Beware of populism

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Populism is a political disease that has likely already terminally infected the world’s once-greatest democracy. The word in its modern meaning reflects a low-level of democratic consciousness in a large, poorly informed proportion of a country’s electorate, and the willingness of unprincipled, opportunistic power-mongers to exploit and pander to it.

It does not reflect any respect or sympathy for “the poorly educated,” who Donald Trump claimed “I love” during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Rather, it reflects a deep-seated contempt for such people, and the ease with which they can be manipulated and fooled.

That does not mean, by the way, that everyone who is poorly educated is uninformed and gullible, or that everyone well-educated is not a fool. People who will swallow all manner of outrageous political lies and ridiculous conspiracy theories can be found everywhere.

While Canada, for the time being still appears to be heading generally in a better political direction, some of the shine has gone off the initial “sunny ways” glow of my beloved country’s Liberal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Not that he’s become a populist; but the disastrous trip to India is going to prove hard to overcome.

The Liberals defeated a Conservative government that had blatantly started to play populist games, by exploiting and encouraging Islamophobia. But they got their just desserts for that dalliance with political venom.

The Province of Ontario, Canada’s largest, has had some experience with neo-conservative populism. And now there is some concern that it may happen again, with a provincial election coming in June. A Liberal government has been in power for 15 years, with an openly Lesbian Premier, Kathleen Wynne, in charge for most of those years, but now deeply unpopular. Change is in the Ontario political winds.

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Kathleen Wynne 

The so-called Progressive Conservative Party suddenly has a new leader, one Doug Ford. He is the older brother of the late Rob Ford, a former Toronto mayor who became internationally famous, or infamous, a few years ago for all the wrong reasons. Doug Ford has one-term experience as a Toronto City Councillor, but failed in a bid to be elected mayor over John Tory, who now occupies that position.

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Doug Ford

The question now is what should we make of Doug Ford? By that I mean, not whether or not he could or should be the next Premier of Ontario, but what should we make of him regarding the type of politician he is.

I’ve been on the Earth for a long time, while paying more or less attention to politics. Through most of my adult life I’ve tried to keep myself well-informed because I think that’s the moral duty of a citizen of democracy. That has certainly helped shape my personal political attitudes which tend to be liberal. But I’m also conservative in the sense that I believe very strongly in basic democratic principles, like freedom of the press. I’ve seen lots of Premiers of Ontario, Prime Ministers of Canada, Presidents of the U.S., and other world leaders, good and bad, come and go.

But I can honestly say I’ve never felt such a discouraging sense of crisis in the politics of the democratic world.

At the heart of the crisis is the growth of “populism” a word that does not begin to convey the dangerous reality of what it represents in the modern context of democracy.

So, what is populism? And what is a “populist,” a label sometimes attached to Doug Ford? He has even been compared to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Is that fair?

The on-line, Merriam-Webster dictionary defines populist as a “leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.”

That surely applies to Trump.

But I wouldn’t pin the populist label on Ford yet. Simply saying what you think people want to hear, whether or not it it’s good, sound, fact-based policy, doesn’t quite make it past the populist threshold. Besides, for all I know he actually still honestly believes that old, fiscal conservative mantra that the answer to all problems in government is cutting costs and lowering taxes.

Hopefully, just in case he is about to be elected Premier of Ontario, somebody will tell him about the down-side of Ontario’s experience in the not-too-distant past with that idea ran amok.

It was not encouraging, though, that it was none other than former Premier Mike Harris who intervened at a crucial moment in the recent Progressive Conservative (PC) leadership debacle of the night of March 10. The crowd at the hall had been sent home and the balloons unceremoniously taken down. Several hours later at a small gathering in Markham Ford was announced as the winner. It was all very complicated, having to do with the distribution of “electoral” votes, rather than the popular vote of party members, which Christine Elliott had won. It sounded oddly, even astrologically, familiar.

Elliott initially refused to concede and referred to “serious irregularities.”

But Harris, described in a Toronto Star article, of all things, as “a widely respected figure in the party,” called for unity. “It’s time for everyone to put our party and our province first,” he told the usually liberal-leaning Star.

How well I remember the spring, 1995 provincial election campaign. The NDP government of former Premier Bob Rae was in trouble. The province was still trying to recover from the early 90s recession. The polls were showing the PCs, led by sitting-MPP Mike Harris running a poor third.

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Mike Harris 

I was at a local event. A local PC candidate asked me what I thought the big issue in the campaign was. I said it was too soon to know. But it was a rhetorical question. She already knew. “It’s welfare,” she said.

I said I didn’t think that was true, or fair. There were other big issues; for example, businesses owed the province hundreds of millions of dollars of Provincial Sales Tax “in arrears,” collected from customers, but not paid to the province.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, her eyes wide with the wonder of it all, “that’s what people think.”

Apparently, she knew something I didn’t. The Harris “Common Sense Revolution” campaign had found its populist bullet.

A few days later the Harris campaign bus stopped on the side of Highway 21 and put up a sign that renamed the Town of Kincardine, of all places, the Welfare Capital of Ontario.

Later, before a crowd of Conservative supporters in Kincardine, Harris announced the Workfare plank in his platform as he pledged to reduce the financial burden of welfare costs on “hard-working” Ontario taxpayers; as if a single mother raising children was not hard-working. From that day, Harris and the PCsnever looked back. They won the June, 1995 election and formed a majority government.

The Harris government first major action in office was to reduce social assistance benefits, which were already at near-starvation levels, by 21.6 percent. We may never know the full extent of the tragic consequences of that mean-spirited action.

It government costs by downloading services and highways onto municipal taxpayers. I note Ford has listed “high property taxes” as among Ontario’s current fiscal problems. That’s why, Doug.

Today, Ontario is facing huge fiscal challenges. The biggest is how to pay for greatly increasing health care costs as people live longer than ever, well into their 80s and 90s, and the proportion of seniors continues to rise.

Doug Ford’s biggest deficiency is his lack of experience in government and knowledge of such challenges. He may not be a populist, but there is great danger in acting without that knowledge. I hope Mike Harris is not his mentor.

A version of this post was originally published in The Sun Times in March, 2018

 

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