Tommy Douglas was a populist, Donald Trump is not

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Tommy Douglas was a populist, Donald Trump is not
Sean in Ottawa

My understanding is that the word populist is frequently misunderstood such that in the common language the meaning is increasingly confused.

The word has historically been for politicians who appeal to the masses and to claim to fight for them against an elite establishment. Appeal does not mean that the reality of the positions reflects this or that the appeal is honest.

The right understands that they are a minority and get out-voted. Therefore the right has a tactic that it uses frequently -- to set up an alternative view of the elite (education, big words, left, academia, science, intelligencia) to replace the elite defined by wealth or income. By redefining what the elite is the right can then claim to represent the people agaisnt it and coopt the support of the ordinairy people to support policies that benefit the rich. Of course the premise is false and the policies are for the real elite of wealth and income. Still these are populists because they seek to appeal to the people.

Trump is very much a populist in this sense.

There are also left wing populists. These usually appeal in a similar way although defining the elite as the wealthy and the ones with higher incomes.

The key defining difference is how you see power in the society and who you think are the elite. If you think in terms of economics then you are likely to be moved more by a left populist. If you see the elite in terms of minorities, education, knowledge, women and intelligence even, then you are more likely to be the target of a right wing populist. Right wing populists often make it about sex and gender along with race -- becuase they

There is a great deal in common between the two and of course a world of difference. Both are challenging what they define as the established power.

Sean in Ottawa

I have been thinking about this question often raised: why are there more populists from the right than left? Why are the populist from the left either in countries without a significant left tradition or in countries such as Canada in previous generations.

 

Populism is about appeal, and not a judgment of sincerity. Each party has a different audience of potential voters. They have different weaknesses and strengths and different keys to win. I believe a reason the left is so often incapable of winning is that it tries to ape the success of right wing parties doing things that work for those parties rather than what works for a left party.

Let me draw some of this together in answer to the question of why we see more populists from the right:

In all cases, parties have a base. They have two challenges: 1) to get the base out to vote, and 2) to attract the centre, middle or those closest but not already in the "tent." They also seek not to create too much backlash to bring out, motivate and unite their opponents.

 

The left tends to want to do three things:

1) create policies that help the people they represent (deliver on their mission).

2) create policies, proposals, speeches that inspire their base. This will include some policies that might contradict the below so they will have to balance this effort with the below.

3) Convince people at the centre who are concerned about overspending of a left party that they will be responsible; convince people that the left proposals are safe, not very radical. Convince the financial establishment that fearmongering about the left winning is wrong, that the left will not upend the economy or do much damage to those who hold power (to not provoke a backlash).

 

And the Right tend to want to do three things:

1) create policies that support the aims of business and wealthy people including extending their profit and increasing their wealth and share of wealth

2) Preserve the historical advantages of those who have power

3) create proposals and policies that inspire their base, including some policies that may contradict the  below – even “red meat” to punish the “undeserving” poor (the trick will be to be able to say they do not mean it while the base understands that they do).

4) Convince people that the right will not upend all social programs, in order to attract moderates and avoid galvanizing their opponents.

 

To this end, the left will come across often as friendly as possible to the bankers, at risk of doing a Mulcair and going too far. They will avoid sounding radical, populist. They aim to present the substance of progressive politics without the rhetoric of populism. They know their base pays attention and hopes that the base will understand that they are trying to satisfy the centre and see the full context.

This strategy, Mulcair used, may  have worked well against the Conservatives but it failed to constrain the marketing of the Liberals who were trying to sound as populist as possible (knowing that their backers and the establishment would understand they were to the right of the NDP, while scooping up NDP voters who saw the rhetoric move to the left of the NDP). The NDP was trying to do the opposite, hoping their people would see through the marketing so they could appeal to the establishment, limit blowback and take the centre.

As we know, the Liberals succeeded and the NDP failed, but this could be either the fault of the leader, the strategy or the execution. It could be the fault of the campaign's failure on specific issues: misreading Quebec and the rest of the country (daycare promise when they already had a program, head coverings, mood for change when the NDP was preaching moderation, desire for a more positive message, impatience about long term proposals not designed to deliver results for a long time, failure to challenge middle class messaging of the Liberals -especially tax proposal- etc.).

The left is acutely aware that they cannot appeal to the needs of the public who feel shut out despite the intent of their policies since they will create backlash and panic among the people whose support they need (centre) and the establishment actively undermining them if they win. The left must appear moderate and pro-business in order not to panic and unite their opposition.

When a left populist emerges: one who proclaims openly of support for the people, the left establishment seek to quash them in order that they do not upset their plans and strategy for success. The left eats its populists before the public gets a chance to pass judgment.

The right, is aware that they have severely damaged the middle class due to the wealth concentration agenda they have pursued and presently require a large number of voters to support them who are no longer interested in defending the status quo but are looking for change. The right is also aware of backlash among their base against left policies and seek to plant the seeds among the population that these are the reasons the "middle class" is in retreat. The right must attract and motivate the people who feel shut out now that they are politically too numerous to ignore due to the success of neo-liberal policies. The right must appear to be “for the people” -- populist -- in order to garner enough votes and appear moderate to the centre.

This has been the strategy for some time.

Recently, the right have doubled down on their strategy as increasing numbers of people are feeling shut out and “middle class” and middle income jobs are threatened. The strategy, along with lots of advertising money coming from those the right pretend to be railing against, has made the strategy successful. Trump unfortunately, for the right, has raised expectations that may lead to the right being frustrated and the strategy that brought him to power may now fail. The right becoming split and further than ever from the centre they need.

The left, have become frustrated. Now populists have a chance to make it through because the strategy has not worked very well: Sanders, Corbyn, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Many feel, however, that over the longer term this strategy has brought benefits. It is also true that the left may be losing due to other failures in strategy and leadership (trying to ape the right with strategies that do not work for the left). The left is split. The debate that lies on the left: should the left be more moderate to take power or should they become populists themselves, more confident, less ashamed of what they really want to do? Is there a compromise between the two?

I want to lay out the dynamic here without over-judging who is right on either side of the debate. I will say a little about this, though. I do not think, for example, that Mulcair was as right wing as he appeared. Mulcair was used to playing from the right as the strategy he always needed and this worked for him. I think he overplayed his hand in 2015 misreading where the population had headed and underestimating the impact of the message coming from the Liberals.

I tend to believe in some kind of balance being required between the left being more confident, more assertive and more clear about what they propose, while also remaining careful not to cause too much fear in the opposition while attracting the centre. The centre must be attracted not just through appeasement of right wing politics but through leadership and education, proof of concept if you will. The centre still cannot be ignored, without conceding every election.

Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo's picture

I think populism can be further subdivided into "fiscal populism" and "social populism".

Fiscal populism might take the form of "the elites are picking your pockets" (with, as noted, only "the elites" changing from right to left).

Social populism might take the form of "these people are trying to force a different way of life on you".  While it's a good thing, IMHO, that the left doesn't really try to play this sort of populism, it does also put them at a definite disadvantage. 

I don't think Doug Ford's comes primarily from millionaires who approve of his tax policies so much as individuals who are happy when he ditches sex-ed and forces universities and colleges to pre-approve right wing speech, and puts a quota on new safe consumption sites and suchlike.

Sean in Ottawa

Mr. Magoo wrote:

I think populism can be further subdivided into "fiscal populism" and "social populism".

Fiscal populism might take the form of "the elites are picking your pockets" (with, as noted, only "the elites" changing from right to left).

Social populism might take the form of "these people are trying to force a different way of life on you".  While it's a good thing, IMHO, that the left doesn't really try to play this sort of populism, it does also put them at a definite disadvantage. 

I don't think Doug Ford's comes primarily from millionaires who approve of his tax policies so much as individuals who are happy when he ditches sex-ed and forces universities and colleges to pre-approve right wing speech, and puts a quota on new safe consumption sites and suchlike.

I have not heard anyone make this distinction but I think it is logical and a fair distinction especially as each has different characteristics.

Obviously the right is more interested in the social populism and would more likely avoid the risk of fiscal populism since their policies are more likely opposite if theya re right of centre.

This is not to say the right won't at times attempt it - and they do with attacks on the poor making it like the welfare cheats are why you pay too much taxes etc. This is a right wing fiscal populism.

Right wing populism speaks about classes of enemies more than left which is about the financial powers but right wing fiscal populism can engage with a fiscal enemy.

You make a good point here I think.