Reframing Populism: a speech to Citizens for Public Justice

Dennis Gruending speaking on populism. CPJ photo.

I was invited on May 30, 2019 to speak in Ottawa to the Annual General Meeting of the ecumenical social justice group Citizens for Public Justice. They asked me to talk about populism, with an eye to what might happen in the campaign toward the Canadian general election to be held in October 2019. Here is the speech:

Introductory comments

I am so pleased to be with you this evening. Actually, I have attended probably half a dozen of your Annual General Meetings, including one here in Ottawa in 2006. The speaker that evening was Immigration Minister Monte Solberg. He had barely begun his speech when a group of people stormed the podium to protest against his government’s immigration and refugee policies. The minister had to beat a hasty retreat. I am hoping that no one storms the podium tonight!

On a happier note, I attended your AGM in Toronto last year when you released the book Journeys to Justice. It had been assembled by Joe Gunn, your former executive director and it shows how ecumenical groups were involved in some of our biggest issues in the 1970s and 80s. Christian-based organizations, including yours, took a prophetic stance at important moments in our history. So I am doubly pleased to be here tonight, this time on the other side of the microphone.

 Why talk about populism?

When I am asked to speak, I always try, as best I can, to address the concerns of my hosts and my audience. In this case, the folks at CPJ asked me to talk about populism. You might ask why? Well, I think generally there is an apprehension – among many of us — about where we find ourselves today in terms of the public dialogue. There is just a lot of angst out there about what is happening in the world around us. For example, early in May, I attended the Ottawa launch for a book by Michael Adams, founder of the polling firm Environics. Michael’s book is called, Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit.  Michael thinks it won’t happen here – but he also says that under certain circumstances, it could.

A lot of attacks upon our way of doing politics, and even upon democracy itself, seem to arise from this thing called populism. CPJ wants me, in the words used to describe this address, to “reframe populism” – not necessarily to condemn it but to better understand it – especially in the run up to the federal election in October.

Defining populism

But what, exactly, is populism? I am going to provide you with just one brief definition: Populism is a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. The key terms here are “political approach”, “ordinary people” and “established elite.”

According to populists, there is a group of ordinary and deserving people who are being exploited by an elite group, the Establishment if you will. So populism appeals to ordinary people to do something to do something about – to prevent or to turn back that exploitation by the elite. And there definitely are times when the elite should be challenged — because all too often both historically and today, some people use their privilege and their power to benefit themselves at the expense of others. We can look back to the Old Testament to see what Isiah and the other prophets had to say about that kind of exploitation. Perhaps we could say that in their day the prophets were populists, advocating on behalf of ordinary people.

I said that populism a political approach. It is a way of looking at the world but it is not a specific ideology like liberalism or Marxism. And here’s the thing – populism can attach itself to different ideologies, left, right and in between. It can be channelled toward hate and authoritarianism, but it can also be progressive, inclusive and democratic. We have a good deal of experience with this latter kind of populism in Canada. Let me tell you a story to illustrate.

Agrarian populism

I grew up in rural Saskatchewan in the 1950s and 60s at a time when agrarian populism was in its late stages. Farmers in Western Canada believed that they were being exploited by banks, railroads, grain buyers and farm machinery companies — and all with the complicity of politicians in the old line parties. I can recall my father criticizing people who he called “big shots” – today populists would call them the elites.

Farmers thought they were getting a raw deal so they protested. But they did more than protest. They organized. They set up their own grain elevator companies, which later became the Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba Wheat Pools. They set up consumer co-ops and credit unions, and even their own co-operative oil refinery. And eventually they also went into politics. In Saskatchewan, agrarian populism led to the election of the CCF and Tommy Douglas in 1944, and he our premier for the next 17 years. And it was this government which in 1962 introduced the first public Medicare plan in North America – one which was to become a model for all of Canada.

I have a very personal observation about Medicare. My parents were small farmers and they were poor. My mother developed Multiple Sclerosis as a young married woman but it took years of doctoring (as my parents called it) before she received a diagnosis. My father later told me that in some years our family’s doctor bills amounted to more money that my parents made on the farm. I was a child then and I recall how frightened I would be when we got threatening letters from collection agencies acting on behalf of the doctors. My parents were slavish followers of any political party. At one time or another they voted for pretty well everything going, including Social Credit. But they were certainly in favour of Medicare, and it made an immense difference in their lives and for that reason in mine.

Populism today         

So that was my experience with agrarian populism. But the world has moved on and now it is often populists on the right who seem to be the dominant voices. I am thinking, for example, of the United We Roll convoy which made its way from Alberta to Ottawa in February of this year.

The convoy’s initial demands were that Ottawa clear the way for construction of oil and gas pipelines. Beyond that they said that the government should scrap the carbon tax, which was about to come into being. But somewhere along the way those economic issues morphed from pipelines into a seemingly unrelated focus on immigrants and refugees. There was some Muslim-bashing and anti-Semitism thrown in — and also conspiracy theories about Canada’s loss of sovereignty to the United Nations, not to mention hateful comments and threats of violence against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. I went to the convoy’s website and looked at the images posted there. I saw people at rallies carrying signs calling the Prime Minister a traitor.  I read much of the media coverage and saw that in Sault Ste Marie, one of the protesters told a reporter that he backed using violence to remove Trudeau from office.

When the convoy reached Ottawa, there were two days of demonstrations on Parliament Hill. One of the featured speakers was a woman named Faith Goldy. Her views are so extreme that Facebook has now suspended her account for promoting white supremacy. The question arises: Why was someone known for her extremist views on race invited to address a rally which was supposedly about obtaining greater support for the oil and gas industry?

This leads to a disturbing observation about how anger that seems to originate with economic issues can be deflected into intolerance and even hatred toward marginalized groups of people. That appears to be what happened in the United States in 2016 where there was a lot of angst about the economy. Mr. Trump was able to seize upon that anxiety and portray himself as the authentic voice for ordinary people — and he won the election. However, there is a continuing debate about whether it was economic issues, or Trump’s deliberate appeal to racism, that allowed him to win.

Pay attention

We in Canada should pay attention. We have serious economic issues of our own. For one thing, there is growing inequality here. In 2017, Canada’s 100 highest paid Chief Executive Officers took home 197 times more than the average worker, whose family income has been stagnant for years. In the economic rung below those workers, there is a stubbornly persistent level of poverty in this country, as CPJ knows only too well. This poverty exists in pockets, some of them regional, but also among Indigenous people wherever they live and among recent immigrants and refugees. It would be a tragedy if Canadians could be convinced to shift their economic anxiety into an attack upon innocent and vulnerable people.

Other voices

Earlier, I mentioned the convoy, which I would describe as a right wing populist movement. But there are other populist voices out there as well – and this is important to acknowledge. I recently attended a town hall meeting in Ottawa promoting a Green New Deal. A youth group called Our Time was a key to organizing the event, which attracted 150 people of all ages.

This was one of dozens of such gatherings being held across the country. The plan is to use the meetings to craft a climate policy, and to build pressure on all political parties to insert it into their election platforms. I think, frankly, that unless our politicians become far more active in dealing with climate change, people — especially young people — will begin to engage in more aggressive tactics. They have a saying that there is no “Planet B.”

Election 2019

So now we are on the verge of a federal election campaign. What should we expect? And what role should be played by your organization, CPJ?  For one thing, there will be – there already is – a lot of noise out there on a variety of hot button and wedge issues.  But you have carefully chosen to focus on three issues. They are climate justice, poverty elimination, and refugee rights. I hope and expect that you will stick to those three. We, whether as individuals or group such as yours, do not have to take a public position on everything.

Poverty elimination

On poverty elimination, you have a position that is well-researched and developed. The current federal government recognizes and I believe appreciates your expertise, and they have actually announced a strategy. I am told the minister called your office directly to tip you off prior to making an announcement. So chalk that up as a success. But in this plan the devil, as they say, is in the details, and this is something that no doubt you will be watching closely.

But despite all of your good work I don’t think poverty reduction will be a big issue in the election, unless you can make it one. During the election in 2015, all parties fell over themselves to appeal to the middle class. That does not describe the six million people who you say live poverty in Canada.

Climate change

But your other two chosen issues will likely be in the cross hairs. Canada made big promises at the Paris climate summit in late 2015. Mr. Trudeau has since introduced a carbon tax in Canada and it applies at the pumps. He promised that the tax would be offset by rebates to consumers – and that has already begun to happen. The object is to shift us away from carbon and move toward alternative technologies.

The Conservative mantra is that a carbon tax will damage the economy and even cause a recession. That would be news to British Columbia, which has had a carbon tax for years and has possibly the hottest economy in the country, with the lowest unemployment rate in April 2019. The provinces of Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Ontario have taken the federal government to court over the tax, and Mr. Kenney in Alberta will now join in that effort. Federal Conservative leaders Andrew Scheer and the Conservative premiers are all campaigning against the tax it and that line of attack will continue.

You have a position on climate change.  You agree that it is real and caused by humans and that the need for action is urgent. You support a carbon tax, but you say that is not enough. You say that we must also use every other tool at our disposal. Those include the government’s ending billions of dollars in subsidies to the fossil fuel sector. You want that money to be used the development of renewable energy, energy efficient buildings and transportation — and in providing for a just transition for energy sector workers.

On this issue, your position is much closer to that of the governing party, the NDP and the Greens than it is to the Conservatives. I don’t know quite how you will treat this in a non-partisan way, but I am sure you have given that a good deal of thought.

Immigration and refugees

Immigration will likely be another hot button issue, with a special focus upon refugees. We have seen this road tested in the Conservative criticisms about asylum seekers crossing the border at remote locations in Quebec and Manitoba. The Conservatives are calling it a crisis and they encourage Canadians to think of asylum seekers as “queue jumpers” and “illegals.”  I know that you have written to the Conservatives, asking them to stop describing asylum seekers as illegals even before they have had hearings to determine their status.

To be sure, there are important conversations to be had on refugee issues, just as there are on climate change and the carbon tax. And no one should be chided for raising an issue for debate. The disturbing thing, however, is when issues are posed in such a way that they target certain people as alien, and as a threat to us, even when there is no evidence to back up those claims. This is a deeply cultural issue and sadly one that can quickly lead to intolerance or worse.

But there is some potential good news on this front. I mentioned that I heard pollster Michael Adams talk about his new book. He said that Canadians generally feel more positively toward immigrants and refugees than do people in any other country. He said he believes that xenophobia will not be a successful platform for any political party in the 2019 election. I do hope that he is right.

False news

One other thing we can expect  between now and the election – and I do not have time to talk much about it today – is a stream of deliberately false, or at the least, misleading information. This will be placed on social media by what we might call bad actors, some of them foreign groups or even foreign governments.  All I can say here is that as individual consumers of news we should decide which media outlets and journalists we trust to deal in facts and to engage in fact checking. We should count on them for our information needs rather than following the first social media site that pops up.

And here CPJ has an important role to play as well.  You invest a lot of time and effort to create solid research and information. That is a precious currency. We need that information in a world of misinformation. So please reach out to us.

Conclusion

That’s my take on the election and your chosen issues, but what about your approach more generally?  You have your own history and reputation. You have your own way of participating in the public dialogue, which is courteous and non-partisan, and you are respected for that. You can meet and engage with various organizations – not only politicians and public servants — but also a variety of non-governmental and public interest groups. Hearing them and listening to them does not mean always agreeing with them. Some ideas are better than others.

In summary, I suggest that you continue with your research and advocacy. But it’s going to be hard to get the attention of politicians between now and October. So it will be important to put an extra emphasis upon reaching out to your base, particularly in Christian churches. There is a lot of good will among people in those churches — and they in turn can and should engage the political candidates who are asking for their votes.

I know that you have attempted such outreach in a variety of ways – your Chew On This campaign on poverty reduction, and your Give It Up For The Earth campaign on climate change. I know as well there is only so much that a small organization can do. There are limitations, but I believe that CPJ has an important, even a prophetic role to play in this election campaign and beyond. And I for one am very grateful that we have you around.

3 thoughts on “Reframing Populism: a speech to Citizens for Public Justice

Add yours

  1. Have you read this article: Sociologists destroy the myth that uneducated white voters support Trump because of ‘economic anxiety’? Chauncey DeVega, Salon, March 11, 2019.
    Opened my eyes a bit more about ‘liberal’ thinking that facts will re-educate people to their views. Actually taken as patronizing by those of the Trump supporters. I have experienced this over several years as a working stiff on construction in Alberta, NT, Nunavut, Sask., Ont.

    Like

  2. Once again a thought-provoking and important article. You have said so much here that left of centre politicians need to study when planing strategy. It is so easy for right wing politicians to stir fear and anger while presenting facile answers. We need to take into account the fact that so many people are looking for answers in their lives in this troubled world. And, as difficult as that is, we must try to present positive answers to difficult problems. People like those you spoke to must be approached in that process.

    Like

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