The Hill Times Dec. 12, 2016
Is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a populist? I asked this question to a friend last week, the day Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi was forced to resign. I will come back to it, but first let me elaborate on the term “populism,” lately the most-used word in any political debate worldwide.
Brexit in the United Kingdom, elections in United States, and the constitutional referendum in Italy are three consultations that, despite three different questions in the ballot box, were all answered with the same attitude: humiliate politics and politician—the main goal of populists. It is a dangerous trend.
Britons were not against Europe. In fact they were not even aware of what they were losing or gaining. Still, Brexit generated a government unable to deal with a problem generated by populist criticism.
Most people in the United States didn’t vote for Donald Trump and he might even be a great president. But enough Americans voted for him to win and they put their future in the hands of someone many consider mentally unfit to be president.
In Italy, they have defeated a government with a stable majority and voted for a change that’s hard to define.
Populism channels the debate around the problems without encouraging a dialogue to find a solution. It also escapes all the parameters that have guided the conventional politics for many decades, leaving politicians confused and scared.
People feel betrayed by politicians that don’t pay attention to their problems. Their frustration is justified. but politicians don’t pay attention because they don’t know how to solve the problem.
Jobs are disappearing because of globalization and they don’t know how to stop it. Terrorism has changed our society but governments don’t know how to cope with it. Immigration is not a controlled and regulated movement of people any longer, but it is imposed on countries by events governments can’t control. Globalization and new technology force everybody to reassess their traditional thinking at a pace we cannot absorb, socially and economically.
Politicians, instead of acting humble and admitting ignorance, choose to ignore the problems, preaching and lecturing frustrated citizens about the need to be tolerant and not racist.
Another factor is the collapse of the traditional political structure, previously hinged on the ideological concept of left and right. Even if the populist movement is identified with the right-wing politicians, it is not uncommon to see the traditional extreme left and extreme right embarrassingly colluding in their criticism. It was true in the States, where we saw many common criticisms against Hillary Clinton by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, like free trade and collusion with Bay Street. In the U.K., Brexit was led by Nigel Farage, a right-wing politician, but the extreme left joined the fight. It is the same in Italy, where the fight against Renzi’s government was led by populist movement of the former standup comedian Beppe Grillo, and the anti-immigrant Lega Nord of Matteo Salvini. Still, the extreme left was also part of the No vote against Renzi, along with a component of his own left-leaning party.
Back to the original question: do we have in Canada a populist movement? Is Trudeau a populist leader? A couple days after I asked the question to my friend, I read an interesting column in the Toronto Star by Paul Wells, talking about the same issue after an editorial board meeting with Trudeau. Wells writes that “Trudeau seemed to draw tentative, limited parallels between his own political success in 2015 and Trump’s a year later.”
Even Canada has a populist movement, but completely different from the one in United States and Europe. Resentment against immigrants and islamophobia were also part of the Canadian elections, but it was the electorate to accuse the government of resorting to such things, not the other way around. I don’t agree that it was the economic issue to propel Liberals to the government. Canada has, of course, economic and social problems, but they are the same economic issues related to worldwide uncertainty, more than domestic deficiencies.
In Canada it was instead the government looking for ‘populists’, but they found populists of different kind. Conservatives lost because Canadians were looking for changes, not maintenance. They proposed, instead, a debate about divisive issues, not new ideas. That irritated voters that start to look elsewhere.
In this context, they run into this populist outreaching young leader who told them: I am listening to you. Whether he is really listening or not, it is still to be seen. If he does, he must do it very soon because populism is like a match, it lights up very fast, but it can turn cold even faster.