Populism – bottom-up outbursts of political energy which disturb the political status quo from time to time – is much in the news these days. Examples include the Brexit saga in the United Kingdom and the election to the high office of politicians such as Donald Trump in the US, Doug Ford in Ontario, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
So what is an appropriate response to populism?
Perhaps we can learn from the past experience of western Canada with populist political parties – the Progressive Party of Canada and the farmers’ parties in the early 20th century; the Depression parties of Social Credit and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), predecessor to today’s New Democratic Party; and the Reform Party in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, predecessor to the Canadian Alliance and the current Conservative Party of Canada.
For the political establishment and the media, the best possible response to populism is to recognize and respond positively to the anxieties and concerns (usually economic) of ordinary people that lie at the root of populist uprisings.
The worst possible response – because it ignores the causes and further fuels the populist fire– is for political and media elites to oppose and denounce populist outbursts as rooted solely in ignorance, prejudice, irrationality, emotion, and extremism, ignited and sustained by would-be demagogues.
Sadly, for North America, this has been the primary and ineffective response of political and media elites in both the United States and Canada.
A far more appropriate and effective response begins from a neutral position which recognizes populism, at least initially, as a legitimate form of political expression in free and democratic societies. Yes, populism has the potential to become a dangerous and destructive force.
That should be frankly acknowledged and guarded against. But populism also has the potential, as its track record in Western Canada demonstrates, to force positive change and achieve beneficial results.
The Progressive Party, the farmers’ parties, the depression parties, and more recently Reform, had their wild and woolly side. But it was the Progressives and the farmers’ parties, not the traditional parties, that got women the vote and elected the first female members to parliament and the legislatures.
It was the CCF that pioneered medicare and Social Credit that prudently managed an oil boom in Alberta without corrupting itself. And it was Reform that channelled western separatist sentiment into a less destructive course in the 1980s and ’90s.
A helpful analogy
Rather than simply opposing and denouncing populism as our political and media elites have done, a far more appropriate strategy is one suggested by the following analogy.
In the oil patch, there is such a thing as a “wildcat well” that is drilled into geological formations which have not been thoroughly explored before.
There is also such a thing as a “rogue well” – a well that is drilled into such a formation which unexpectedly unleashes so much oil and gas under such immense pressure that it blows the drilling platform off the wellhead, spews oil and gas high into the air, and sometimes catches fire.
A rogue well, like populism, has positive potential if its unleashed energy can be constructively harnessed and employed. But a rogue well can be dangerously destructive if unattended or mismanaged – just like populism.
One effective way of bringing the valuable energy of a rogue well under control and into productive use, is to drill in a “relief well” from the side. But the angle needs to be just right. If the relief well intercepts the rogue well too close to the surface, it won’t relieve enough of the pressure.
If it intercepts the rogue well too deep, the relief well itself can turn into a rogue well. But if the angle is just right, the relief well relieves enough pressure to permit the rogue well to be brought under control and into useful production.
Western Canadian populism in the 1980s
Populism in western Canada was fueled in the 1980s by the federal Liberal’s National Energy Program and by the Mulroney government’s decision to award the CF-18 jet maintenance contract to Quebec-based Canadair instead of Manitoba-based Bristol Aerospace.
Public anger and disillusionment over these discriminatory policies, plus out-of-control federal spending and taxation, fueled support for western separatism – resulting in separatist rallies, the formation of embryonic separatist parties, and the election of a western separatist to the Alberta legislature.
It also gave birth to the Reform movement, and the biggest challenge faced by its leadership was how to respond to and direct the populist forces which had produced it.
What the Reform leadership endeavoured to do was to drill a relief shaft into the rogue well of western alienation – tapping directly into it by fully identifying with its root causes while redirecting its energy away from separatism toward more constructive alternatives.
Of course, mistakes were made – there is a lot of trial and error in taming a rogue well. But in the end, the whole exercise worked out more or less positively.
52 Reformers elected to the House of Commons in 1993, becoming the Official Opposition in 1997.
Tapping into an even larger circle of discontented electors by the creation of the Canadian Alliance in 2000.
Broadening out again under the leadership of Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay to create the new Conservative Party of Canada in 2003.
Forming a minority Conservative government in 2006, and finally a majority Conservative government in 2011 – a fiscally responsible federal government with strong western roots that lasted nine years.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with what Reform stood for, or with what the Harper administration did or didn’t do, is not the main point here.
What I think most Canadians can agree on is that this was a better outcome – a more constructive response to a populist uprising – than having a full-blown separatist movement in both Quebec and the West at the same time.
Had that been allowed to happen the country could well have been torn apart – with unbridled, misunderstood, and mismanaged populism as a major contributing factor.
Populism in 2018
So now, fast forward to today and the re-emergence of populist energy in North America.
As pointed out by former Prime Minister Harper and others, much of today’s populism is rooted in the increasing division of the population into those who benefit from freer international trade and globalization – developments strongly supported by conservatives as well as liberals – and those who increasingly feel injured by such trends and are left behind.
Thus the challenge of directing 21st-century populism into constructive rather than destructive channels becomes, at least in part, that of ensuring that the tools and benefits of trade liberalization and globalization are much more broadly and evenly distributed to the benefit of a much broader swath of the population.
Which of the political leaders and parties contesting the 2019 federal election will have the best and most positive response to this challenge? Stay tuned!