Populism is sweeping the globe, but so far Canada has been relatively untouched. Our luck may be running out. Albertans’ satisfaction with Canadian democracy has fallen 19 points in the last two years. In Saskatchewan, high-quality candidates are said to be standing in line to run for Wexit in the next federal election. So, how real is the threat? First, a bit of history.
The Roots of Contemporary Populism
Looking back, governments of the past seemed more able to take on difficult tasks than those today. Think of bilingualism or the national healthcare system. Cabinet may have made the decisions, but ministers relied on a network of people – including the caucus, party, riding associations and, ultimately, the community – to help identify issues and “broker” solutions.
By the 1980s, the system was changing. Political strategists were experimenting with public opinion research (polls, focus groups and surveys) and they were quick to see the potential. With a simple telephone poll, a leader could learn more in two days about how the public viewed an issue than he or she might learn in three months through the old channels.
As Susan Delacourt has ably shown, parties began using these tools to target important subgroups. From small businesses to seniors, policies were tailored to meet specific needs, then marketed to the group, much like consumer goods.
This was a big change in policy making. It allowed leaders to sidestep much of the messy work of brokerage politics, that is, of working through the trade-offs between competing interests. Now the challenge was to create a simple, clear story – a “narrative” – that was easily recognizable by the target group and that would “sell” them on the policy.
While this shift seemed like a good idea at the time, some troubling consequences are now becoming clear, as the following example shows.
Polarizing Public Debate – The New Normal
Over the last few years, thousands of migrants have crossed into Canada at locations with no customs office, then claimed refugee status. Critics have branded them as “cheaters” and “queue-jumpers” who are stretching Canadians’ goodwill to the limits.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel warns that if the flow isn’t stopped, “the dialogue in Canada is going to switch from ‘how we do immigration’ to ‘if we do immigration.’”
In fact, the polling says otherwise. Canadians disagree with the practice, but most still think the government is doing a good job of managing the immigration system. They recognize that the situation is more complex than Rempel suggests.
Not that this will change anything. Rempel is not trying to work through the issue. This is about “product marketing” not problem-solving. She is intentionally oversimplifying to highlight aspects of the issue that she believes resonate with her target group.
Specifically, calling these migrants “queue-jumpers” and “cheaters” creates an emotionally charged narrative in which the migrants, who are mainly visible minorities, threaten to overwhelm Canada’s immigration system. That’s the story Rempel is sending to her target group.
Progressives can be equally one-sided in their treatment of issues. On climate-change, for example, a growing number insist that the only way to save the planet is an immediate halt to the use of hydrocarbons.
Most Canadians disagree. While they want action on climate change, recent polling finds that a majority in all regions is willing to go along with some kind of support for the ailing oil and gas sector.
The good news from examples like these is that, while partisans and advocates often frame complex issues in black-and-white terms, many Canadians remain open to the idea that there is middle ground.
The bad news is that finding it requires the kind of careful discussion and debate that gets more and more scarce. If those in the middle want to join the debate, increasingly, they must leave the middle and choose a side.
In sum, there is a high price to pay for the oversimplification of issues. It not only polarizes public debate, it undermines confidence (public trust) in the policy process. This “new normal” underwrites a critical premise in the populists’ narrative.
Populism – From Polarized Debates to a Polarized Society
Typically, populists allege that some group, such as a professional elite or a political party, has gained control of the policy process and is using it to advance their own interests. The process, they say, is biased and can’t be trusted.
Thus, the western alienation narrative accuses Central Canada of using its majority in Parliament to exploit the west. Brexiters tells a similar story about how Britain’s power has shifted from London to Brussels. Donald Trump railed about the need to “Drain the Swamp” by driving the corrupt elites out of Washington.
Like Rempel, populists are unapologetic about this black-and-white view of the policy process. They are interested in marketing, not problem-solving. Their narrative is designed to polarize debate and force people in the middle to choose a side. Except, now the issue is about more than policy. It is about the fairness of the system itself, and that raises the stakes.
Thus, the alienation narrative transforms Albertans’ anger over oil or Equalization into an expression of something deeper and graver: their right to control their lives, their communities, and their economy. Now the issue is about democracy.
Once someone embraces this narrative, it is extremely difficult to win them back. So, how far along is the west?
Western alienation has been at historic highs. Many in the region disagree deeply with the decisions coming from Ottawa and feel disconnected from the process. There is a growing sense of powerlessness and distrust.
That said, western alienation is not Wexit and a sizable majority of westerners remains in the middle, not on the extremes. They are westerners, but they are also Canadians.
Still, it would be a mistake to take this for granted. Forty-nine per cent of Albertans identify themselves as mostly Albertan, while only 36 per cent see themselves as mostly Canadian. In Saskatchewan, 44 per cent say they are mostly Saskatchewanian versus 35 per cent who feel mostly Canadian.
So, while these people still identify as Canadians, a growing number might better be described as “conditional” Canadians. They accept the alienation narrative as true; they see the federation as unfair at best, and they blame Central Canada for many of their troubles.
A debate about their place in Confederation will be personal and emotional. And a debate is coming. Next year, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney will hold a referendum on Equalization, and perhaps others after that. Wexiters will be on the front lines and they will play to these emotions.
To respond effectively, Canada needs more than a list of the costs and benefits of risk-sharing, as Kenney proposes. It needs a counter-narrative that speaks empathetically to people’s feelings of alienation by speaking convincingly to their place in Confederation.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, our collective capacity for finding and holding the middle ground has been seriously eroded. Building such a narrative requires lots of work and both sides must be willing to listen and accommodate.
Justin Trudeau made a serious effort to find middle ground on climate change and the economy, even buying a pipeline. But that seems to have been dashed in the last election – at least in Alberta and Saskatchewan. He is likely feeling cautious about any new overtures.
Indeed, some Liberals now argue that they should do nothing at all about Wexit. “If it surges,” they say, “great! It’ll split the conservative vote, and that is good for us.” This is as short-sighted as it is cynical. Yes, it may help the Liberals win an election, but it could divide the country even further.
If alienation is hitting historic highs, and if high-quality candidates really are lining up to run for Wexit, Canadians everywhere should be concerned. Wexiters will do their best to drive the debate to the extremes.
Westerners need to hear the other side. They need to hear a strong, clear, and convincing story about how Canada looks from the middle. The real question is whether Canadians have such a story to tell.
JOIN OUR LIVE DEBATE: The Institute on Governance will host Don Lenihan and Mike Colledge, President Ipsos Public Affairs, to debate these issues live online on Monday, July 21st from 9:30 to 11:00 am EST. Registration is free at: https://iog.ca/events/dialogue-debate-political-divisiveness-polarized-electorate/
Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance. He is an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development with over 25 years’ experience as a project leader, researcher, writer, senior government advisor, and facilitator. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.com