There is a reasonable chance that the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) could form a government and become prime minister. The next nationwide vote is likely to be a “change election,” an important but fairly routine event in most democracies by which an incumbent government, typically tired and blemished after years in power, is decisively removed. Administrations of all stripes become unable to rely on the patience and forgiveness of citizens for their mistakes or general inadequacy. For Canada’s governing Liberals, the desire for change could come from a further set of scandals or from their inability to address the growing problems that concern Canadians.
The clear frontrunner of the CPC leadership race is Pierre Poilievre. The Carleton MP’s popularity among party elites (he was recently endorsed by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper) and members – committed and new – is striking. Poilievre is a celebrity, commanding a huge social media presence, organizing large rallies and shaping policy discussions. If maintained for the general election, his electoral appeal brings the potential of reshaping not only federal policies but the way Canadian politics is practiced.
Unlike the prior two Conservative leaders, Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole, Poilievre has effectively renounced the party’s effort to appeal to centrist voters through a “Liberal-lite” platform that, in emphasizing fiscal responsibility and accountability, positions the CPC as a moderate option just to the right of the Liberals. He instead proposes a more confrontational, anti-establishmentarian approach that is ideologically self-conscious. Poilievre appears to be advancing a platform that, if retained, would bring substantial change to the way Canadian political discourse and policy development have been structured by the Liberal government.
More than just Populism
Several analytical approaches have sought to understand Poilievre through the label of populism. The key characteristic is Poilievre’s emphasis on a Manichean division between the “people” and the “gatekeepers” who erode freedom (the central word of Poilievre’s campaign) and prevent economic prosperity. This is the purported connection between Poilievre’s ascent and the broader “age of populism” that has shaped global politics in the last decade. This view is largely pejorative, being used to denounce Poilievre’s politics by linking him to the exclusionary and quasi-authoritarian politics attributed to leaders like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán and others.
Under this view, Poilievre is a threat to Canadian democratic and federal institutions who would bring more vitriolic discourse, spread disinformation and undermine trust in political processes. Some voices on the centre-right share this view, warning that Poilievre’s alleged populism will not only prove unelectable but will undermine the critical internal compromises that facilitated the merger of the Reform/Alliance Party with the old Progressive Conservative Party to form the CPC in 2003, compromises which have enabled the merged organization to remain together. For others, Poilievre’s potential as a “disruptor” is a good thing, providing an opportunity to shake up the atrophied elites that control Canada’s political, fiscal, and cultural institutions – from the Bank of Canada to the CBC.
Poilievre’s rhetoric and policies show a strong grasp of the Zeitgeist among right-leaning voters. Structuring his leadership as a means for voters to “Take Back Control of Your Life” – reminiscent of the pro-Brexit slogan “Take Back Control” – grasps a sentiment among many voters throughout the West that established institutions are not only too domineering but increasingly out of the normal person’s reach.
Academic research has established that the drastic economic, technological, cultural and demographic changes over the past several decades have brought about widespread feelings of dislocation, irrelevance and discontent, contributing to support for populist politics on both the right and the left. Economic globalization and other trends have made life increasingly insecure and unaffordable, widened income inequality and suppressed social mobility. Decision-making is increasingly deferred to impenetrable and out-of-reach big-data algorithms, international technocrats and bureaucracies. Social cohesion is disintegrating and traditional social values evaporating, producing feelings of isolation and loneliness. Cultural and political discourse has seemingly been taken over by aspiring social engineers and manufactured cycles of virtue signalling and moral outrage that evade good-faith and nuanced dialogue.
Still, attempting to understand Poilievre entirely through this form of populism is inadequate. An MP for nearly 20 years and a former minister in Harper’s Cabinet, he is neither an external populist challenger nor does he represent a decidedly more ideological faction attempting to take over the CPC. Poilievre’s true appeal – while dressed in a populist skin – is firmly grounded in conventional conservative ideas and policies.
Poilievre is no Trump. He is more usefully compared to a figure like Ronald Reagan in recalibrating the place of conservatism in the United States. Seen this way, Poilievre’s potential lies in the advancement of a novel political program that, in combining conventional conservative ideas with contemporary trends and problems, could unite most of the CPC coalition and gain the support of a larger portion of Canada’s electorate.
If this unique approach proves successful, Poilievre could dismantle and replace the contemporary Liberal paradigm. Much remains to be seen, of course, including the extent to which Poilievre sticks to this platform, whether he can win a general election and whether he can implement such an agenda once in office. Poilievre is not the first to attempt this, as the successes and unmet expectations of the Harper years loom large.
Finding Canada’s Rarest Bird: The Ever-Elusive “Conservatism”
It has always been difficult to define what “conservatism” is in Canada and what a “conservative government” would look like. Throughout its history the party has had little success in retaining power, mostly sitting in a reactive position of opposition that defines it first and foremost as the anti-Liberal party. “Conservatism” apparently amounts to immediate alternatives to the failed Liberal policies of a given period, the interests of specific demographic groups, and a surface-level temperament or vague philosophy of government. There are certainly broad “conservative” ideals – things like limited government, free enterprise, family values and individual freedom – but the party has typically failed to communicate how these would shape a governing approach nor what would actually change.
Most Conservative leaders do not even attempt this, instead focusing on the current Liberal government’s flaws. Some portray their party as simply better at implementing essentially the same policy goals as the Liberals. This works to some extent, as the party tends to gain office every few elections. But it did not work for Erin O’Toole and has proved intermittent and short-lived when it did: the Conservatives have only held office for 25 of the last 70 years. This has prevented the party from implementing powerful “conservative” policies or leaving much of a lasting legacy, with rare exceptions.
Poilievre appears to be taking a different approach. His message to make Canada the “Freest Country on Earth” is notable for how it unites several discrete threads. The notion of an overarching elite that controls political, economic, technological and cultural institutions provides a single way to voice concerns, identity a source of problems and locate solutions within conservative policy. Poilievre’s approach provides a framework that, first, identifies two predominant conditions of the current era – feelings of dislocation and problems of affordability – as coming from the same source and, second, legitimizes conventional conservative policy responses as the best solution. He thereby appeals both to CPC partisans and a potentially large spread of undecided voters.
His overall solution is “freedom” which, in being the product of removing conventional elites and recalibrating established institutions, satisfies each of these problems for the general population: restoring democratic control, social stability and general affordability. This is also positioned to promote other values long prioritized by conservative partisans, including personal responsibility, strong families and freedom of speech.
In doing so, Poilievre has evoked and enclosed his political program within a historical political tradition that, as much it uses stereotypical allusions to freedom and free enterprise, indicates an engagement with a very old conservative line of thinking. His allusions to the Magna Carta and Edmund Burke, for example, express the idea of a great tradition of ordered liberty that, in being a contract between the living and the dead, should be protected by the current generation.
This lifts Poilievre’s appeal beyond a mere jumble of policy prescriptions, allowing supporters to attach themselves to a coherent project that is greater than themselves. This is, first of all, a necessary part of any transformative leadership appeal. And, in contrast to the dominant political discourse that seeks to undermine and dismantle Canada’s political tradition, Poilievre propounds a vision of positive rootedness, countering feelings of dislocation by providing a sense of place, connectedness and pride in what it means to be Canadian.
A Disruptor Who might just Keep the CPC Coalition Together
There is close to something for everyone who might ever vote Conservative. For CPC partisans, the broader freedom rubric incorporates the policy goals of numerous factions, which is both individually satisfying and unifying. This is evident from the numerous internal endorsements and Poilievre’s commanding lead in party leadership polls. There is also reason to believe that a significant portion of Canadian voters who are traditionally unsympathetic to Conservative ideology could be motivated by Poilievre’s message.
Poilievre’s approach to inflation seems especially effective. It positions fiscal responsibility – a conventional conservative emphasis – as key to improving the cost of living, subverting the paradigmatic claim that the former compromises the latter. Poilievre’s emphasis on the inaccessibility of home ownership taps into perhaps the most frustrating affordability issue for younger and new Canadians, and reinforces the case for removing “gatekeepers” who prevent decreasing the costs and time required to build housing.
This combination also seems to work alongside other policy areas that Poilievre has emphasized – energy, economic development and immigration. It supports the conventional conservative proposition that, in contrast to the Liberal faith in ever-bigger government, smaller and more limited government is a good thing. And Poilievre connects these ideas to a Conservative tradition that thus portrays them as not so much novel (let alone revolutionary) as about “reclaiming” the freedoms and prosperity-driven policy processes of the Western liberal tradition.
It is equally important to note the things Poilievre has not spoken about. He has avoided saying anything concrete about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, focusing instead on supporting the expansion of energy projects and ending the federal carbon tax to increase the freedom that comes from economic development. Here too, he contrasts today’s “gatekeeper economy” with the times that “we used to get things done in this country.” Even more important is the absence of flashpoint cultural or social issues – Indigenous self-determination, gender equality, antiracism, LGBTQ+ rights, among others. Political parties of all stripes and their leaders typically compete over signalling the loudest commitment or prioritization of these issues.
Not Poilievre, who seems to implicitly reject the idea of government further intervening in these areas, seeing greater individual freedom as the overall solution. This would have significant implication for the more practical role of government policy, which currently seeks to convert or redirect social and institutional processes towards some envisioned “equitable” future, slicing and dicing the population into identity groups with particular rights and responsibilities. Poilievre would seemingly roll back this practice, envisioning – again in traditional conservative fashion – the state’s promotion of a “common interest,” expressed in this case as “the people.” Poilievre seems to suggest that social change, when necessary, originates and is primarily driven through community-based, grassroots-level mechanisms.
The message is not Poilievre’s only advantage. His campaign includes a significant share of conservative political talent, a powerful data collection operation and a strong ground-game. His adept use of social media has provided a national profile among politically informed voters. He has more Twitter followers than any competitor and even the CPC itself. And, unlike his immediate predecessors, he currently benefits from an incumbent Liberal government that, in addition to having been in power for some time, is increasingly regarded as floundering.
Still, Poilievre’s appeal should not be regarded as universal nor as somehow transcending the compromises, evasions, issue-framing and risks of practical politics. There certainly is some “red-meat” designed to resonate with the perceptions and emotions of CPC members rather than necessarily promote sound policy. His support for the Freedom Convoy, for example, likely increased his approval among some segments of voters but did little to endear him further to the majority of Canadians who showed their distaste for the protestors. There are also some gaps, such as Poilievre’s conspicuous lack of statements on abortion or other controversial (and electorally toxic) social conservative issues.
Like nearly any strong leader, Poilievre is innately controversial and has spawned schools of detractors. Polls suggest many Liberal and NDP partisans viscerally dislike him and his more confrontational style, expressing preference for more centrist Red-Toryism represented by competitors like Jean Charest. Poilievre dismisses these voices as the “elite” or the “laptop class” that benefits from the broken status quo and would never vote Conservative anyway. So far he has made next to no attempt to win them over, instead denouncing the previous Conservative tactic of making concessions on socially liberal and left-wing policy areas. He appears to focus instead on voters who have shown a prior willingness to vote Conservative – like middle-class suburbanites – through an appeal that is initially economic, though structured and legitimized through a deeper conservative vision.
The Great Communicator? A Look to the South
What impact could this have on the way that Canadian politics is practised? First, there’s no guarantee that Poilievre, assuming he wins the CPC leadership, maintains this approach in the general election. Conventional wisdom distinguishes between how candidates must campaign during a Conservative leadership race from how they must approach the general election. The first is about selling memberships, raising funds, mobilizing support and standing out from their rivals, requiring a candidate to propose ideas and make promises appealing to targeted party groups and ideologues. The winner is then expected to work back to the political centre and, if necessary, disavow the positions that contributed to winning the leadership. O’Toole was perhaps the most blatant example of this – but nearly every Conservative leader has done it to some degree.
Canada is by most measures a centrist if not slightly left-leaning nation. Its citizens – particularly the majority living in urban centres – consistently express liberal social, political and economic attitudes. This is a seemingly strong electoral motivator for Poilievre to compromise. Already, some pundits and pollsters argue that in his current incarnation a Poilievre-led CPC would be unelectable. A contrasting view is that Poilievre’s approach is sincere and has been crafted to last because it is based on a sturdy discursive and ideological framework that, in providing a recalibration of existing but currently not practised conservative ideas, provides not merely a salad of policies but a new approach to governance and administration.
If the latter view is accurate, then it is worthwhile to compare Poilievre to Ronald Reagan. Reagan similarly articulated dissent to the governing paradigm of his time and offered an alternative conservative (or arguably neoliberal) vision that, in combining principles of individual freedom, free enterprise, limited government and anti-communism, presented itself as a reclamation of traditional – but compromised – American ideals. Reagan was a response to the consensus of the welfare state, Keynesian economics, and the benefits of government intervention that was formed during the New Deal and firmly established after the Second World War. Reagan’s appeal also depended in part on the popular sense of whiplash and dislocation in the late 70s created by the social and cultural changes of the prior two decades.
Ronald Reagan’s ideas of freedom and patriotism were at the centre of his comprehensive political platform. The future U.S. President spent two decades developing his message and building his national profile, creating the foundation not only to gain office but to reshape American politics for a generation. Reagan is pictured during his winning national campaign in 1980. (Source of photo: Vic DeLucia/The New York Times (1980))
Although there are striking differences between Reagan and Poilievre’s personalities and life stories, there are intriguing similarities in their rhetoric and approach. In his seminal 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech – which established Reagan as a national conservative figure – freedom and the “idea that government is beholden to the people” was depicted as an important American heritage that, through an increasingly centralized and interventionist federal government, was under siege.
Reagan’s election as U.S. President in 1980 came at a time when the Keynesian economic paradigm had clearly failed. He used “stagflation” – the combination of constant inflation, lack of economic growth and high unemployment – to combine his economic theories and critique of government into one appeal, addressed to popular concerns about affordability. The post-Watergate years of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter had been shaped by perceptions of decline and malaise, making many Americans sympathetic to Reagan’s call for a renewed American patriotism.
Even more important was the way Reagan’s campaign communicated freedom as something to be reclaimed, protected and improved to meet the needs of the 1980s. Reagan made frequent allusions to how dense government bureaucracies, in attempting to promote social justice, were inefficient, compromising of freedom, and ultimately inferior to the alternative mechanisms of individual self-reliance, locally-based organizations and the profit motive. But he did not practise as sharp a style of populism as Poilievre’s call for the removal or neutering of a corrupt elite.
The central point is that Reagan succeeded both in advancing a conservative policy platform and reshaping the paradigm of American politics to fit this vision. His first term included an ambitious domestic agenda to shift government through drastic reductions in social spending, removal of regulations and devolving some powers to the states, in addition to “supply-side economics” like large tax cuts and reduced trade barriers. Critically, the former outsider’s ideas were thrust into the mainstream and maintained a central place in American politics long after Reagan’s two terms as President. Reaganism remained Republican gospel for nearly three decades. Only recently, with the success of leaders like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, could it be said that the Reagan paradigm is past.
The Reagan of the North?
The comparison offers a partial analogy, and there are obviously important differences between Reagan and Poilievre. Reagan’s appeal was the product of over two decades of preparation and work, including a carefully cultivated national profile and executive-level experience as Governor of California; Poilievre has nothing similar. Reagan’s foremost strength was his ability to communicate and engage with Americans spanning many classes – including young Americans – particularly through the medium of television. He seemed “presidential” long before he became President.
This is something that Poilievre’s proficiency in social media may enable him to replicate. But rather than effectively portraying himself as “prime ministerial,” his technique appears based on an understanding of what draws attention, ignites strong reactions and spreads a particular piece of content. While Reagan was able to dominate established media channels, Poilievre’s particular skills have enabled him to bypass the now legacy media and use mainly newer media to become a national conservative figure.
Poilievre bears the additional burden of a prior conservative reform tradition that always failed to shift the centre of Canadian politics. Poilievre had his own start in the Canadian Alliance Party which (like its Reform Party predecessor) was founded with similarly ambitious goals. But Harper, who as Alliance leader succeeded in absorbing the Progressive Conservative Party to form the CPC, moved from paradigm-shifting goals to a moderate economic and foreign policy conservatism that, while proposing some deeper and more lasting changes to government, was concerned with electoral expediency. The Harper Conservatives did not make any real, systemic changes to Canadian governance or politics. Their main policy accomplishments, while notable, have therefore been easily overridden or dismantled by the Trudeau Liberals.
If he is not only to become prime minister but succeed beyond the level of Harper, Poilievre and the movement he is attempting to build will need to fully consider what a genuinely transformative and long-lasting impact would require and look like. The Trudeau Liberals are deeply unpopular and widespread discontentment among Canadians could well propel the next CPC leader into office.
But what comes next? A facility with social media is not equivalent to generating sound policy nor preparing a practical blueprint to run government. An electoral mandate infused with populism could produce a flurry of initial policies but, once the momentum subsided and new challenges arose, could degenerate into aimless drift, pragmatism or dogma, producing an equally strong Liberal counter-reaction of the kind that quickly destroyed prior Conservative governments.
Poilievre’s tapping into deep-seated popular worry and discontent, while shrewd and arguably necessary, is also precarious and risky. As with all electoral entrepreneurs who draw upon populism, he runs the risk of unleashing a darker, destructive force that he cannot fully control. Genuine conviction of the kind that could mature into consistent governance, sound decision-making and even true statesmanship might overcome all of this – if that is the stuff the CPC’s heir apparent is really made of. Successful political leaders always combine conviction with opportunism, but it is difficult to determine where on the spectrum this one might reside. Only the future can reveal the true potential of Pierre Poilievre.
Sam Routley is a PhD Student in Political Science at the University of Western Ontario.
Source of main image: The Canadian Press/Justin Tang.