Should Canadian voters be concerned about populism?

By Deborah Mebude

Canadian voters will select a new government in a few months, joining nearly 2 billion citizens around the world participating in elections this year.

Amid this historic moment in time, appeals to the “everyday” citizen have been widespread, as candidates around the world have attempted to present themselves as the sole representative of the disenfranchised.

But when political leaders claim to be “for the people,” research shows that there can be legitimate reasons for voters to be concerned about the state of democracy.


What is populism?

“Populist” politicians have popped up on most continents in recent years, with many appealing to a similar set of values. Across both partisan and national divides, populist leaders can be identified from their anti-elitist and anti-establishment sentiments.

In all cases, populist leaders stress the struggle between “the people” and “the elites” and critique the existing systems of democracy as no longer representative of real people. These leaders then claim to speak exclusively for the interests of the public, often disparaging their political opponents along the way.

Populism is not a political ideology, but rather a method of engaging with politics. For this reason, populist leaders can exist  across the political spectrum:

Right-wing populism often identifies “the people” as a united group, often along ethnic or nationalist lines. It tends to distrust intellectual elites, such as politicians or media, and expresses skepticism towards globalization, immigrants, or religious minorities.  It will often aim to restructure society in the name of autonomy and the interests of “the people.”

Left-wing populism often defines “the people” as an underclass within society, for example poor or working-class people. It tends to take aim at corporate elites or the wealthy, and expresses a distrust of institutions such as multi-national corporations or big banks. It will often aim to restructure society in the name of equity and the interests of “the people.”

A common misconception about populism is that leaders gain support exclusively from the economically disenfranchised, by calling out economic tensions that plague the working class but benefit the rich. Evidence, however, shows that support for populist leaders extends across the socio-economic spectrum. In other words, populist appeals go much broader than simply operating on economic anxiety.

So what else is populism based on?

Photo by Natalie Chaney is licensed under CC0

Populism exploits and creates divisions within democracy

Populism operates by appealing to and defining disparate identities, capitalizing on a form of identity politics.

As mentioned earlier, populist leaders often begin by redefining those who are “the people” and those who are not the people. The leader then claims to speak exclusively on behalf of these people.

By taking advantage of divisions, populism gains traction by “othering” certain members of society. This creates a platform for what can often devolve into bolder forms of hatred and bigotry, often as a result of xenophobia or racism.


Populism erodes trust in democracy and vital democratic institutions

One of the central threats that populism poses is that it undermines trust in democracy and important democratic institutions.

By taking aim at the efficacy or relevance of government, populist leaders begin to erode trust in the democratic process, and –  as they simultaneously stoke divides between members of the population – erode trust across society as a whole.

Of particular concern is the way that populism so often breaks down trust in the news by deeming reliable journalists and reporters as “fake” or untrustworthy. In reality, however, sound journalism is essential for democracies to function, holding governments accountable and making information accessible to the public, the very people that populists profess to stand up for.


Populism fails to recognize healthy dialogue as a cornerstone of democracy

As populism attempts to uphold the interests of the people (by “othering” some in society), it naturally shuts down healthy public debate.

In the name of amplifying unheard voices, populism actually operates to break down what democracy is fundamentally built on – the ability to engage various opinions and find a collective way forward.

While democracy recognizes that people have a diversity of thought, populism is far more intolerant, justifying the squashing of divergent voices by capitalizing (and spurring) on polarization.

Photo by johnpotter is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

Can populism be a useful democratic tool?

At its worst, populism exploits weaknesses in democracy, playing off tensions within society and taking advantage of anxiety, anger, and fear. At its best, populism could produce increased democratic inclusion and provide a platform for everyday people whose concerns go unheard.

Though a cause for concern, populism can be helpful in shedding light on deficiencies in democracy and inequality within society. Populism points to legitimate grievances and anxieties within society and demonstrates that many everyday people do feel left behind and unheard by decision makers.

“Economic anxiety is, in fact, on the rise… In 2019 we have major policy challenges to tackle together, and that requires a level of trust in one another and commitment to our democracy.

– The Samara Centre for Democracy, Don’t Blame “The People”

The solution to many of these tensions is not to disparage democracy, but rather to make democracies more truly representative. If politicians genuinely wish to care for everyday people, they must be led by and responsive to real, everyday people. Politicians cannot care for some people while disregarding others, but should rather push for more inclusionary political reforms – such as a system of proportional representation – that would allow all voices to be heard.

Too often, politicians have used populism in self-serving and self-interested ways, leveraging the interests of everyday people as a façade to uphold their own power. But if the aim is to truly represent “the people,” leaders must encourage dialogue and look to bridge divides rather than exacerbate them.


6 Ways voters can respond to populism:

  1. Be informed: Recognize that media is not the enemy, but rather serves an essential role in the health of our democracy. Familiarize yourself with public policy and election platforms (Check out CPJ’s 2019 Election Bulletin).
  2. Hold leaders to account: Call on political leaders to address some of the issues revealed by populist anxiety (ie. inequality, a lack of affordable housing, precarious work, the need for a just transition that includes retraining for affected workers etc.) and ask them to find collective and productive solutions to shape a more caring and just Canada.
  3. Ensure a voice for all: Have conversations with those with whom you disagree as well as those who share similar viewpoints to you. When you do so, seek to centre marginalized voices, be they Indigenous peoples, newcomers and refugees, or other vulnerable groups.
  4. Keep a global perspective: Remember that we live on a shared planet. In a world with 70.8 million forcibly displaced people, 25.9 million refugees, and an escalating climate emergency, resist exclusivist nationalism that fails to recognize the call to care for all of our neighbours.
  5. Call out scapegoating: Don’t fall prey to xenophobia, especially in your own communities. Remember that “elites”, immigrants, and refugees are not out to take our jobs or erase our national identity. Rather, call out scapegoating when you see it.
  6. Vote: Leverage your opportunity as a citizen to select politicians that will truly uphold the concerns of all people, rather than those that undermine democratic trust and scapegoat for political gain. Support politicians that offer real solutions to democratic cynicism, rather than those that seek to dismantle the system as we know it.

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