Sunday, November 4, 2018

Is Left-Wing Populism The Answer?

While I personally don't see anything on the horizon to resurrect the fortunes of the federal NDP, Avi Lewis thinks he has a winning strategy: embrace populism, something he thinks could galvanize Jagmeet Singh's leadership. The key, he says, is to keep things simple:
“Why go for something that you have to explain? What populism tells you is that there are simple truths about our economy that can be communicated with great power,” said Lewis, who co-authored the environmental and social democratic treatise, the Leap Manifesto, with his wife, author and activist Naomi Klein.
While populism today seems to be the purview of the extreme right, exemplified by Trump's presidency, it is important to remember that the left has had its own practitioners:
Jan-Werner Mueller, a politics professor at Princeton University, told the CBC last week that populists can come in different ideological shades, so long as they trade in a rhetoric of divisiveness that questions the legitimacy of those who don’t share their views. “It’s always about excluding others,” he said.

For that reason, Mueller considers Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan socialist strongman, a populist of the left. He doesn’t use the label for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and U.K. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn — politicians who rail against inequalities perpetuated by unbridled capitalism, for instance, but who don’t necessarily vilify their opponents as illegitimate contenders for power.
According to David Laycock, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University, the essence of populism is the division it sees in society:
He said one of populism’s central tenets is an argument that the fundamental division in society is “between the people and some sinister elite.”

For right-wing leaders, that elite tends to be heavy-handed government bureaucrats, a media maligned as progressive and out of touch, or groups that benefit from the largesse of state handouts, Laycock said. On the left, it is the corporate elite or the wealthy few who abuse their power at the expense of the wider populace.

Laycock believes Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives are gently experimenting with populist messages, including recent statements about how the media is biased against their party. He said the NDP could do something similar with more aggressive arguments for distributing wealth or slashing subsidies to big corporations.
Michael Adams, president of the Environics Institute, questions the enthusiam wth which such an approach would be met, given how different we are from other countries:
Canadians are more likely to be union members than Americans, for instance, while people here have universal health care and more generous social programs than south of the border, he said. At a time of relatively robust economic growth and low unemployment, all this could dampen the prospects of a left populism about a corporate elite ripping off the general population.

Avi Lewis' idea is a provocative one, but I find myself made uneasy by the prospect of left-wing populism. While the right under Harper and Scheer have not been shy about 'dog-whistle politics,' all-too obvious attempts to manipulate and control their base, the suggestion that the same techniques can redound to the left's benefit suggests to me the adoption of the same kind of political cynicism that the other parties are all too happy to practise, a politics that, at its heart, sees the electorate, not as people to respect and lead, but rather to be exploited for the sole purpose of acquiring power.

We have surely had enough of that already.


  1. I came across a piece by CNN's diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson, arguing that far-right populism has moved out from its beach head and is now unstoppable.

    Trump, Orban, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Poland's "Law and Justice" government, Italy's "Five-Star" coalition and right wing populists on the march in France and the UK. BBC News is reporting that Le Pen is more popular than Macron (21 to 19%). They embrace what they call illiberal democracy yet it is authoritarian rule that rarely takes long before it bleeds into fascism. There can be no democracy without the rule of law and the first thing these types do is to undermine judicial independence.

    How do you fight that? Guns, tanks, bombs? Perhaps one day. History has shown us as much over and again.

    How about we fight to preserve liberal democracy where that is still a viable option? What undermined the once seemingly unstoppable march of liberal democracy?

    Trump's bag of tricks has a few gems - nativism, xenophobia, and fear of the "other." Yet I suspect what won over many Democrat and undecided voters was his attack on globalism. They may have grown tired of waiting for that from the Democratic Party but instead were given the already shopworn corporatist, Hillary Clinton. It wasn't enough to win the popular vote but it delivered Trump the Electoral College.

    Democrats, like Canada's Liberals, remain ardent disciples of neoliberalism as the engine of perpetual exponential economic growth. One of the worst side effects of neoliberalism is that it requires real sacrifices, foremost, in my opinion, progressivism. The primacy of the bond between those who govern and the governed is subordinated to the bond between government and corporate interests. Before long the government may come to put special interests ahead of the public interest. We are certainly at that point in Canada.

    I keep getting drawn back to that one short paragraph in an open letter to the British government from Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and 90 prominent British academics who wrote:

    "When a government wilfully abrogates its responsibility to protect its citizens from harm and to secure the future for generations to come, it has failed in its most essential duty of stewardship. The “social contract” has been broken, and it is therefore not only our right, but our moral duty to bypass the government’s inaction and flagrant dereliction of duty, and to rebel to defend life itself."

    That, to me, certainly extends to our recent governments, Conservative and Liberal. They have broken the social compact. They have triggered our right and moral duty to rebel in defence of life itself.

    They have abandoned progressivism to accommodate corporatism which the nation state petri dishes show breeds authoritarianism.

    What's wrong with Avi Lewis's idea is that he would reduce us to his own version of "us versus them" at the very moment when we so desperately need to restore social cohesion and the bond between those who govern and the governed. He wants to defeat the other side when we need to disarm them and bring them back into the fold.

    You've read the dire reports, Lorne. We don't have time to wage another culture war that might only deepen what divides and disempowers us. What we need is a much sharper focus, a more surgical approach. We need a new liberal party, one that embraces the fundamental tenets of progressivism.

    1. I completely agree with your analysis here, Mound. However, I am at a loss to know how we can accomplish what is needed. People seem willing to listen to those who bring out their worst instincts; a prime example of this is Ontario right now under Doug Ford. Cheap promises of easy solutions seem to be more powerful than an appeal to logic, hard work and character. As I have said before, we are our own worst enemy.

  2. David Frum rejected populism in the Munk Debate, Lorne. Steve Bannon opined that populism was the future -- with right wing populism being preferable to left wing populism. I sincerely hope Bannon is wrong.

    1. I caught the last part of the debate on CPAC, Owen. I was appalled when the results seemed to show that Bannon had won the debate, a result that has since been retracted as an error. It appears the results didn't change from pre-debate sentiments: 28% in favour of the proposition, and 72% opposed.

  3. I didn't find Frum's view much more enticing beyond the fact that he's not a slime-ball racist huckster. He said a lot of nice things about peace and equity and fixing the system, but he didn't suggest how that could possibly happen. But I recently saw a video by Thomas Frank who says the only way we can fix the Democratic party, and this isn't likely, is for people to take it over and start fresh. At least he had a more honest view of the whole situation. I said more about that here.

    1. As I watched the last part o the debate, Marie, I thought it more than passing strange that we now see David Frum as a reasonable voice. How times have changed. As I have often commented on Owen's blog, the Democrats are hardly a party of the people, and if they do well in the mid-terms, they will likely have little incentive to turn away from their embrace of the corporate agenda. They epitomize what Chris Hedges says about the sellout by the liberal class.

      Thanks for the link to your blog. I shall try to set aside some time to watch the Frank video.

    2. I feel much the same as Frank in respect of the Liberal Party, Marie. It has become an obstacle to any hope of a progressive restoration in Canadian politics.