Stephen Harper has written a new book in which he dons the mantle of populism. Andrew Coyne is not impressed:
Well now we have it from the proverbial horse’s mouth. The young firebrand who famously deserted Preston Manning for being too populist and not enough of a conservative now claims the mantle of populism for himself: if not as a whole-hearted adherent, then as the statesman who understands where others only condemn. His new book Right Here, Right Now, is indeed in large part an attempt to portray his own government, not as the cynical power-seeking machine it appeared to be, but as populist before its time. In defending populism, he defends himself.
And yet the mind it reveals is not that of the subtle, sometimes rueful voice of experience he clearly wishes the reader to imagine. It is, rather, all too conventional, even banal. What are presented as iconoclastic insights, in which the rise of populism is explained in terms of the failings of conservatism — former Conservative prime minister breaks with decades of conservative orthodoxy! — are a mix of received wisdom and undergraduate shibboleths, many of them long debunked.
Harper hasn't changed. He remains the same neo-liberal mouthpiece he always was, repeating the tired -- and untrue mantras -- first espoused by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. He claims that Donald Trump's supporters are the economically disenfranchised. But that simply isn't true:
Rather, opinion research has shown, they are driven primarily by cultural resentments and racial fears: resentment of educated elites and their media allies, who are accused (not without justice) of looking down their noses at the people in “flyover country”; fears of losing their place in a society that is rapidly changing. That Trump was adept at tapping into those resentments is not in doubt, but it is less a matter of his superior insight or willingness to challenge conventional wisdom on matters such as trade, as Harper seems to imagine, than unprecedented, unimaginable shamelessness.
So, too, Harper misrepresents populism, certainly of the kind that Trump and his ilk practice. It is simply wrong to describe it, as he does, as “any political movement that places the wider interests of the common people ahead of the special interests of the privileged few.” Indeed, as he himself acknowledges, “every political party tends to frame its core appeal in such terms.” A definition that could describe any party or movement is without significance.
Rather, the term describes a view of “the people” as being under siege: if the populist is famously “for the people,” it invites the question of who is against — the Them that is supposedly menacing Us. The populist is never short of Thems: elites, foreigners, racial minorities, “globalists” — or in Harper’s (borrowed) formulation, the cosmopolitan “Anywheres” who owe no allegiance to nation-states, move between homes in New York, London and Singapore, and hanker after a world without borders: a description that would apply to perhaps dozens of people but whom Harper is convinced now control “all the main traditional political parties.”
It's the same witches' brew that Doug Ford is selling. It's politics of by and for the wealthy. And it's a lie. Perhaps that's why the media was uninvited to the book launch at the Canadian Club.
Image: London Free Press