Populism Isn’t a Four Letter Word: Reasserting a Progressive Populism in 2018

by Christo Aivalis

In the era of Donald Trump and Doug Ford, populism’s reputation has taken quite the tumble, associated now more than at any time in the recent past with the alt-right movement, predicated in large part on xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and a reflexive aversion to anything that may be connected, however tenuously, to the ‘Social Justice Warrior’ caricature. In this context, populism is little more than a regressive rabble roused by wealthy men with a dubious reputation as ‘regular guys just like you and me.’

Bernie Sanders with arms raises in front of a crowd.

Bernie Sanders, photo by Gage Skidmore

Given this perspective, much handwringing has come from the centre of the political spectrum, as establishment politicians of a multi-partisan bent pine for the political consensus before the Tea Party movement, Trump, and Ford, where it was accepted that a narrow window of political discourse—all cordoned within a general neoliberal consensus built upon a wide-ranging distrust of the common man and woman—reigned supreme.

This is in part why, both during and after the 2016 American Presidential election, Hilary Clinton obtained so much support from those deemed to be moderate republican intellectuals and stalwarts, ranging from George H. W. Bush to David Frum. Such men were mortal enemies of the American centre-left before Trump’s rise, and yet are now welcomed with open arms into #TheResistance because they share a similar overall vision about how society should be run, and most importantly in this context, who should run it.

While a good chunk of this is a genuine reaction to the rhetoric of Trump, it was and is more cynically an attempt to equate Trump to the left wing populism of figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Senator Bernie Sanders. In this narrative—a rift on the questionable horseshoe theory of politics—Trump and Sanders are both demagogues who irresponsibly stoke the fears of the masses to destroy the liberal political tradition for their own benefit. From my point of view as a historian and observer of contemporary politics, however, the two men could not be more different.

But what does this mean for populism? Simply put, it means that in an era of popular discontent with the political status quo, progressives cannot simply content themselves to brand Trump and Ford populists, discard the ideology wholesale, and call it a day. Rather, progressives must wrestle with how populism offers many paths to political success, both within and beyond electoral contests. Populism isn’t just about whipping up anti-immigrant fervor; it can challenge those who hold disproportionate social, cultural, and economic power. And neither is populism a wholesale rejection of education, expertise, and professional authority; nonetheless, it interrogates appeals to such qualifications when they seek to discount or exclude the ideas, objectives, and concerns of regular people as they pertain to core questions of our society, economy, and democracy.

In the Canadian historical tradition, the democratic left as represented by the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and New Democratic Party has been at its best when it blends its intellectual and populist tendencies. From the party’s founding, it was a shared effort by intellectuals, trade unionists, and farmers, all of whom brought a different perspective to how politics could be done differently. Furthermore, many of the party’s great leaders—including ‘Greatest Canadian’ Tommy Douglas—were populists. Douglas implemented a populist approach to politics consistently, cherishing Robbie Burns’ poetry for venerating the common man, speaking of Christ the workingman who came to transform the earthly realm in favour of those who toil, telling tales of Mouseland, where the rodent masses should democratically overthrow a government comprising a predatory feline minority, and railing against an economic system that not only bred massive inequities between the rich and the rest, but also manifested anti-democratic tendencies in our workplaces and communities.

These—in much the same way Douglas advocated for them—can be the hallmarks of a progressive populism that can still find a place within 21st century political discourse:

  1. A push for universal—as opposed to divisive, targeted, and means-tested—social programs funded by taxation on those able to afford it.
  2. A belief that regular people’s concerns are valid, and deserve to not only be heard, but put into actionable policy and legislation
  3. A commitment to democratize the economy through a combination of state, community, consumer, and worker ownership

None of these things are offered by Trump, Ford, or any other right wing ‘populists,’ but are being suggested in at least partial forms by Corbyn, Sanders, and Canadian politicians like Andrea Horwath and other New Democrats. These principles can not only build a more equal society, but they centre the needs and direction of working people. This is why many neoliberals are invested in equating Trump’s worldview to populism more generally: because if the latter takes hold in its progressive form, it will be a challenge not only to hateful politics, but to a status quo that has benefited and empowered the few, and not the many.

Christo Aivalis is an Editor of Active History, and a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. His dissertation examined Pierre Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and is being published with UBC Press in May 2018. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, This Magazine, Ricochet, and Canadian Dimension. He has also served as a contributor to the The Broadbent Institute, Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV and CBC. His current project is a biography of Canadian labour leader A.R. Mosher.

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