The former piece primarily focused on the inability of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to adequately reach out the moderates in an age of growing polarization.
In particular, the author John Geddes notes that the Liberals have struggled to expand their core support beyond progressive urban areas. In rural and suburban ridings, the Liberals are increasingly feeling the heat from voters who find them arrogant, out of touch, and elitist.
While certainly interesting, it is the piece on the political right that truly broke new ground. Macleans observes that, like elsewhere in the world, Canadian conservatism is changing.
It is becoming less supportive of capitalism and more willing to accept government interventionism.
At the same time, Canadian Conservatives are becoming more socially reactionary; concerns about LGBTQ/Trans people, multiculturalism, and immigration are the hot issues.
These new concerns deviate sharply from the financial incrementalism of the Harper era.
Politically, the result of this shift has been the growing prominence of right-wing populists like Doug Ford, and potentially Maxime Bernier- the now head of the People’s Party- who claim to speak for the real people against ubiquitous but ambiguously defined elites.
In this short piece, I am going to examine what is wrong with this last presumption to try and demonstrate why right-wing populism is wrought by considerable ideological and practical contradictions.
Some of this can be chalked up to the inevitable tensions one sees in any political platform, but some of the contradictions have a more novel explanation.
Populism, Democracy, and Political Antagonisms
Populism is often characterized as “democracy when elites don’t like the result” by its friends.
The claim is that populist politicians are better able to speak for the everyday person, who has hitherto been silenced by a combination of elite intentions and alienating civic institutions.
In this respect, populism is regarded as a democratic movement to take power from elites and to reorient institutions to allow
Populists are also distinguished by the theatricality and willingness to break from customary political norms to appeal to the general population. Doug Ford’s everyman language and “Buck a Beer” type policies are a case in point.
Maxime Bernier’s decision to lead “People’s Party” is even more overt.
However, populist claims to represent the people should be taken with a grain of salt.
As Professor Muller observes in his book What is Populism? counts as “the people” is a vital question for the populist. Certainly, it is never the entirety of the population, since that would include the very “elites”-often, but not always, cosmopolitan and well educated urbanites-who the populist denounces.
Often it is not even a statistical majority. Doug Ford won a majority only about 40
Unsurprisingly, this has meant many populists and their outlets are critical of efforts to reform the electoral system to make it more reflective of the actual population’s political wishes.
They are also willing to use undemocratic means to bypass the
This contradiction is often evaded by appealing to the ambiguously defined people, who provide the populist with a mandate to oppose their enemies.
Even if those enemies happen to make up a statistical majority of the people in a political community.
Another characteristic of
Say whatever you will, but populists are rarely boring.
This is often quite deliberate, as right-wing populism is very much concerned with the optics of politics.
Nowhere is this more heightened than in the efforts of populists to score points against the political opponents, who are implicitly or sometimes explicitly framed as enemies of the people.
Here, political theatre becomes exceptionally important. Populists will continuously present themselves as triumphing over their opponents, often presenting politics as something close to a competitive sport, where the populist is always the star player.
At the same time, they will always remind supporters that elites and their institutions remain so powerful that these victories are always in mortal danger.
Balancing this contradiction in the minds of their supporters-being a winner with the support of the entire people, while constantly being under threat by overwhelming their opponents-is vital to the success of
Post-Modern Conservatism and Populism
The pseudo-democratic appeals of right-wing populists are less novel than their particular brand of political theatre.
Politicians have pulled off the Midas like
This is because the theatre of right-wing populists reveals a lot about their worldview.
Post-modern conservatives appeal to a particular conception of social identity-that shared by their supporters as a justification for their positions and worldview. They also reject facts and information sources, even when credible, which challenge the worldview associated with that identity.
This makes post-modern conservative populism especially concerning.
Its inability to reconcile its contradictions in the real world