The dramatic increase in the number of populist leaders in western democracies should give all mainstream politicians pause, regardless of their political persuasion. The need for them to join forces and counter this insidious takeover of liberal democracy, with facts and backbone, is pressing to say the least. Indeed, several well-known academics and political commentators have compared the recent success of populist politicians to the canary in the coal mine, an early warning sign that the principles and institutions of democracy itself are under attack.
So what exactly IS populism? There are many definitions, but the common underpinning of all of them is the idea that there are two groups in society: the “people”, versus their adversaries “the (liberal) elites”, “the gatekeepers”, the “insiders”, and so on. Naturally, populist leaders claim to represent the people, also referred to as the “real people,” the “silent majority”, or “the will of the people”. (Former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez once went so far as to say “I am not an individual, I am the people.”)
Another staple element of populism is its proponents’ lack of regard for political convention and rules and procedures. Their personal behaviour often disregards societal norms, verging on rudeness and bullying. (Hello Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonoro and Rodrigo Duterte). This is coupled with the tendency to reject many democratic institutions as “too complex” or “too complicated”, favouring instead black- and-white explanations of difficult problems, simplistic solutions and “straightforward” but rarely useful mechanisms for policy decisions, such as referenda.
In many cases the internal enemy of the people will also be identified as a minority ethnic group, or “immigrants”, as opposed to the “real” citizens of a country. External enemies are also common. Though frequently the case, these external enemies need not be limited to longstanding rival states or nationalities. More recently, for example, institutions — such as the European Union, the IMF and the annual World Economic Forum in Davos — have been identified as “the enemy” by various populist parties, including of course the federal Conservatives of Pierre Poilievre, who incidentally have targeted the Bank of Canada internally in the same manner.
It is important to note that populism can appear to be both right or left-wing, although in recent years it is primarily right-wing populists that have been the most successful. In addition to Trump, Orban and Duterte we could add Marine Le Pen in France and the newly elected “Brothers of Italy” government of Georgia Meloni in Italy, (following on the earlier populist Berlusconi coalition of La Liga and the Five Star Movement.) Nevertheless we can also count among their numbers the aforementioned Chavez in Venezuela, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, all purportedly left-wing populist parties. (Sadly, populism is also not the exclusive domain of male politicians either, as the UK’s Liz Truss and Alberta’s Danielle Smith have so recently demonstrated.)
This ambivalence on the political spectrum is due to the fact that populists are actually not ideological at all. (If they were, the Poilievre Conservatives, for example, would not have cheerfully embraced the leaders of the illegal Ottawa occupation, given that respect for law and order is a fundamental conservative tenet.) Populists instead are hugely opportunistic, intent on identifying themselves with problems in society (inflation and cost of living, lack of affordable housing, the decline of the oil and gas industry) and blithely uninterested in facts or realistic solutions. Sometimes reality catches up with them ( hello Liz Truss) but more often than not they simply spin more fantastic tales to explain their inconsistencies when exposed. With an anti-everything, negative approach to politics, identifying the enemies but providing no real solutions, skilled populist leaders can adapt their message to almost any issue that comes along. There is no need for ideological consistency, much less logic or facts, which makes them both powerful and dangerous.
In the long run, populism can lead to the creation of illiberal regimes by seemingly democratic means, as was outlined in an earlier article. (See“Pierre Poilievre and the Growing Threat of Illiberal Democracy”, April 21, 2022) For many populists, the only real objective is to get power and keep it. Academics have been warning of this tendency for more than twenty years. Mainstream media commentators have increasingly highlighted the problem as well. But the fact remains that if we are to avoid this ominous outcome, it is incumbent on all mainstream political leaders in western democracies to tackle the fallacies and pitfalls of populism head-on, regardless of the seeming popularity of its leadership. American President Joe Biden’s landmark speech of September 21, 2022 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, “On the Continued Battle for the Soul of the Nation”, was one such brave attempt. It is up to others to take up the battle, and the sooner the better.