Yesterday, I wrote a post which argued that Ontarians have rejected the right wing populism of Doug Ford. Today, in The Toronto Star, Frank Graves and Michael Valpy write that conclusion is premature. Canada's institutional and media elites don't understand what's going on in the rest of the world:
They have embraced the notion that Canada is somehow immune to what’s happening in Europe and America, although the forces of populism will be a significant presence in the forthcoming federal election and, in many respects, Canada is moving in lockstep with the United States — toward a class war and a vision war.
Populism in Canada has been masked by a paucity of research and thinking. It has been belittled, dismissed, with most expert opinion falling into two categories: patronizing and sneering. It has been viewed as the problem all on its own with little thought given to what has caused it or what can be done to encourage it to go away.
I admit that I'm guilty of that perspective. But they warn that I'm dismissing what I don't understand. And there is a lot to understand:
Any kind of populism has two key ingredients: The idea that there is a corrupt, power-holding elite of which the people — the public — are deeply suspicious, and the belief that power should be removed from the domain of the elite and restored to the people (which is why Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks on television with a placard across his tummy reading “For the People”).
We label the particular variant of populism that the advanced democracies of the West are encountering as “authoritarian populism” or, preferably, “ordered populism.” The two terms are interchangeable — they capture the same constellation of outlooks — but the first has a history.
Authoritarian populism was a label created by post-Second World War German social scientists seeking to understand how one of the most civilized societies on Earth could have descended into the horrors of fascism and the Holocaust. Their conclusion was that fearful, Depression-era Germans sought order in the face of an exaggerated sense of external threat (and internal threat from “others” who were among therm, like Jews) and economic hopelessness, and embraced obedience and respect for strong authoritarian regimes to lead them into green pastures.
You’ll see that what the German social scientists uncovered 75 years ago pretty much fits with today. Ordered populism, the kind overtaking Canada and the rest of the developed world, has four key conditions:
A declining middle class, wage stagnation and hyperconcentration of wealth at the very top of the system;
Major shifts in social values which see more progressive values displacing traditional social conservative values which, in concert with the conditions listed above, produce a cultural backlash by those seeing themselves falling victim to loss of identity and privilege;
A growing sense of external threat expressed in a rise in the belief that the world has become overwhelmingly more dangerous as well as a rise in the perception that the country and its public institutions are moving in the wrong direction;
Declining trust in public institutions plus a rise in ideological polarization.
All those conditions are present in Canada. They predominate among less-educated males.
They look as if they’ve suddenly appeared by magic but in reality they have roots dating back 20, 30 and 40 years.
The new populists claim to be champions of the middle class. But, in reality, they are members -- or tools -- of the very elites they badmouth. And they have primarily found a home in the Conservative Party of Canada:
The Conservatives, the party of the financially secure and contented under Stephen Harper, have become the party of the pessimistic and financially insecure under Andrew Scheer.
They’ve become the party mistrustful of the media, science, experts and climate change, preferring to base decisions more on moral certainty than reason. They become a party tending those who favour nativism — who support the interests of native inhabitants being promoted against those of immigrants.
They have become a party overrepresented by self-identified working class supporters (from 25 per cent to 38 per cent since 2013) and hugely overrepresented by male segments of the population (the shift in male support from Liberal to Conservative has been 25 points since the 2015 election) and nonuniversity educated.
Although there’s one important exception to all this. The Conservatives are also welcoming into their tent significant numbers of the self-defined upper class — the Tories have a huge lead with them — who are not acting out of solidarity with oppressed workers, but because they’ve observed in the policy promises and rhetoric of the federal and provincial parties pledges that serve their class interests, like cuts to social programs, tax reductions for business and keeping minimum wages low. This largely hidden alliance of the losers and the top winners in the new economy is critical to ordered populism’s success. Exactly the same thing has happened in the U.S. and Britain.
Something to think about.