There’s a lot of talk these days about populism. Some people say Donald Trump rode a populist wave to the American presidency and that Boris Johnson is exploiting populist discontent in pushing ahead with Britain’s exit from the European Union. But it’s not always clear what is meant by the term or whether it has any meaning for Canada.

A Canadian think tank, Samara Canada, issued a report, “Don’t Blame the People,”* that explores these questions. As Samara describes the phenomenon, populist leaders see politics as a conflict between elites (those with money and power) on one hand and the real people (whose voices are often ignored) on the other. These leaders describe themselves as trustworthy representatives of the people who will sweep away the elites and enact policies that the majority wants. 

Some Canadian politicians are adopting this rhetoric. In fact, almost all of them tend to disparage politics as a profession. No one wants to admit to being an occupant of the Ottawa political “bubble.” This has dangerous implications.

Populist leaders usually are themselves members of the elite – they have money and power – but claim to be outsiders. They tend to hold a “majoritarian” view of democracy, meaning that the preferences of the majority of the population should prevail over that of the minority. They are willing to ignore or override the rights and freedoms designed to protect dissenters and those holding opposing views. They have no time for compromise.

Populist movements can emerge from both the right and left of the political spectrum. Despite their rhetoric, they are fundamentally undemocratic. Samara suggests that we need to make it clear to our leaders that we don’t want to hear self-serving rhetoric about “elites” and “real people.” We have to insist, instead, on engaging in substantive discussions about policies that are realistic and fair.

We need nuanced conversations that take into account everyone’s needs. As Canadians we should demand nothing less.


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