Our populist zeitgeist

Image: knehcsg/Flickr

The biggest surprise of this Ontario election has been Doug Ford's ineptitude as a candidate. There hasn't been a candidate this wretched since Hillary Clinton, and she came with advance warning, going back to her 2008 disaster.

He keeps repeating, You know me, I'm for the people, I'm for the little guy. Like a character in medieval plays where they had names like Everyman. He'd be Peopleman. Nothing about him says populism except his mouth, ceaselessly.

For the final debate, his desperate handlers took off his tie, as if they couldn't think of anything to work with from the neck up. He's such an empty suit they decided to undercut the suitiness. They must've tried getting him to sound like he had a functioning mind, then just gave up. "My Friends…" Now he doesn't even star at his own rallies. They send Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney.

This happens to be a populist moment politically but ours won't be a particularly Trumpian one, not because Ontarians are smarter than Americans but because there's a populist alternative (more or less) in Andrea Horwath. Not the NDP, Horwath herself. It's just dumb luck that, for the only time ever, they have an "ordinary" person as leader. Not a lawyer like Howie Hampton, a journalist-academic like Michael Cassidy, a high achiever like Stephen Lewis, nor a Rhodes scholar like Bob Rae. They all stooped to be leader.

Horwath doesn't even have to announce, like Doug, that she's for the little guy. She actually looks and talks as if she's one of the people Doug's for. She's a single mom who's spent her entire life in dogooding mid-level jobs in Hamilton, then politics. Hard to picture her scoring a position in a big law firm afterwards. She's even gonna lower gas prices on holiday weekends. That's some echt populism for you. Belay the climate change worries; at least till after she saves us some bucks on the way to the cottage.

Think what might've happened in the U.S. if Bernie Sanders had been a ballot alternative to Trump, both basically populists, one on the right, the other on the left. Some voters would've stuck with Trump; others, less consumed by race and rage, wouldn't.

It's the basic political conflict of our time, as Steve Bannon has astutely noted. There's a debate in the U.S. right now over whether Trump voters are essentially racist, or something more complex. You can find it in the pages of Daily Kos, the Atlantic, Naked Capitalism or Ta-Nehisi Coates. The best way to resolve it would've been running Bernie against Trump. We're getting that test here, though in an Ontarian, far less raw, version. The spoiler, as always, will be the overlap between Liberal and NDP votes, opening the way even to Doug.

Poor Kathleen Wynne hadn't a hope in this setting, as the able, detail-minded leader, honest and responsible, mastering the files. It's not her moment, the zeitgeist has turned its back on her. As the recently deceased, much to be missed, Eric Koch once said: The zeitgeist, the zeitgeist it's always about the zeitgeist. He knew it. He barely escaped Nazi Germany, then spent a long, fruitful career enhancing the quality of public discourse in his new country.

Let me end with a note of requiem for a once interesting political party: Ontario's PC's. For 43 uninterrupted years, 1942-85, they governed, attuned to the welfarist zeitgeist of the time. They had a spooky sense of when leaders should move on and transfer power. Those leaders all remembered the Second World War and its lessons, along with those of the Great Depression.

When Bill Davis left after 15 years as premier, in 1985, there were many appropriate successors but, intoxicated with the Reagan vapours seeping up from the U.S., they chose a rightwinger, who promptly lost to an alliance of Liberals and NDP.

Since then they've won just twice and could blow this one. The only thing left from that party is the Progressive in its name and it may not last. Most Canadian conservative parties gouged it out of their label long ago. John Tory tried reviving it, as did Patrick Brown, but both were defeated by an implacable foe: the zeitgeist.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star

Image: knehcsg/Flickr

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