A lot has been said on Doug Ford and the populist appeal that lead him to victory in the Ontario provincial election earlier this month. The word “populism”, with the help of journalists and establishment politicians alike, seems to have gathered an assortment of negative connotations, when it is in fact a very neutral term.
On its own, it simply means appealing to the interests of ordinary people. But who are these so called ordinary people? This word has become somewhat of a slur for the establishment fourth-estate types simply because of the fact that, to them, “ordinary” means regressive. The general sentiment among the vocal opposition is that Doug Ford supporters are uneducated, out of touch, and outdated in their beliefs. Meanwhile, the future premier is caricatured as a grubby opportunist seeking to take advantage of the mob against their own interests.
To grasp at a better understanding of Doug Ford’s brand of populism, one needs to look at its history in North America. Populism largely arose as a rural working-class reaction to the growth of big business. In discussing Doug Ford, analysts are not wrong to make comparisons to the situation in the United States, simply because populism in Canada was largely a US import. It was during the Progressive Era (1890-1920) that the movement came into being.
In fact, the first time the word “populist” ever appeared in print was in 1891, in the January 12th issue of The New York Times, used to reference the newly formed left-wing People’s Party. It would take several decades for Canadian politics to fully embrace populism, and when it did, it was largely a Western Canadian phenomenon.
Like the early American populists who were largely concerned with the plight of the agrarian class in contrast to the more urbanite progressives, the Canadians would follow with a united farmer-labour approach. The populists would enter both the provincial and federal level of politics in the form of the United Farmers of Alberta in the 1920’s. Several other parties would follow through the decades such as the Social Credit Party of Alberta in the 1930’s, and Preston Manning’s federal Reform Party of Canada in the 1980’s.
When you look at the history of North American populism, you can see how it is largely a rural response to a disconnected ruling class. Although originally the plight of the farmer was central to populist politics, having to do more with economics and working conditions, the circumstances today are quite different. Today, farming itself is a big business and the material divide between rural and urban life is not as sharp as it had once been. Whether you’re a Canadian who lives in the countryside or the big city, you have access to relatively similar information, technology, and resources as everybody else.
Yet, looking at the results of the 2018 Ontario election, we note a sharp rural-urban divide. While the Liberals did indeed try to appeal to rural Ontario, they were more predisposed to Ford’s populist message, a message which comes from a long history of rural support. Like mentioned before, this appeal wasn’t because of a material difference between the majority of those living in say Toronto or Oxford county. It was because of a difference between the rural mindset and the urban mindset, each of which comes with its own concerns, beliefs, and orientations.
Throughout his campaign, Doug Ford paid particular attention and lip service to the rural vote. His platform promised increased funding for the Risk Management Program, expanded cellular services and even a position for a farmer as the province’s potential Minister of Agriculture.
The Progressive Conservative campaign addressed a population of people who feel that the current system is out of touch with their needs. A statement taken straight from the PC website reads: “politicians at Queen’s Park have done nothing for our farmers and our rural communities” and “rural families who have been left behind by the Liberals and who will be ignored by the Toronto special interests who run the NDP”.
What Doug Ford offered is a move away from these so-called “special interests”, which have become foreign and unintelligible to those who have very little investment in the urban mindset. The urban-rural divide has led to cultural resentment on both sides of the equation. Whether it was the technocratic and establishment appeal of the Liberals or the enlightened academic socialism of the NDP, the rural voters found very little space to have their voice heard in conversations largely hostile to their concerns. And so they made their voice heard in a big way, by electing the next Premier of Ontario, to the dismay of many downtown Torontonians.