Could left-wing populism take flight in Canada?

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Mighty Middle
Could left-wing populism take flight in Canada?

The symbolism, to Avi Lewis’s eye, was spot on. The leader of the federal New Democratic Party, on Bay St. on Friday morning, talking about how the “ultra-wealthy” need to pay their share.

But, for Lewis, the imagery fizzled with Jagmeet Singh’s message: a trio of policy proposals about stocks, corporate wealth and taxation that might be too technocratic to get people worked up. And if you, like Lewis, believe Canadians are ready for a firebrand version of left wing politics — a populism of the left, he says — then that’s just not going to cut it.

“Why go for something that you have to explain? What populism tells you is that there are simple truths about our economy that can be communicated with great power,” said Lewis, who co-authored the environmental and social democratic treatise, the Leap Manifesto, with his wife, author and activist Naomi Klein.

“Jagmeet is absolutely in the right direction,” Lewis said. “He’s taking a little step, and he needs to leap.”

Populism is often assumed to be a right-wing phenomenon, a buzzword to characterize the Donald Trump movement in the United States. In that context, the word is shorthand for a politics of anti-elitism and xenophobia — that Trump is fighting for “real” Americans against the dominant forces of “globalism,” the ideological culprit he blames for shipping working class jobs to China and letting too many outsiders into the country.

But populism isn’t exclusive to one side of the political spectrum. Jan-Werner Mueller, a politics professor at Princeton University, told the CBC last week that populists can come in different ideological shades, so long as they trade in a rhetoric of divisiveness that questions the legitimacy of those who don’t share their views. “It’s always about excluding others,” he said.

For that reason, Mueller considers Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan socialist strongman, a populist of the left. He doesn’t use the label for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and U.K. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn — politicians who rail against inequalities perpetuated by unbridled capitalism, for instance, but who don’t necessarily vilify their opponents as illegitimate contenders for power.

Lewis, however, sees the emergence of Corbyn and Sanders — along with a burgeoning left-leaning movement within the U.S. Democratic Party — as signs that the energy of populism seized by the right can also be claimed by the parties of the left. And in Canada, that means the NDP.

“I’m talking about electrification of the base,” he said. “The party needs to chug this Kool-Aid rapidly if they don’t want to be wiped out.”

David Laycock, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University, co-edited a 2014 book about the federal NDP called Reviving Social Democracy. Laycock argues populism isn’t always linked with authoritarian tendencies seen by right-wing leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and even Trump. He said one of populism’s central tenets is an argument that the fundamental division in society is “between the people and some sinister elite.”

For right-wing leaders, that elite tends to be heavy-handed government bureaucrats, a media maligned as progressive and out of touch, or groups that benefit from the largesse of state handouts, Laycock said. On the left, it is the corporate elite or the wealthy few who abuse their power at the expense of the wider populace.

That brand of leftist populism has a long history in Canada, he said. It reared its head in 1837, when William Lyon MacKenzie led a rebellion against the Upper Canada “Family Compact,” a cabal of wealthy and well-positioned appointees with great political power. In the early 20th century, farmers’ organizations started progressive movements in Ontario and the Prairies that Laycock characterized as populist, which came together in the early 1930s to help form the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the socialist precursor to the NDP, that predicated its existence on a critique of corporate power.

“It wasn’t until the Reform Party came along that the dominant form of populism became right wing rather than left wing in Canada,” he said.

Laycock believes Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives are gently experimenting with populist messages, including recent statements about how the media is biased against their party. He said the NDP could do something similar with more aggressive arguments for distributing wealth or slashing subsidies to big corporations.

Michael Adams, president of the Environics Institute and author of a recent book about the potential for populism in Canada, argues that this country is on a “unique trajectory” that dampens the viability of divisive politics. Canadians are more likely to be union members than Americans, for instance, while people here have universal health care and more generous social programs than south of the border, he said. At a time of relatively robust economic growth and low unemployment, all this could dampen the prospects of a left populism about a corporate elite ripping off the general population.

“We’re not feeling those kinds of eruptions at near the scale as we’re seeing elsewhere, and especially the United States,” Adams said.

But Lewis insists populism is the path to success for the NDP. He said the right has “appropriated” the populist mantle from the left, in that politicians like Ontario Premier Doug Ford argue they are governing “for the people.” New Democrats need to compete with a similar slogans, which Lewis describes as “demands” that grab attention and boil down complexities about climate change, the push for a sustainable economy, and the role of government into simple messages like “Free Transit For All” or “Federal Jobs Guarantee.”

Lewis said there’s potential to spark momentum if leaders can talk about these issues in a way that is easy to understand and emotionally invigorating.

“That is the opportunity we could use to have a left-wing populism that could change everything,” he said.

https://www.thestar.com/politics/federal/2018/11/03/could-left-wing-popu...

Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo's picture

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He said one of populism’s central tenets is an argument that the fundamental division in society is “between the people and some sinister elite.”

That actually distills it pretty neatly.

6079_Smith_W

Yup. That is precisely what Bannon said.

I can see how some might find it really popular until they wind up on the wrong end of the pike.

Not to say that is where Lewis and McQuaig are coming from, but everyone loves to invoke Voltaire; no one wants to mention the Law of Suspects.

 

 

Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo's picture

Lewis seems to believe that left-wing populism could take hold without that "little guy vs. shadowy elites" narrative, but I'm not so sure.  It seems to me, personally, that in political discourse there's been a bit of an "inflation" of extremes.  Things that were once "bad" became "terrible" then "unliveable" then "barbaric", then "monstrous".  Words like "violence" or "oppression" can still mean what they used to, but now they can mean anything anyone wants them to.  So I think that any attempt at populism that lacks a shadowy villain who's robbing and humiliating and laughing at the hard working common man is unlikely to inspire anyone.

cco

What if the elite villain isn't all that shadowy? Like, say, billionaires?

The discourse surrounding "populism" is overwhelmingly that it's illegitimate and just "dividing people", much as the GOP inveighs against "class warfare" when people want to mildly increase income taxes on the Koch brothers, then turns around and launches a frontal assault on brown people. I happen to hold the opinion -- much like Tommy Douglas did -- that the wealthy aren't actually an oppressed minority, but a group it's permissible to bring up when designing policy for the rest of us.

Mobo2000

"I happen to hold the opinion -- much like Tommy Douglas did -- that the wealthy aren't actually an oppressed minority, but a group it's permissible to bring up when designing policy for the rest of us."

Well said.   We don't need to demonize the rich, just recognize they act out of self interest, like most everyone else, and the problem is that system considers and reacts to their interests more than anyone else's.

6079_Smith_W

Well that's the thing if you start playing the us and them game of populism.

It's never just "the rich"; anti-semitism is the prime example. 

Sean in Ottawa

The rich are not a protected class and their wealth is directly relavent to distribution of wealth and policies to make them richer at the cost of others..

If someone is Jewish is not relevant.

Ken Burch Ken Burch's picture

So...what would make people be ok with standing up to "elites", but not with standing up to "the ruling class"?  

Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo's picture

Quote:
The rich are not a protected class and their wealth is directly relavent to distribution of wealth and policies to make them richer at the cost of others..

Of course.  If a specific billionaire seems to be acting illegally or inappropriately they should definitely be exposed and investigated.  I'm confident there are plenty.

But that's not the same as using the generic group "the rich" as a lazy catch-all term, as though the rich are some sort of homogenous entity, whose activities, beliefs, values and morals are all equally shady.  At least right-wing populists can actually name George Soros prior to speculating about how he hates real Americans and wants the country to become a Gay Communist Vegan Utopia.

A couple of months ago I said:

Quote:
I was just noting that the left says "you're getting screwed by the elites (and the media, and the corrupt government, and the corporations)" and the right says "you're getting screwed by the elites (and the corrupt government, and the immigrants, and the media)".

My point was that in either case, it's an easy sell.  Even as they argue forever about who they mean by "the elites", or what makes the government "corrupt" or which side the media is really on.

So I guess I was thinking about populism, I just didn't know it was populism I was thinking about.

It's very interesting to me that if someone says "the elites are screwing you and me, and the corrupt media tells the lies those elites want told, while most of the population ignores or even defends this, and it's time someone did something about it" we would be no more accurate than a flipped coin in saying whether that person was a left-winger or a right-winger.

6079_Smith_W

Well is the problem "the elites" or is it the system, as Mobo just said?

Because it isn't the same thing, and if you are targetting a specific group as a problem for the rest of us, that's a very negative aspect of populism, whether it is immigrants, or the international Jewish conspiracy.

It is particularly negative because once you start targetting groups it doesn't usually stay focused, and usually turns to people of a particular culture, or nationality, or religion.

Sometimes it backfires entirely, as I mentioned upthread. Once the French Revolution became the terror anyone who didn't have a history of openly promoting the revolution became a criminal. Same thing for anyone who didn't have a roof over their head. Funny how a movement that is supposed to be about the elites can wind up targetting the homeless.

It has nothing to do with the rich being oppressed; they aren't. It has to do with whether your movement is ultimately a dysfunctional one that rides on hate and paranoia.

 

Michael Moriarity Michael Moriarity's picture

Mr. Magoo wrote:

It's very interesting to me that if someone says "the elites are screwing you and me, and the corrupt media tells the lies those elites want told, while most of the population ignores or even defends this, and it's time someone did something about it" we would be no more accurate than a flipped coin in saying whether that person was a left-winger or a right-winger.

Quite true. You would need to ask them exactly what they think "someone should do about it" to determine that.

6079_Smith_W

Michael Moriarity wrote:

Quite true. You would need to ask them exactly what they think "someone should do about it" to determine that.

And sometimes not even then. They can often opt for the same solutions.

Sean in Ottawa

The term "elites" is used most often in place of "the others" so people not like you -- so the speaker and the audience and an idea of who they are calling "other" is what has to be determined. The words others not like you, comes off as racist as it is, so many prefer the word elites.

Real use of the word would be most appropriately used to describe many of the people who use it most, including some billionaires who won't call themselves members of an elite.

Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo's picture

Quote:
Well is the problem "the elites" or is it the system, as Mobo just said?

Because it isn't the same thing

It isn't?  Usually the people blaming the rich are also eager to tell us that the rich also control the system.

Control of the system is an important part of claims and grievances for both left and right populism, because it's the only way to explain away the fact that us "regular citizens" outnumber both the billionaires and the "deep state" by a huge margin.

Quote:
It is particularly negative because once you start targetting groups it doesn't usually stay focused, and usually turns to people of a particular culture, or nationality, or religion.

To be fair, I don't see left populists turning on immigrants any time soon, and I'm not really worried about anyone "coming for me" next (though I was once told, unironically, that I would be "first against the wall" as punishment for my ways).  I just think that these bogeyman arguments are empty.  I've talked about them for years but never connected it to populism.

Quote:
Quite true. You would need to ask them exactly what they think "someone should do about it" to determine that.

These days both would probably say "revolution".  The left has always favoured it, but this is the first time I can think of that American Republicanism is no longer sufficiently right-wing enough for so many.  Sure, the Liberals must be annihilated, but the "cuck" Republicans need to go too.

 

6079_Smith_W

I don't think they are coming for us anytime soon either. That doesn't make that way of thinking any less dysfunctional or paranoid.

As for the populist left not using immigrants as a foil, they already have:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/22/german-leftwingers-woo-vot...

Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo's picture

Quote:
The term "elites" is used most often in place of "the others" so people not like you -- so the speaker and the audience and an idea of who they are calling "other" is what has to be determined. The words others not like you, comes off as racist as it is, so many prefer the word elites.

Personally, I think it's (unexpectedly) popular with both sides not because "others not like you" is too racist, but because there's nothing specifically concerning about others not like me.  Of course there are others not like me, but they're not really a group (they're primarily unified by being "not like me") and I don't really resent them or fear them.

"Elites" suggests someone gaming the system, someone getting something I'm not getting (perhaps by taking it from me!), and someone whose identity revolves around this (as opposed to someone who merely happens to be financially successful, or politically influential).  Most importantly, it's vague.  It's similar to "traitors" or "welfare queens" or "the deep state" in the way that it leverages people's pre-existing beliefs that these groups are out there somewhere laughing at the rest of us.  Populists don't need to prove anything about these groups, or give any specifics about who they actually are and what they've actually done because their audience believes itself all too familiar with them and isn't surprised at all to hear that they're the real enemy.

kropotkin1951 kropotkin1951's picture

Populism is what is left when you remove all class analysis from political discourse. Every party is running to win the "middle class" vote. The odd thing is that now middle class includes what used to be termed the working poor.

Sean in Ottawa

kropotkin1951 wrote:

Populism is what is left when you remove all class analysis from political discourse. Every party is running to win the "middle class" vote. The odd thing is that now middle class includes what used to be termed the working poor.

Depends on who defines middle class. Don't forget that the Liberals' middle class tax cut only started to kick in at 44k (about 4k over the median income) and did not deliver its maximum until 70k and did that  to 212k

Middle class is that meaningless term that is given to above average incomes who want to justify being snotty to poor people by claiming to be in the middle when they are not.

I hate the term.

I prefer middle income or median income which has to be backed up with a statistical presumption -- at least.

I just heard from a person making 20,000 who identifies as middle class. I have heard people who make 200,000 do it as well. So the government can pretend to help the middle by helping those earning 6-figure incomes.

Pondering

Middle class is a meaningless term because it isn't just about money it is also about education and the family you come from. I came from a middle class family so I identify as such even though I am poverty stricken. Hardly anyone wants to identify as working class because for many it implies lack of education and being "less than". 

Magoo, the influence thewealthy wield over government happens in private at dinner parties and on vacation. There is no grand conspiracy. The ruling class and those who influence them share a perspective of the world and priorities not shared by the average person.

Unfortunately the same can be said of the left.

LB Cultured Thought

Left wing populism isn't just on the rise...it already holds sway. For all the talk of "alt-right" or "far right" populism, I think the real coup de grace is that the populace has been told to believe the rich still need to pay their "fair share" of taxes. Now, the 1% already pay over 20% of all federal taxes (and the top 20% of earners are the only quintile which pays more in tax % than they make in earnings), which you can probably extrapolate to provincial and municipal taxes as well, but still you can see the posts here about how these people are somehow avoiding taxes and stealing from the poor. Of course this is never proven, but wealthy individuals are thrown out to be crucified or held up as an example of those avoiding their civic duty to pay for the state. 

So "Could Left-wing populism take flight in Canada?"...it did years ago, the right-wing is just catching up.

quizzical

oh the rich and getting richer are so oppressed.

we need to feel their plight. 

fo.

Ken Burch Ken Burch's picture

The "Mouseland" speech was left-wing populism.  It's just that the NDP insiders tend to deny that because they're obsessed with making sure nobody sees the party as "left-wing"(and this has always been the case-Tommy and Dave were fixated with that, even in the Sixties when the party could only have GAINED by been seen as radical, since nobody in any major party was saying anything that connected with New Left voters).

Whatever the NDP does, it needs to let go of its fixation with looking "safe" and "responsible".  It was that fixation-with at least LOOKING that way-that erased more than half of the 2011 NDP gains in 2015.  Had the party said "screw safety, we're going to be REAL, we're going to speak about what the older parties won't ever speak about, and stand up for the people the other parties don't fight for", those gains would have been held and probably maintained.  Root-change substance would have negated all of Justin's empty fashionable flashiness.

 

 

Sean in Ottawa

Pondering wrote:

Middle class is a meaningless term because it isn't just about money it is also about education and the family you come from. ...

Don't take privelege out -- effectively white educated low income still feel like they belong becuase they tend to have the networks and privelege to offer hope. This is true if they have the education.

POC are much less likely to consider themselves middle class unless they have the "middle class income." This is very much about privelege even when we might pretend it is not.

So you need 2 out of these three:

- being white

- being educated

- having history of money/education in family even if it is now gone (a form of cultural capital)

Or you need any 1 out of these two:

- having the income

- having family money

* bonus points for being male if you have any of the others (like some escalator). To cash in on the male bonus you tend to need one 1 of (education, income or family money). However, the income is easier to get if you are male so an advantage if you get them and an advantage along the way as well.

** POC are pointed to by white people as being able to participate since if they have the income, family money and the education they can match a white person with only one of those. Note: good luck getting the education without the income or family money or the income without the education. It can be done but the goal-posts are not in the same place.

*** having your education in Canada is an advantage as higher education offers potential for networks that qualifications cannot easily overcome. However, whites have an escalator there too: due to racism more networks are open to white people. This is why immigrants have a disadvantage and immigrants of colour have two.

**** mental health also plays an important role since even if it does not affect job performance and qualifications as it interferes with the ability to sustain networks.

***** the component of so-called "cultural capital" is deceptive - many who have it will consider themselves middle class without any real means to participate. It is almost like a family habit of identification. These people might think they are safer than they really are. It is a risk factor in terms of an over-estimation of advantages. However, it is a definite advantage when paired with any other advantages. For example , well-educated parents, even without money, will likely provide good family education in terms of speech and behaviour that can be an advantage when "faking" belonging to the middle class. Faking belonging allows a person socially to look like they have advantages that may be hard to sustain when push comes to shove. However, this can permit a person to get get other advantages and recover privelege that has been lost for a generation.

I lay this out in brief so people can see how participation in the middle class has prerequisite strength to participate and there is not just one ticket in but some people have significant advantages.

If you consider yourself middle class, go down this checklist and you can see which priveleges got you that ticket in. You can also see how it may be more difficult for others without the same priveleges to get in.

Pondering

Yes absolutely. Even so the grand majority of Canadians consider themselves middle-class not working-class even if traditionally they would have been considered working-class.

The NDP cannot focus on the people traditionally not represented by the two main parties. It has to focus on the majority.

Populism at heart should mean doing what the people want, not imposing what a party thinks is best on them. Of course a party has a perspective, which for the NDP is social justice, worker rights. That is used to imply that the NDP are not good economic managers. I know that isn't true. It is still the perception people have associated with "the left".

I think it can be defeated but not by going farther left than the majority would support. That leaves lots of room for progressive policy, and of course once elected the NDP can do as it pleases.

Canadians strongly support medicare and Quebecers strongly support Hydro Quebec and no fault insurance. These policies all make economic sense. I know there are many other examples throughout Canada that save people money. There are lost of progressive issues for the NDP to own.

 

Sean in Ottawa

Pondering wrote:

 

Populism at heart should mean doing what the people want, not imposing what a party thinks is best on them.

no -- a million times no.

This is the difference between direct democracy that includes tyrany of the minority and an incoherent set of policies based on popularity in the moment without evidence and the very principle of representative democracy.

In a representative democracy you do choose people whose job it is to study the things you will not have the time or even, in many cases, the means to study. You choose principles over details. You expect that the representative to be responsible and fire them at the next election if they are not. But you choose the representative not a series of specific policy choices. When a policy is hugely significant and the population is aware enough of it, a referendum can be held. However, for most parties you choose others to decide for you with the time, skill, effort, science that you do not have as an individual.

The very concept of getting a party to do (in a micro sense) what the people want is a false populist concept -- normally backed up by mountains of propaganda where the party claiming this put s a great deal of effort to convince the population of what they want so that the party does not have to be accountable.

Individual voters cannot be accountable so when parties say they will do what the people want they are also telling you that the people will be to blame if it does not go well.

A democracy is founded on accountability -- where individuals are picked to make decisions and held accountable. This is how the secret ballot works. If you use a secret ballot for direct decisions then nobody is accountable for the specific decisions over time. When the people choose a representative, they are held collectively responsible for that chocie but that representative is responsible for the decisions she or he makes that follow.

You want a party that you believe is compatible with your outlook to make the best decisions, as constrained by the rights of people (through the courts) and you want to hold them to account periodically.

Anything other than this is propaganda that actually takes more power away from the public in the name of giving it and makes the representatitves less accountable rather than more.

Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo's picture

Quote:
If you use a secret ballot for direct decisions then nobody is accountable for the specific decisions over time.

I don't know if this is how they still do it, but I recall once reading about how, in California, when a proposition is on the ballot (basically a referendum) then the government is obligated to do what the voters say.  I read about it in the context of some tax cuts that passed, followed by big cuts to healthcare and education as a direct result of the revenue loss.  The electorate wasn't happy, but they had nobody to blame.

I agree that in a representative democracy, your representative doesn't just say "yea" or "nay" on your behalf, but also researches issues on your behalf and thinks of the possible repercussions on your behalf.  I won't say "government is smarter than us", or that any particular representative is smarter than us, but they probably do know a bit more about how the wheels of government turn.

Ken Burch Ken Burch's picture

Pondering wrote:

Yes absolutely. Even so the grand majority of Canadians consider themselves middle-class not working-class even if traditionally they would have been considered working-class.

The NDP cannot focus on the people traditionally not represented by the two main parties. It has to focus on the majority.

Populism at heart should mean doing what the people want, not imposing what a party thinks is best on them. Of course a party has a perspective, which for the NDP is social justice, worker rights. That is used to imply that the NDP are not good economic managers. I know that isn't true. It is still the perception people have associated with "the left".

I think it can be defeated but not by going farther left than the majority would support. That leaves lots of room for progressive policy, and of course once elected the NDP can do as it pleases.

Canadians strongly support medicare and Quebecers strongly support Hydro Quebec and no fault insurance. These policies all make economic sense. I know there are many other examples throughout Canada that save people money. There are lost of progressive issues for the NDP to own.

 

It's not about going farther to the left than "the majority" would accept.  It's about redefining who the majority is, as Jeremy Corbyn has done brilliantly in the UK.  There are massive numbers of people in Canada who don't vote now, because none of the existing parties care about them or speak to their actual needs.  Those who vote Liberal and Conservative now, by contrast, are never going to vote for anyone OTHER than the Liberals or the Conservative.  Those are people who can't be changed, can't be reached.  If "respectability" hasn't connected with them since 1961, it's never going to.  Those votes are lost to the NDP.  

Rather than frame it as "Left vs. Right vs. Center", I'd say it should be framed as "The Real versus The Surface".  We know that simply tinkering slightly, barely perceptibly, around the edges of the current way of things doesn't lead to anything that connects with the actual needs of the many-for freedom from want, for a say in the decisions which go on around them, for recognition of their value and worth as human beings.  The most practical approach to many problems is to renovate, rather than tinker, or to rebuild if renovation isn't possible.  

And there's nothing in any of what I've ever suggested that is imposing anything on anyone.  It's about listening to what the many want and working with the many to make it real.

I'd say that most of those at the Tim Horton's would be open to that kind of politics, because it would actually listen to them and act on what they wanted.  "Low-information" doesn't necessary equate to a lack of vision.