The mainstream media routinely portrays Donald Trump’s populism as an unprecedented political phenomenon. In fact, populism dates back at least to the ancient Greek demos six centuries before Christ. It was well-trodden soil in the Roman Republic, and to this day university classes still debate whether the brothers Gracchi were sincere reformists acting for the people or scheming aristocrats out for themselves.
Julius Caesar applied populism cynically, setting the two main factions of Rome’s upper class against one another. The Optimates represented the old Roman patricians and, like elites throughout history, sought to preserve their wealth and power. The Populares spoke “for the people”, favouring reforms to ease the plight of the plebeian class, improve the position of the equestrian or “middle” class, and of course expand their own power. Though anything but a plebe, Caesar positioned himself as a popularis, brilliantly manipulating all sides as he upended Roman constitutional convention during his rise to nearly absolute power, until he succumbed to the knives of Brutus et al.
To hear the political left speak of it today, populism is a new political pathology innately rooted in racism, xenophobia, white supremacism, nationalism, Islamophobia or, if none of that sticks, the sheer stupidity or ignorance of its adherents. And so it was with Ontario Progressive Conservative leader – now premier – Doug Ford. Make no mistake: Ford is a populist who ran a populist campaign. But so far he has defied his opponents’ efforts to paint him as Trump 2.0, or worse, the second coming of his self-destructive brother Rob. In his campaigns there was no race-baiting, fear-mongering, xenophobia, or negative nationalism. Instead he stuck to criticizing the tumorous record of the incumbent Liberals and promising to make Ontario great again – in part by lowering the price of beer.
Ford’s success has already gone some way to redeeming right-of-centre populism. He has inflicted a real defeat on liberal-socialist progressives and their efforts to subordinate human freedoms and responsibilities to suffocating laws, regulations and public institutions.
The recent popular rebellion against elites in numerous developed countries is at least in part a backlash against the extremist progressive agenda. There’s President Trump and his pledge to “drain the swamp”. There are the Brexiteers demanding to “take back control” from the unelected Eurocrats. There are populist movements currently governing in Hungary, Czechia, Italy and the Philippines, to name but a few. Canadian populism went dark after the early days of Preston Manning’s Reform Party and Ralph Klein’s “revolution” in Alberta, nearly three decades ago, until Rob Ford got elected mayor of Toronto in 2010 on a promise to “stop the gravy train”. But his personal flame-out didn’t stop the momentum, and the membership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party overthrew its own Optimates to elect Doug Ford leader and premier on a promise to be “for the people”.
While the tone and content of populist messaging differs from campaign to campaign, it commonly rests on two themes: “they [meaning the elites and their policies] aren’t here for you”, and “their institutions do not serve you”. In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Hillary Clinton called the half of all voters who agreed with those ideas “deplorable”, so they punished her and the ruling establishment by voting for Trump, warts and all. A similar script played out in Ontario this year, except the victorious populist there is nowhere near as mercurial in thought and action as the one in the White House.
Populism is easily disparaged partly because it’s poorly defined, with fluid boundaries and a variegated history, encompassing a wide array of leadership styles, organizing methods, objectives and outcomes. It has been used tactically to animate an electoral base and get elected, then govern within constitutional bounds. It has served as a vehicle for the aggrandizement of a narcissistic personality. It has been a revolutionary movement that, once in power, destabilizes political processes, upends conventions and neuters or seizes institutions before failing spectacularly and descending into chaos. And it has been temporarily disruptive en route to restoration of good governance. It remains hotly debated whether populist movements are constructs of their leaders, whether populist leaders are merely opportunists who catch a cultural wave, or whether the two are symbiotic. The line between populism and mob rule remains uncomfortably blurry. History provides examples of all these manifestations of populism – and in many different combinations.
The left’s current distaste for populism is situational and selective, having itself disgorged a stream of populists. In the Depression-era U.S., the corrupt Louisiana socialist governor Huey Long promised to make “every man a king”. In post-Cold War Eastern Europe, “former” Communists sprang up claiming to speak for the people – and against their enemies – in an array of shambolic new republics, including Boris Yeltsin’s Russia. Modern Central America remains plagued by far-left populists such as Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. In Venezuela, the socialist anti-American xenophobe Hugo Chavez transformed Latin America’s formerly most prosperous country into a poverty-stricken, deeply corrupt failed state whose final destruction is being overseen by his equally populist and socialist successor, Nicolas Maduro.
Canada’s history is speckled with populists, from Quebec nationalist premier Maurice Duplessis to Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker, to founding NDP leader Tommy Douglas, to the aforementioned Manning and Klein. Many a great and not-so-great Canadian mayor won election by promising to blow up City Hall or otherwise “stop the gravy train”. Populism’s relatively good and ecumenical name in Canada, in fact, has probably helped insulate Doug Ford from attacks on his version of it.
Clearly there are many ways to do populism wrong – such as basing a campaign on the targeting of minorities or, once in power, descending into corruption, incompetence or autocracy. There seem to be fewer ways of doing it right, but Ford found one by running against the “people who look down on the average common folk, who think they’re smarter, think they know better, and tell us how to live our lives.” After 15 years of Liberal rule under a series of paternalistic governments, that was what millions of Ontarians wanted to hear.
Moreover, Ford is the ideal vehicle to deliver the populist goods. With the hulking physique of a football player or beat cop, the unadorned vocabulary of a coffee shop or barroom policy sage, and a fairly prosaic background in private sector entrepreneurship, Ford is the antithesis of elitism. He engages effortlessly with ordinary people of every ethnicity and class, and genuinely seems to prefer barbecues in their company to canapes or conferences with the impeccably credentialled. If anything, the whisper campaigns about dubious business acumen and youthful drug-dealing only reinforce his everyman cred. As far as anyone can tell, he’s the real deal.
While progressives insist populism is driven by racism or xenophobia, Ford’s campaign doesn’t bear that out. It made populism inclusive, whichpaid off with massive vote gains across the demographic spectrum. The PCs attracted 800,000 new voters, and the overall turnout in the June 7 election was the highest in a decade. Ford won a thumping majority of 76 seats in the 124-seat legislature, all but obliterating the Liberals while containing an impressive NDP surge to the opposition benches.
Ford restricted his attacks to partisan and institutional targets, carefully avoiding direct engagement with identity politics. In this, he proved more adept – and perhaps gentler-natured – than harder-edged populists such as the overt racist Marine le Pen in France – who lost badly in her country’s election last year.
Aside from the morality of Ford’s approach, there’s also the question of utility. Appeals to nation, ethnicity, tribe, religion or even skin colour draw millions of votes in many European countries. In multicultural Canada, this is more than a non-starter: here they’re a veritable third rail.
Ford’s opponents tried hard to get him to step onto it. Early in the campaign, NDP leader Andrea Horwath suggested Ontario be made a sanctuary province for illegal immigrants. Ford’s moderate and careful response – that Ontario should “take care of our own” first – was a disciplined and effective rebut. Liberal attempts to ambush him with gender politics were parried with equal adroitness.
In the months since, to the pleasant surprise of conservatives across the country who fretted about the impact another Ford might have on their brand, Ontario’s new premier and government have delivered on several of their populist promises without any serious missteps. In fact, they have been bold, notably in moving to cut the number of Toronto city councillors by half, on the eve of civic elections. A judge struck down the wildly popular law this week, which is not likely to please the “average common folk”, and if anything is likely to make Doug Ford-style populism an even more durable force in Canadian politics.