National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

Is the Harper Government populist or elitist? Colin Horgan thinks they have run out of ideas so they are turning to populism. Linda McQuaig finds the talk of populism odd. They are, she insists, deeply elitist. So which is it: populist or elitist?

Horgan borrows his definition of populism from Andrew Coyne, who says that it is “about harnessing popular fears, prejudices and superstitions in the service of winning power.” Though I’m not a populist, I think this is unfair to the many populists who are genuine democrats.

Consider Preston Manning. When he founded the Reform Party, one of his slogans was that political leaders must “listen to the common sense of the common people.”

Manning was certainly a populist, but it would be wrong to accuse him of trying to harness popular fears to win power in the way Horgan says the Harper government does.

True, Manning and the Reform Party did their share of grandstanding. When he arrived in Ottawa in 1993, he insisted on sitting in the backbenches in the commons. Then, as the leader of the opposition, he refused to live in Stornoway and wouldn’t use his limo.

But these antics were supposed to reflect Manning’s political philosophy, which held that leaders go wrong when they arrive in Ottawa and get drawn into its elitist culture.

Manning thought ordinary people have a kind of natural wisdom about issues, and that if leaders stayed attuned to this, it would lead to better governance.

Reform’s commitment to referendums, political recall and other populist reforms was a way of ensuring this kind of connectedness and accountability.

Although I don’t agree with Manning’s populism, I think he really believed in some kind of natural wisdom and I regard him as a genuine democrat for trying to tap into it.

Stephen Harper also disagreed with Manning’s views. Recall that in 1997 Harper broke with Manning over the issue of populism.

Harper was a neo-conservative first, not a populist. He thought Reformers should be working to advance the revolution started by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and he grew increasingly concerned that Manning’s populism was a distraction from the real mission.

There was thus a deep difference between the two men. Harper never really believed in the natural wisdom of the common people. On the contrary, he thought good policy choices require intelligence, deep reflection and debate and that, far from “common sense,” this was an uncommon trait.

He is not alone. Indeed, the distrust of populism goes back at least to Thomas Jefferson, who worried that the untutored judgment of the masses was at least as likely to be driven by prejudice or erupting emotions as by common sense.

For Jefferson, the whole point of democratic debate was to air these unreflective views, subject them to evidence and reason and arrive at the best conclusions. Harper would likely agree.

But this raises a further question: Who should carry out this reflection and debate? Is it the public? Elected representatives? Or some inner circle of the government?

The Jeffersonian answer is that debate should take place in the open in ways that engage the public. The role of elected representatives is to lead such debate and, ultimately, to decide.

But not everyone who rejects populism trusts the public to participate in such debate. Many people think ordinary people are too disinterested or just lack the skills. Jeffersonian democracy requires faith that people can and will rise to the occasion.

I think McQuaig is right when she says the Harper government simply doesn’t trust the public to carry out such debate. Indeed, it doesn’t even seem to trust its own caucus to do so. As a result, real debate is restricted to an inner circle. McQuaig is also right to call this elitism.

So what about Horgan’s charge that the Harper government has turned to populism because it is running out of ideas and cares only about winning?

I don’t think this is quite right. Policy-wise, the government remains committed to a fairly conventional neo-conservative philosophy of free trade, lower taxes and smaller government.

I see no real reason to think Harper has given up on this. And if he believed people were more politically enlightened, I think he’d steer a more direct course toward these goals. So the government is not out of ideas, though it may lack any fresh ones.

The real problem is that elitists believe ordinary people are mainly driven by emotion–especially fear–and self-interest. It therefore makes little sense to try to win them over through discussion and debate.

The elitist’s trick is to connect with them on issues in a way they understand, which usually means playing to their fears or offering them rewards–which seems to be the government’s approach.

So, ironically, it is an integral part of elitism that it disguises itself as the populism it rejects–that it steal a page from the populist playbook and ‘play to the base’ in a way that makes ordinary people feel the government is really listening.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato even had a name for this. He called it The Noble Lie. And that neatly captures the real difference between the populist and the elitist. Both appear to be listening, but only one really is.

 

Dr. Don Lenihan is Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team and Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. He is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Don’s latest book, Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement is an introduction to the field of public engagement, a blueprint for change, and a sustained argument for the need to rethink the public policy process. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@ppforum.ca or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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