The Laziness Of Calling Everything ‘Populism’

It seems to be the fallback position when in-depth analysis is lacking.

We are hearing a lot about how Pierre Poilievre is supposedly a ‘populist,’ and those who discuss his campaign using that term usually mean it as a bad thing.

And yet, ‘populism’ has become such an overused term that is beginning to lack any coherent meaning.

Instead, it seems to be used whenever someone wants to criticize an opposition figure – especially on the centre-right – without actually going into an in-depth study of their real ideas.

For lack of a better word, it’s incredibly lazy.

Note who doesn’t get labelled a populist

To get a sense of how the use of the word ‘populist’ has shifted from being descriptive to being a political cudgel, consider who doesn’t get labelled a populist.

Was Justin Trudeau labelled a populist when he said the Harper government was holding Canadians back financially?

Was Jagmeet Singh labelled a populist when he said higher prices were because of ‘the rich’?

Was Jean Charest labelled a populist when – as Quebec Premier – he took a windfall of ‘fiscal imbalance’ money and used it cut taxes right before an election?

Why is it considered ‘populist’ or ‘anti-government’ for Pierre Poilievre to say the government is infringing on rights and freedoms, but it wasn’t ‘populist’ for Justin Trudeau to claim that he would want to look at ‘making Quebec a country’ if Canada went further in the direction of Stephen Harper?

Charest’s message

As you can see, Jean Charest is doubling-down on the ‘Pierre Poilievre is a scary populist’ message in his effort to win the CPC leadership race:

“For months, Pierre Poilievre has supported protesters who threatened to overthrow a democratically elected gov. Now he’s attacking the legitimacy of the Bank of Canada. He is stoking the flames of populism. We cannot take this lightly.”

Interestingly enough, Jean Charest had no problem appealing to populist nationalist sentiment in Quebec when he was the Premier of that province, drawing criticism from Muslim Liberals in 2007:

“Some Muslim Liberals in Quebec are upset with party leader Jean Charest’s support for an amateur soccer official who kicked a young Muslim girl out of a Laval tournament for wearing a hijab.

A Quebec Soccer Association referee ejected Nepean U12 Hotspurs player Asmahan Mansour, 11, on the weekend because she was wearing her headscarf on the pitch, a violation of the province’s sports regulations.

The referee, who is Muslim, said the association’s position complies with FIFA rules, an explanation Charest endorsed Monday, when he said he agreed there are certain behaviours to be expected from soccer players on the field, including proper attire.”

In any other province, rules that excluded Muslim individuals from wearing a Hijab would be described as ‘far-right,’ ‘nationalistic,’ and ‘populist.’

Indeed, European leaders who endorse such policies in their countries are regularly criticized by the press in North America.

By all accounts, Quebec is the most nationalistic and populist province in the country, and those who govern Quebec – regardless of political stripe – invariably embrace populism to do so.

Quebec’s combination of nationalistic identity-based politics, and their large social welfare state combined with high taxes is quite similar to what we see in populist parties across Europe. By current standards, Charest was very much a ‘populist’ while governing Quebec.

By a similar token, Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh both embrace elements of populism.

Trudeau did so most ruthlessly during the 2021 election campaign, repeatedly insinuating that the majority of vaccinated Canadians was the moral ‘justification’ for imposing severe restrictions on unvaccinated people.

Appealing to the majority at the expense of the rights of the minority is textbook populism of the most negative kind.

Jagmeet Singh is very much a populist when it comes to his economic policies, blaming all problems on wealthy Canadians and repeatedly talking as if all economic issues could be solved if only the government took more money from financially successful people in this country.

Singh rarely – if ever – delves into detail on economic/monetary policy, often ignoring the role of the Bank of Canada and government spending when it comes to inflation and blaming it solely on ‘greed’ and the rich.

Isn’t the whole system ‘populist’?

As noted above, we can see that the label of ‘populist’ could just as easily be applied to Jean Charest, Justin Trudeau, and Jagmeet Singh as anyone else.

Going even further however, lets consider why ‘populist’ is considered negative in the first place.

After all, our system is built entirely on popularity.

Some may dispute this, but democracies are explicitly designed to be a popularity contest.

That’s all any election really is.

To win a seat, you have to be in first place of the popular vote in your electoral district.

The party that wins the most individual popularity contests gets to govern – or in rare cases governs in combination with another party that won enough local popularity contests to gain a working majority.

Without being popular, you can’t ever hold power.

So, all parties attempt to appeal to popular sentiment, just in different ways.

Populism is baked into our system at the core.

Thus, those who accuse their opponents of being ‘dangerous populists’ are really trying to delegitimize their opponents and their fellow citizens who are considering voting in a way they disagree with.

When looked at that way, populism is neither inherently good nor bad, as the assessment of whether a politician is a populist comes down to individual choice and belief.

‘Populism’ as a tool to quell dissent

There is another aspect to the overuse of the term ‘populism’ that is of significant concern.

Consider that of all the current politicians with a large national profile, Pierre Poilievre has been the most successful at bringing attention to the housing affordability crisis, and the underlying causes:

“Big city gatekeepers—like Vancouver City Hall—are destroying the home ownership dreams of working class youth.

Enough.

If they want more federal money, these big city politicians will need to approve more home building.”

Politicians who accurately identify issues that resonate with Canadians will see a lot of popular support. That is literally how democracy is designed to work. Leaders in democracies identify problems and propose solutions. When enough people want to see those ideas implemented, a politician gains power and is given the opportunity to prove whether or not they are up to the job.

In order to win an election when in Opposition, a leader must encourage the public both to support their ideas, and lose faith in the current government. Thus, there is always a strain of ‘anti-government’ thinking in any opposition party, and opposition to the government, including non-violent peaceful protest is inherently democratic.

With all of this in mind, you can see why Poilievre’s opponents are desperate to label him a ‘populist.’

He’s identified serious problems in the Canadian economy.

He has shared his proposed solutions.

His ideas are resonating, and he’s drawing big crowds.

For those currently in power, or who are part of the establishment that is doing well while other Canadians struggle, Poilievre certainly represents a possible change in this country from the status quo. And when there is a change, those in power inevitably lose some of that power and new people gain some of that power.

It’s not something to be feared, it’s something to be welcomed.

This is how a democracy renews itself and how belief in democracy is strengthened.

For that reason, we should spend less time time trying to make ‘populism’ into a scary term of demonization, and instead be grateful that Canadian democracy is potentially offering more of a real choice than we’ve had in many years.

Spencer Fernando

Photo – YouTube

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