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.