability to “build anything”: the “consulting class, politicians, bureaucrats or agencies.”
The Alberta-raised Poilievre, now an Ottawa-area MP, has gone after the Bank of Canada over its loose monetary policy amidst unprecedented federal spending increases, warning he would subject it to independent audits to determine whether it is making decisions based on partisan political considerations, and would halt its proposed “central bank digital currency.” At a recent candidates’ debate in Edmonton, Poilievre even proposed firing Bank governor Tiff Macklem, to the clear delight of the crowd. Canada’s elites were almost uniformly appalled, heaping one denunciation after the other upon the apparent Conservative front-runner. Among these was one from former Bank governor and long-time federal bureaucrat David Dodge, who termed Poilievre “financially illiterate” and his ideas “bullshit.”
The political establishment’s difficulty in dealing with populism is perhaps understandable. That is because populism largely originates in their own failure. Put simply, if elites and the institutions they control chronically underperform – and are seen to be doing so, clearly failing to meet the needs of the public – what other outcome is likely? Populism has a number of ingredients (as this two-part C2C Journal essay discusses), but essential is a frustrated or suffering public that has been shut out of decision-making, is ignored by every established political party, and is spurned by other institutions. This drives the search for political alternatives.
The elites’ lack of self-awareness that is typical of such political episodes – indeed, their habit of doubling-down on the policies, attitudes and rhetoric that alienated the public to begin with – compounds the problem. Given how intelligent, enlightened and downright good they are, of course they’re confused. Why, they can’t help wondering, why aren’t the people more grateful? Since the problem can’t be themselves or their performance, the public’s dissatisfaction must be due to flaws among the people themselves. This echoes the Communist concept of “false consciousness,” first used by Friedrich Engels in the 1800s – that the public is too easily duped and simply too dumb to know its own best interest.
Frustration at the people’s pig-headedness can’t help but bubble up. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton coined a description that perfectly encapsulates the elites’ view of such people: they are a “basket of deplorables.” She thereby characterized half of Donald Trump’s supporters – or about 25 percent of Americans – as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic…[or]…Islamophobic.” Despite its instant notoriety, Clinton’s idea endured to be echoed by Joe Biden in the 2020 race, when he said that many of President Trump’s supporters “really support the notion that…all Mexicans are rapists and all Muslims are bad.”
Although this is a U.S. example, it is a transnational concept, freely traded across borders among global elites. European politicians and opinion leaders have found it almost infinitely versatile, applying it to everything from Hungarian immigration policy to Polish school curricula to the UK’s Brexit referendum. In Canada, who can forget how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this past winter denounced protesting truckers as a “small fringe” with “unacceptable views,” and during last year’s election campaign those who opposed vaccine mandates as “women-haters, racists and science deniers.”
It’s truly remarkable that, once labelled this way, all such people don’t just smarten up, fall into line and vote the correct way. This mental habit has become so ingrained that, just last week, federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra blamed (without detectable irony) the hours-long travel delays afflicting tens of thousands of passengers at Canada’s airports on…Canadian travellers. In the elite’s mind, it is simply not possible that they are at fault for anything – especially not the rise of political populism.
Beer and Popcorn
Given the public’s unreliability – at least in voting for them – such politicians presumably favour representative democracy over the direct kind. Perhaps they even have in mind the formulation of 18th century conservative political philosopher Edmund Burke who proposed that, in governing, the judgment of legislators should augment the will of the people. Fat chance. They more likely hold to American journalist H.L. Mencken’s formulation that the “Booboisie” – the broad cross-section of ordinary voters – can’t be relied on to give intelligent guidance to government at all. They don’t need to be “represented,” their judgment needs to be replaced and they need to be ruled.
There’s ample evidence that the political establishment doubts people’s ability even to know their best interest or run their own lives. Canadian Liberal “strategist” Scott Reid famously summarized this view in the 2006 federal election. Criticizing the Conservative plan to allow Canadians to choose how they spend childcare dollars – instead of being steered towards state-funded and -operated daycare – Reid said that people couldn’t be trusted with the money because, rather than allocate it to the nurturing and betterment of their children, they’d more likely blow it on “beer and popcorn.” At the time, the Liberal alternative was a multi-billion-dollar federal program run from Ottawa. Clearly, Liberal views haven’t changed much, as the current government has implemented essentially that.
The CPC leadership race, and especially Poilievre’s role, reveals this enduring contempt for populism – or is it for the people themselves? Poilievre has filled YouTube and social media with a mixture of standard Conservative policy ideas and sharp criticism of the status quo. His main themes are increasing jobs, reclaiming Canadian values and stopping that “#Justinflation” which, he allows, will require firing “the gatekeepers.” His rhetoric includes pinpointing the “small group of ruling elites” who tell Canadians “how to live [their] lives.” Besides the “gatekeepers” he frequently refers to the “have-nots and have-yachts.”
Clearly, then, Poilievre is needling the elites and seems to enjoy doing so. The question is, why are they responding in the manner of someone holding an over-inflated balloon in danger of exploding through the barest brush with any hard object? The reliably elitist Andrew Coyne bemoaned Poilievre’s “us vs. them rhetoric” and his “conjuring unseen enemies,” such as “‘gatekeepers,’ ‘elites’ or even ‘global elites’.” Liberal pollster Frank Graves launched a Twitter assault, claiming the Conservative MP was “an acolyte of authoritarian populism” (i.e., dictators like Argentina’s Juan Peron or Italy’s Mussolini), then stating in an interview that he meant “ordered populism” of the kind that had driven “Trump and Brexit.” The National Post’sJohn Ivison speculated whether Poilievre’s banking policy might be channelling both Trump and Turkish president and proto-dictator Recep Erdogan.
The aforementioned Peter MacKinnon, while not commenting specifically on the Conservative leadership race, contends that populism entails a “flight from reason, science and humanism,” with rhetoric that “features ‘adversarial, emotional, patriotic, and abrasive speech’ [inspiring] the converted but…obnoxious and often crude to others.” MacKinnon concludes by wondering why “many people turn away from reason.” Neither MacKinnon nor Poilievre’s legions of critics have attempted to explain what is unreasonable, unscientific or inhumane about his monetary policy, which could have been written by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who crushed inflation in the early 80s, nor indeed by nearly any Bank of Canada governor predating the Trudeau era.
Any Criticism Becomes a “Conspiracy Theory”
Other commentators attempt to equate criticism of elites with belief in a conspiracy of lizard people to rule the Earth. They get especially riled when the target is an international institution like the UN, the WHO or the World Economic Forum (WEF) – and they throw around the “conspiracy theory” denunciation even when the agenda is openly expressed. In his book Covid-19: The Great Reset (2020), WEF founder and chairman Klaus Schwab lays out policy recommendations that, if implemented, would alter nearly every facet of life at the direction of governments and transnational institutions, everything from finance and industrial policy to morality, mental health, sleep quality, diet and exercise. On page 100, Schwab says the corona crisis “compel(s) us to replace failed ideas, institutions, processes and rules. This is the essence of the Great Reset.”
Apparently, however, we are not to take these published and easily accessible policy goals seriously. No, Schwab is just a jolly Teutonic prankster bent on torquing up gullible populists and conspiracy theorists everywhere. Even Jean Charest, Poilievre’s main rival in the Conservative leadership race, in a National Post interview scoffed at the idea that the WEF would siphon sovereignty from Canada. Expressing pride at his own role in the organization’s meetings in Davos, Switzerland, Charest gave “no credence to conspiracy theories about the WEF.”
Those inclined to believe the elite’s narrative that the “Great Reset” is a conspiracy theory should consider that not only is this the title of Schwab’s book, the word “reset” appears 62 times within it. And in the video stored at this link, Schwab boasts openly of having influenced or trained a number of future world leaders via the WEF’s Young Economic Leaders program – including Justin Trudeau – and, further, that “we penetrate the Cabinets” of governments around the world, including “half of” Trudeau’s Cabinet.
Critics also denounce the alleged habit of populists pitching overly-simple solutions to complex problems. The Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason, for example, claims it’s a “myth” that building more houses will help ease the housing crisis. Hey, it’s complicated. Similarly, teachers’ unions often argue that standardized testing isn’t really able to measure student proficiency in anything – the way, say, player statistics in sports are no measure of athletic performance. There is often a remarkable coincidence, however, between the things that “won’t work” and things the critics themselves don’t like, perhaps for ideological reasons or due to plain self-interest.
By contrast, solutions offered from the left that are equally simple if not simplistic – like taxing the rich or “hope and change” – remain in abundant supply. Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, for example, recently claimed that current high prices for many consumer goods were due to “greed.” One must remember that only smart people can figure out these complex problems. That the alleged solutions create a lot of well-paying and surprisingly durable jobs for the solvers, if they can be called that, is an added bonus. Whether solutions are found or even desired is then beside the point.
Critics of populism also will appeal to authority, saying the public should regain trust in “our institutions.” Mark Carney, apparently without irony, asserts in his recent book that “trust is the glue of our citizenship” and that “our institutions must serve all Canadians and earn their trust every day.” Of course, this was before the former Bank of Canada governor famously referred to the Freedom Convoy protests as “sedition.”
This brings to mind a comment by podcaster Konstantin Kissin about the media. When asked whether people shouldn’t regain trust in the media, Kissin said, “Perhaps the media should first become trustworthy.” The same could be said of multiple Canadian systems and institutions, like our airports (or, perhaps more fairly, the federal bureaucrats and minister who regulate them), schools, police, the Bank of Canada, municipal governments, university administrations, and many more. Shouldn’t they actually earn the public’s trust rather than merely demanding it?
The populism label is a useful pejorative to hurl at opponents and becomes convenient shorthand for a charge of distasteful pandering to the public. But when the definition is indistinguishable from “things and people we don’t like,” it ceases to have any real meaning.
Prairie Grass Fire
On Hallowe’en weekend in 1987, about 250 Canadians met in the dingy Winnipeg convention centre. By the end of the meeting, the Reform Party of Canada was born. A self-described populist movement, Reform was fuelled by regional discontent with the fiscal profligacy of the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney and the PCs’ focus on central Canada, specifically their preferential treatment of Quebec. The latter was exemplified by the federal government awarding of the $1 billion-plus long-term maintenance contract for the air force’s CF-18 fighter jets. Quebec’s Canadair (later taken over by Bombardier) got the deal, despite a lower bid by a technically more accomplished Winnipeg company, Bristol Aerospace. It was one of many decisions that steadily concentrated Canada’s whole aerospace sector in Quebec.
Three years before, the Mulroney Conservatives had received an overwhelming electoral mandate, 211 of 281 House of Commons seats, but soon proved a failure at practising representative democracy. The PCs had won 61 seats in western Canada – almost 30 percent of their new caucus – but sentiment was growing that western MPs weren’t representing constituents’ concerns in Ottawa, but rather were “explaining” Ottawa’s priorities back to them. There was even a new term for the phenomenon: “Ottawashed.”
Preston Manning and Mahatma Gandhi are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, but the Reform Party leader’s experience largely mirrored Gandhi’s description of how opposition to popular movements unfolds. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” said Gandhi of his own movement for Indian independence.
Having been one of the 250 that weekend in Winnipeg, I can attest that the cognoscenti didn’t welcome the new party. Gandhi’s “ignoring” and “ridicule” phases overlapped. Burning regional discontent sparked by the excesses of the previous Trudeau government’s National Energy Program – which funnelled western oil and gas revenue to Ottawa while crushing further development of the industry – was not taken seriously. Reform’s early days were little covered. That said, the editorial cartoon in the Winnipeg Free Press on the party’s founding weekend was prescient. It featured a harsh caricature of Manning, with a pointy nose and vampiric teeth, shown holding a large bass drum on which was emblazoned “Join Preston’s Thump for Jesus.” Although Manning is a practising evangelical Christian from a deeply devout family, religion wasn’t even discussed at the convention, just the usual dry topics like the Constitution, public finances, regional fairness, economic freedom and the like.
Critics quickly honed their barbs in by-now-familiar terms. Attendees at Reform meetings were described as the “blue rinse” crowd – too old and too white. Far from valuing the “lived experience” of elders, age and pigmentation clearly disqualified these people from being taken seriously. Reformers’ interest in Canadian taboos like official bilingualism and immigration was portrayed as sinister and unhealthy. The whole Reform movement was constantly on the edge of pariah status. Reform conventions also featured optional prayer breakfasts on Sunday morning, for those who would miss church. This drew gasps and inspired an endless stream of newspaper columns and even entire books from militantly secular commentators.
Predictably, a handful of unsavoury people did try to infiltrate Reform, particularly once it gained momentum. Some saw it as a handy vehicle to advance their own eccentricities. A very few were genuinely dangerous. Manning explained the attraction to Reform this way: “A bright light attracts bugs.” They were soon pushed out.
My own experience with Reform’s early activists is that they were sincere and well-meaning people you’d be proud to have as your neighbour. They were mostly older simply because they had the time and a lifetime’s experience to bring to it. The simple fact that less than 5 percent of Canadians were visible minorities at the time, helps explain the demographics. Regardless, Reform’s critics maintained that intolerance was the real explanation.
Ironically, Reform activists were largely the same people – sometimes exactly the same – as those I’d met in the federal PC party, with exactly the same concerns. They had been tolerated though ignored in the PCs. Once they migrated to Reform, however, they were beyond the pale. But what other choice did these people have? If their elected representatives wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t represent them, what other outlet did they have? If representatives won’t represent, then prepare for populism.
Despite electorally obliterating the PCs in the 1993 election, Reform fell well short of a parliamentary majority and remained the Rodney Dangerfield of Canadian politics. They got no respect. Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien seemed content to have the Bloc Quebecois as Official Opposition – even after the subsequent election, when the separatists dropped below Reform’s seat count.
Referring to Reform as the “third party” – which Chretien gleefully pronounced “turd” in his Quebecois accent – was apparently too enjoyable a habit to give up. Pundit panels, like Pamela Wallin’s on CTV, refused to include a Reform talking head but had a PC, despite the fifth party having a mere two seats in the House of Commons. Manning, by contrast, was ridiculed for taking an egalitarian approach, at first sitting in the second row of the parliamentary benches.
Reform’s role, said Manning, was akin to a “relief well” in the oil industry, which must be placed precisely to avoid a dangerous blow-out. The party’s goal, to safely relieve populist pressure without resorting to extremism – was nevertheless vilified, again in contrast to the separatist Bloc. Canada’s establishment never appreciated the reasonable federalist alternative that Reform represented, failing to realize what havoc a truly extreme western movement could have wrought. They preferred the smug and easy view of Reform as the enemy at the gates. In short, central Canada’s reaction to Reform was a failure to accommodate reasonable requests by reasonable Canadians.
Garlic and Goulash
European populism is also instructive. In France, Marine Le Pen of the National Rally recently won 42 percent of the vote in the country’s runoff presidential election. Le Pen is widely seen as a threat to European order, being anti-EU and anti-NATO. Her platform makes no secret of this. The lengthy document, appropriately available only in French, is a mish-mash of right, centre and left-leaning policies. Notably, Le Pen supports publicly-funded abortion.
Her Euro- and immigration-skeptic planks, however, have made her an outcast from France’s elites. Yet such skepticism resides not only on France’s fringe. Polling suggests up to 70 percent of French people don’t support current immigration policy. Similarly, popular concerns over artificially high energy prices and other regulations that exploded via the gilets jaunes protests of 2018 have not abated much – with 90 percent of respondents in recent polling reporting their spending power continues to erode.
During Europe’s large “migrant” (i.e., illegal immigration) wave of 2015, 73 percent of asylum seekers to the EU, Norway and Sweden were men, 60 percent young men or boys. In 2015-16, Germany took in 1.25 million refugees, more than twice the annual average of the previous ten years. Almost 75 percent of these were men, mostly young men. Prior to the (one-way) migration, support for the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland stood at 3 percent. By 2018 it hit 16 percent. The old-line Social Democrats and Christian Democrats sagged.
Italian populists, meanwhile, routinely poll in the 30-40 percent range. Austria has flirted with the rightist Freedom Party of Austria, whose growing support brought it into a coalition government with the conventionally conservative Austrian People’s Party in 2000. And then there was the big one – Brexit.
Most vilified of the Euro-skeptics is Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, due at least partly to his annoyingly consistent electoral success. His party Fidesz just won re-election in a multi-party contest with almost 50 percent of the vote. Besides balking at Brussels’ direction on illegal immigrants and other issues, Fidesz’s policy book contains many standard conservative planks. But Fidesz and Orban’s explicit characterization of Hungary as a Christian nation, actively protecting its traditions and culture – including who can become a Hungarian – have led to a broader culture war with the EU’s program to impose uniform secularism across Europe.
How can these things keep happening? Corruption or torpor in the established parties has traditionally caused popular discontent. Currently, obtuse elite-driven policies predominate in many countries around, for example, illegal immigration and energy. Politicians and parties are generally thought of as bending to shifting political winds. But despite stunning electoral blows – Germany’s traditionally conservative Christian Democrats have lost 40 percent of their support since 2016 – many mainline parties appear paralyzed. They are unwilling or unable to adjust and, with few exceptions, refuse to enter into coalitions with parties to their right.
As with the early PC-Reform dynamic in Canada, voters are thought fine, upstanding citizens when supporting old-line parties, but troglodytes when they switch allegiance. One need only watch the contempt and arrogance with which Independent UK member Nigel Farage was treated in the European Parliament to understand the problem. A bloated, complacent Euro-establishment apparently assumed the gravy train would keep running forever. And many still do.
It’s difficult to predict which political parties will adjust best to changing realities. Austria’s People’s Party, for example, rebranded, shook off 70 years of rust and cobwebs and managed to solidify its position vis-a-vis its rightward opponents. France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, dropped taxes and raised pensions for the poorest after the gilets jaunes protests, promising to “humanize” his policies. He even gave a nod to French nationalism, vowing that the spasm of statue toppling seen in most of the English-speaking world would not come to France. Even Germany’s currently governing Social Democrats, in light of the Ukraine War, changed course on defence spending.
Smart politicians and parties with the necessary survival instinct adapt. This once even happened in Canada, much to the chagrin of Reform supporters, when the Chretien Liberals took many of the upstart party’s ideas in the 1990s (without acknowledgement, of course). Still, many ostensibly “centrist” politicians remain wedded to certain policies – like looser borders or energy/climate strictures – that imperil or impoverish millions of their citizens and drive away parts of their political base. They seem unable to throw their internal critics an ideological bone, something their populist opponents are more than willing to do.
To Whom Much is Given
One might think that to carry the label “elite” one might have to be, well, actually elite. Not in heredity or credentials but in practice, expertise, intelligence and, above all, performance. Given the electorate’s stubborn fickleness one could of course conclude that the elite are simply being judged too harshly. Forget poor results; good intentions count for something, don’t they?
Evaluating how well elites perform, and specifically whether their performance is acknowledged and appreciated by the public, requires actual elite understanding of the governed. The Bank of Canada and its Governor might consider, for example, that preventing runaway inflation and a devastating erosion of purchasing power should outweigh schooling the bank’s own staff in white privilege and anti-Colonialism. But that requires an understanding and appreciation for the fact that the prices of things affect and indeed shape the lives of ordinary people.
This seems blindingly obvious, yet our elites have proved oblivious to – or perhaps theoretically aware but fundamentally detached from – this and many other issues. There are natural social processes that cause rifts, separating elites from the broader society. A soft form of segregation due to higher education and then higher income is most common, usually resulting in geographic separation. The most effective elites might be called “grounded” as opposed to “detached.” That is, grounded in the realities of everyday life and the life of the everyday people they serve – because serve they must.
It is easy to contrast this with detachment, characterized by a lofty, self-serving elite, imposing high-minded yet endlessly impractical and at times downright damaging policies on the public. In traditional politics this divide was between those with “the common touch” versus denizens of the country club and its various analogues. It has been ever thus. Clearly, it’s difficult to “ground” those already in the upper or upper middle class. Plus, many of those from humble backgrounds are often keen to assume the mores of the elite as they climb the social and career ladder, while others willingly mimic the expected attitudes, slogans and habits, carefully cloaking any doubts.
Social and economic changes of this kind have influenced both sides of the political spectrum in recent years. Elite detachment has clearly contributed to left and centre-left parties abandoning their traditional working-class supporters for more “reliable” constituencies defined by identity politics. A large literature on this phenomenon describes how the U.S. Republican party has, to varying degrees in different states, welcomed working-class voters as country-club conservatism fades.
Unfortunately, elite failure and corresponding populist reaction produces a corrosive feedback loop. Faced with public dissatisfaction elites will, more often than not, double down on failed or unwelcome policies or seek to quell dissent. This ratchets up discontent, resulting in elites tripling down, etc. The fuel for political combustion is set.
One way to keep the establishment honest and effective is active competition between identifiably different elites. These can be either conventional or populist in flavour. The worst-case scenario is one dominant political elite, augmented by the administrative state, corporate allies, academia and a compliant media. Such a universalist elite will trend toward sloth and ossification, contempt and even repression. Sadly, Canada has drifted far in this direction.
If elites want to avoid the pitchforks they need to up their game and, somehow, find some grounding among the people. If our political elites were smart, they would start by taking a look in the mirror.
John Weissenberger is a Calgary geologist.
Source of main image: Shutterstock.