You might consider Donald Trump or Viktor Orban, Hungary’s anti-press prime minister or even Steve Bannon as populists, but that would be incorrect. They have become modern aberrations of what was once a noble concept. Populism has a rich and effective heritage that has driven our democracies and our politics to be more accountable and expansive – a historic reality in danger of being lost.
We have permitted the term “populist” to be railroaded by the current offering of nationalists, as if their more extreme agendas better represent the will of the people than what is presently on offer from traditional political alternatives. The media has been perhaps unwittingly culpable in this sleight of hand that effectively turns average citizens into bigoted mobs and their leaders into bona fide media stars. While it is true that such leaders and their followers represent varying measures of political force in different nations, they hardly represent the critical mass of those living in modern democracies.
Think Tommy Douglas and you’ll get a much clearer idea of what true populism is than anything that’s come out of nationalist parties in recent years. When so many Canadians voted Douglas as the “Greatest Canadian” a few years ago, one wonders how many of those selecting him knew that he was a populist of the first order. He led the first social democratic government on the continent, transforming the politics of his time by making it more inclusive, not exclusionary in the fashion of populism today. Douglas paid down debt, brought in compulsory health insurance, state auto insurance, welcomed newcomers, free medical care for the elderly, an advanced pension scheme and the belief that every vote should matter.
Far from establishing the kind of government that overturned decades of progress, Douglas sought to bring more accountability to democracy by the inclusion of an increased number of fair-minded citizens. To repeat a forty-year-old quote from Heather Robertson, the government of Tommy Douglas:
“… offered honest, efficient, progressive government, good government. Its policies were so sensible that many were picked up by Ottawa and other provinces and transformed the Canadian social structure. “
Canada’s history has been nuanced over 150+ years by both rural and urban populist movements in western Canada, including British Columbia, Quebec, the east coast, and even the agricultural regions of Ontario. The collective results of all these movements, for all their radical problems at times, has been a stronger Canada, a more diverse identity.
Populism has a powerful democratic pedigree and frequently aroused “the people” to fight against the dominance of the moneyed interests.
To regard Donald Trump as populist when he’s in the middle of cutting taxes on the wealthy, seeks to exclude millions in his own country from the benefits of prosperity, attempts to undermine health care, struggles to take away the benefits of workers and works to drive up the costs of education is to totally miss the essence of populism and its grassroots lineage.
The American president’s penchant for saying he is a man of the people goes directly against some stark realities. Besides Air Force One, he has his own jet aircraft with his name emblazoned along its fuselage. He doesn’t talk to people with different views, only his base. He remains closed off, hidden in a White House or a private golf course. He is a multi-millionaire and perhaps a billionaire. He sides with some Americans, but not all. He is openly sexist and is troublingly racist. Tens of millions of Americans look into his face and can’t see their own reflection in him. That is hardly populist.
People are free to vote for whomever they wish, but we must be careful of how we warp the democratic language we all share. If Tommy Douglas and Donald Trump are both populists, then somebody goofed. The former was a country preacher, the latter a wealthy elite. Douglas was inclusive, while Trump is the opposite. The former believed and was greatly admired for his moral and ethical insights. The latter is … well, you know. Both called for change, but only one was willing to redistribute the wealth in order to benefit every citizen.
At its essence, populism is about anger. It’s about protesting against abusive power. But it’s more; it also involves extending the franchise of prosperity and assistance for the marginalized. It’s not just about wealthy elites, but more about teachers, nurses, service workers, firefighters, women seeking equal pay, the poor seeking solace and housing, and the average citizen having a vote that matters. If both the Right and the Left are failing at this particular moment in time it is because they have forgotten such people and have instead concentrated on creating or protecting wealth rather than sharing it.
In 1978, respected historian Lawrence Goodwyn wrote a book titled, The Populist Moment, and this is how he opened it: “This book is about the flowering of the largest democratic mass movement in American history. It is also necessarily a book about democracy itself.” He then went on to write a powerful tribute about how populism was democracy’s essence and not its enemy.
More than anything, as Goodwyn himself would note, populism is about the travail of working people and their ongoing struggle against those who would seek to guard their amassed wealth against those seeking some prosperity by effective legislation, dedicated employment, and a sense of social fairness. Let’s not make the mistake of permitting today’s brand of power-seeking “populists” to rip the essence out of historic populism through their self-aggrandizing purposes. Democracy itself will be the poorer for it.