Getting to the roots of populist uprisings
To assume that the underlying public concerns fuelling populist uprisings in Europe, Brexit in Britain and the Trump phenomenon in the United States do not exist in Canada would be a big mistake.
The recently released book, Frontier City by Shawn Micallef, identifies and analyzes the populist sentiments that led to the election of Rob Ford in 2010 as mayor of Toronto – Canada’s largest and most diverse city.
In a January public-opinion poll conducted in Alberta, respondents were asked whether the province needed a “Trump-like leader.” While 60 per cent disagreed, 40 per cent agreed with that notion. Support was stronger in the south than the north, weaker among women than men, but surprisingly strong among younger Albertans. Note that 40-per-cent support is enough to elect a government in most jurisdictions.
Factors that are alienating increasing numbers of Canadians from governments, political parties, so-called expert advice and the opinions of the chattering classes, include the following:
1. Party platforms and government policies that promise prosperity but end up killing jobs, incomes, hopes and dreams. In Ontario, these include the fiscal and climate-change policies of the Wynne government. In Alberta, it is the incompetence and ideological fixations of an inexperienced NDP government that are driving away essential job-creating, income-producing investment.
2. Vacuous speeches and statements by the Prime Minister and other opinion leaders lauding “shared values” while completely ignoring the greater problem of how to deal domestically and internationally with those who do not share our values. In Canada, for example, men and women are supposed to be treated equally in law and in practice. So how do we deal with would-be immigrants who do not share this value or others enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Avoiding the question is not the answer.
3. The unequivocal support of the Canadian government and many of its media supporters for diversity, multiculturalism and increased immigration, while contemptuously dismissing the concerns of those who genuinely feel that Canada’s national identity and unity are being jeopardized thereby.
4. The absence of simple common sense in some of the recent decisions of the Prime Minister’s office. For example, the recent cabinet shuffle to better equip Canada to deal with Mr. Trump. Next to Democrats, who does Mr. Trump hate the most? Journalists! So who does Canada appoint as Foreign Affairs minister to deal with Mr. Trump? A journalist! Where does all this lead?
It leads to a decline in the influence of politicians, parties and commentators with an increasing portion of the electorate.
It leads to a growing longing – on the part of that electorate – for leaders from outside the conventional political establishment and an increased willingness to grant such leaders a mandate to repudiate and disrupt the status quo.
It fosters the declining influence and financial viability of traditional newspapers and television networks as they lose touch with rank-and-file Canadians who are tired of being hectored and propagandized rather than informed by such media.
It accelerates the exclusive reliance of increasing numbers of Canadians on social-media offerings of their own choosing, enabling them (regrettably) to see and hear only what they want to see and hear.
And in the end, it leads to a decline in genuine democratic discourse and faith in democratic institutions, as political engagement increasingly comes to resemble a video game played in virtual space dominated by heated exchanges of preconceived opinions and vicious attacks on those who hold contrary views.
What can be done to address and reverse these trends?
Stop simply denouncing the repugnant aspects of Mr. Trump’s personal conduct and start focusing on addressing the underlying public concerns that make his positions attractive to so many, not only in the United States but also in our own country.
Restore and defend genuine freedom of speech and conscience, which includes granting those with whom we strongly disagree the right to be heard and respected.
Seek out and encourage political and opinion leaders who can identify with and express the underlying public concerns that fuel populist uprisings and redirect that energy to positive ends, without embracing the negative aspects that may accompany that phenomenon.
In a word, reinvent our politics and means of political expression to acknowledge and redirect the underlying causes of populist uprisings rather than simply denying or decrying their existence.
Preston Manning is the founder of the Manning Centre
This column was published by the Globe and Mail on February 20, 2017