Is Canada Having a Populist Moment?

Is Canada Having a Populist Moment?

Hi, I’m Yvonne and I’m Mike and we’re here
to talk to you about our latest report It’s called “Don’t Blame ‘The People’: The
rise of elite-led populism in Canada” So, let’s start with an easy one, Mike: what is populism? Populism is often conflated with some other ideas, so this is why we
tried to set out our definition. I think it’s important to start there –
fundamentally it’s a way of looking at politics and society and dividing
society into elites on the one hand – people with power: economic power,
political power, and then “the real people”, the ordinary people, on the other. And the
people have legitimacy, and the people need to rule or rule through a
representative, and the elites need to be swept away, and so there’s other ideas
that get baked into it or they co-occur with populism, like attitudes around
immigration, economic anxiety, but those things I think are fundamentally
separate even if they sometimes co-occur. Okay, but why is populism often very
negative or seem to be very negative and associated with people like Trump, but
also Brexit? Yeah, there’s some nuance there because fundamentally democracy is
also about the people we should be concerned about, the elites and the power
they hold and some, you know, populism in some quantity is democratically
healthy and useful and probably essential. At the same time, what we’ve
seen around the world is that authoritarian politicians will
manipulate populism in order to consolidate their own power. So, there’s a
few ways to do that – you discredit institutions you deal with, you de-legitimize
political opponents, you describe even the media as elites, or enemies of the people,
and do so without any serious intent to to advance interests of the people, but
to advance your own interest and to strengthen your position. So, populism has a relationship to authoritarianism – it’s important and
regardless I think there are ways in which populism creates problems
for democracy, but if we were seeing populism in really high levels, that’s
also just a signal that our democracy probably isn’t working out well. So, what are the ways that populism can hurt democracy? Well, like I said it can be
used by elites to actually do further damage to democratic institutions and
when we’ve looked at this across nationally, researchers have found that
populist administrations are more likely to do damage to democratic
institutions than non-populist administrations, so there’s a kind of
false promise of populism that ultimately engenders further damage to
democracy, which creates more political discontent, which creates more political
populism, and it’s kind of a vicious cycle – you get locked into. Right, and this, what you’re talking about, is more theoretical? Well, no, it’s what we’ve observed in
countries around the world but that’s the concern, that was the theoretical concern again. So, what is it – what’s the situation like in Canada? Are we having a populist moment? That’s the question, and we wanted to look at this by looking first at public opinion. I
think the implicit belief is that if we’re having a populist moment, then
something’s changed in the way that Canadians are looking at their
institutions and their leaders in a radical way, and so we asked a few
questions. We had a big survey out in the field earlier this year, which we used
to inform our Democracy 360, or biennial report card on the health of Canadian
democracy. So, we looked at – we took a few different angles on how Canadians are
looking at their politics and what we found is that there’s a ton of
discontent. Canadians aren’t thrilled in numerous
ways; in particular, they feel that their political elites are out of touch. So, on
its face, maybe that looks like, you know, that could suggest a populist
moment, but we took the additional step of trying to ask questions that have been
asked in the past. We also monitor some stuff ourselves, and have been doing so
for the last five years, so that historical comparison is really
important for getting some sort of, putting this moment in its context. What
we find is there’s really no evidence that Canadians are becoming angrier at
elites or at their institutions, and actually it’s kind of the opposite. So, for
example, about 60% of Canadians think that the government doesn’t care what
people like them think, which is a high number – way too high!
It’s bad, it’s the kind of thing that you know we at Samara are concerned about. And we need to bring that number down. At the same time, it was 85% of Canadians when that was asked in a Canadian election study in the
mid-90s. So, there’s other indicators too, which tell a similar
story, which is that while we remain unhappy, it’s hard to conclude that we’re trending in a populist direction. To give some
examples from our own data that we’ve been collecting, we’ve asked about a few indicators of political discontent over the last five years. So, are you
satisfied with how democracy works in Canada, do you trust MPs, do you
trust parties, are you satisfied with MPs, are you satisfied with parties, and basically across the
board we’ve seen improvement from 2014 to 2019. It’s been modest improvement in some
cases, in some cases it’s fairly significant but it’s hard to look at all that and
say ah, we’ve entered something, some unique historical moment, you know, populism has come to Canada. But, having said that, there’s still
plenty of discontent and reason to worry about it, you know,
the fact that Canadians have long-standing dissatisfaction with their
politics, which is a different thing. Well, why do you think that we don’t talk about
the historical aspects that you’ve brought up? This is quite new, shockingly, this information about the past. Right, yeah, I mean, I think that’s
typical. I mean, my view is that when you ask those kind of public opinion
questions, just on their face, they don’t mean that much. You just need
something to compare them to, right, so I think the historical data is really
useful because without the historical data we probably would have
told a really different story from the results we got .But we did want to find some way to test empirically this narrative which is so
widespread, which is that something has changed, or it’s changing, or could change, and that it’s a narrative informed by what’s happened in other countries,
and there’s a stronger empirical basis in other countries, so, you know, the
one that I keep coming back to my own mind is that since we’ve been studying
that Canadian satisfaction with their democracy has increased
somewhat, or more Canadians are satisfied with how their democracy works, and that
in the last 4-5 years the numbers have gone up, and in that same time period,
it’s gone way down in the United States United Kingdom, France, in Australia, so we
see what’s happening elsewhere and I think we’re just a little bit too
uncritical and just taking that story and applying it here. And that’s why we
wanted to go, we wanted to really try to look to find a way to put this thing in
its context. It’s not necessarily a good news story, it’s just not the story that’s being told. Well, the report’s been out for about a week or so and
you’ve talked to various news outlets, you’ve talked to many people, we’ve got
some feedback, so are people generally surprised when you
let them know that Canada really isn’t having a populist moment? Yeah, I think people find it
counter-intuitive and then they ask, “Well, why does it feel like we are?” and there’s
a couple of reasons for that. One is in the report, which is that we we tried to
also quantify the extent to which politicians themselves are using the
language of populism, and obviously that’s an old move for politicians –
they’ve always done that, we’ve always found when we talked to, for example, MPs,
they have a way of talking about politics, which is to suggest that
they’re somehow apart from it, but it is kind of crooked and rotten, but
they’re distinct – so that’s not new, but so we’re just, you know, doing a simple
analysis of of Hansard (the written record of Parliament), and we found that MPs
have become like 300% more likely to complain about, quote unquote, elites
in the House of Commons from this Parliamentary session compared to a
couple sessions ago, so in part it’s coming from elites, hence the subtitle.
And populism is coming from the media, and that’s not to media-bash, but that’s
reflecting what we’re hearing from other elites, different politicians, and I think
social media has a role to play in that people like me and journalists and
others who are on, for example, Twitter, as a matter of professional obligation, and
spend a lot of time in that space, and it’s hard not to see that as representative of what’s really going on in society. But
it’s not – it’s an unrepresentative slice of Canadians. Most Canadians aren’t there,
and it’s a medium that produces its own kind of behaviour. it’s an angry space, so if all you’re doing is listening to politicians and spending time on
Twitter, then, yeah, we’re in a populist moment! So, it’s not
surprising to me that people have that impression; I do, too, but what’s
interesting is that it’s hard to locate that with any kind of change in
public opinion. What are the concerns that
this would be a self-fulfilling prophecy with it being top-down, ironically, as opposed to bottom-up, and the populace not really having an understanding
that the people around them don’t think the same way as politicians, or, like you
mentioned, Twitter? Right, that’s a good point. That’s exactly the
concern. I think you can kind of talk something into existence, and we do look
to elites for cues about what to think about our politics, and we do look to elites for cues about what we have licence to think and say and feel, so
if there is a populism that’s ironically enough
somewhat contained to elites, it’s not going to stay there and so there’s
something – that we’re gonna start believing our leaders when they tell us
that politics is crooked and elites, which somehow excludes
them, can’t be trusted and then so that it’s entirely conceivable that what’s
happening now is that elites are engendering some sort of movement towards
populism amongst the general public. So, what can “the real people” do about this, Mike? I think we gotta be
a little bit more critical the sense of asking the right questions and not allowing ourselves to be distracted by the language. I think
one of the problems that we have with populism is that it’s a bit empty, and it can even stand in the place of real
substantive concrete commitment to change the way democracy works,
because we don’t think we think there’s lots to be discontented about, and we do
have concerns about the extent to which elites, depending on how you want to define the people who have economic power, you know, they hold a
privileged position in our system and we do have concerns with how political
power is distributed within our system – lots of concerns – so we don’t want to
diminish that, you know, that impulse to be critical about our institutions. But the same old empty rhetoric about elites, or any people, isn’t
actually gonna fix anything. What we need, especially with an election coming up, is
to hear from politicians about what they’re actually going to do – what
concrete change they’re gonna make, and so I think citizens, you know, can
play that role in an election, and say you know, “Fine, we’ve heard this
language before about how you’re for the people. What’s that gonna mean in
practice?” Well, check out our report, “Don’t Blame ‘The People'” – it’s on our website All right, now you’ve heard what we’ve had to say about this report Now we want to hear from you Tell us your thoughts – share it on social media!

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3 thoughts on “Is Canada Having a Populist Moment?

  1. Thanks for this. I've been trying to understand what this sect stands for, for the past few years, without much success. I haven't read your report yet, but did listen to your interview and still didn't hear what I'm looking for.

    What is populism's platform, mandate, mission? What does it intend to do with what we elect candidates for: social services, security, infrastructure, everyday life of constituents? It seems to be designed by MPs hand in glove with big business, (in Canada and elsewhere), with neoliberal tenets, to privatize services for average citizens and deregulate commerce for the ruling class. But, not one nominee nor representative has ever mentioned this on this stump but, who once in power turned hard right.

    In my view, they lied by omission, but we let them do it to us. What I want to do now, in the run-up to the federal election, is force candidates of all stripes to put their intentions to us, no obfuscating, no propaganda. Yeah, sure! Well, we can't let them go on in this direction and we need people like you to pull the truth out, make the electorate aware, and while you are at it, get those who think it accomplished something in the past to refuse to get themselves informed and vote, off their righteous ignorance and into the polls.

  2. "Elite-led populism" – thanks for digging into the facts around this and illuminating where the foundations of this threat to healthy democracy in our country really lie. I hope you will do a follow up survey in a few years so we can look at trends.

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