Use of the word populism has become more popular says Sylvia Stead, public editor of the Globe and Mail:
“There has certainly been a surge in references to ‘populist’ and ‘populism’ in The Globe. Ten years ago, each word had 317 mentions in the paper. Then there was a surge around Toronto mayor Rob Ford. In the past 12 months, the combined number of mentions rose to 1,310. And clearly the increase over the past year reflects a growth in both true populism and the appearance of populism.”
However, its meaning has become less clear. Public historian David Finch says: “the definition of populism is at odds with the racist, narrow minded, reactionary point of view of the minority now claiming to represent the majority.”
It used to mean something, such as grass-roots democracy or working class activism. Those movements are fundamental, not of the left or the right. The Reform Party was a grass-roots movement that was swallowed by the Conservative Party. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation had agrarian roots before it evolved into the New Democratic Party.
So-called populist leaders have little in common except for raw ambition,.
There are the populist wannabes like Conservative leader hopeful Kellie Leitch. She tried to exploit the fear of immigrants in her pitch for Canadian Values. Some Canadians feared that immigrants would take their jobs, or end up being terrorists who would kill them in the streets. Instead of addressing those concerns by pointing out that immigrants actually create jobs and that most home-grown terrorists aren’t immigrants, she reinforced those fears. It was a thinly disguised attempt to emulate the power-grab in the U.S.
There are self-aggrandizing fools. There is no doubt that Donald Trump’s supporters represent working-class discontent. These formerly middle-class industrial workers have seen their incomes slip into the rank of the working poor. They awoke from their slumber to find that, while globalism has brought them cheap goods, it has sent their jobs elsewhere. Trump’s vitriol against Mexico and Canada resonates with them. Trump has no appreciation of the working class. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has clawed his way to fortune by climbing over the backs of his constituents. Calling Trump a populist leader is an insult to the genuine concerns of his base.
There are regressive, reactionary leaders like Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines. Duterte has exploited the concerns of ordinary people over deadly drugs. Duterte encourages vigilante squads to kill drug dealers. Those squads end up killing the very people who worry about drug abuse -innocent Filipinos accused, found guilty, and executed on the spot.
If not populists, what are we to call these autocratic leaders? We can certainly call them xenophobes. The vote on Brexit and the second-place showing of Marine Le Pen in France demonstrates that. Perhaps no one word will do. Instead we will have to use full sentences, even paragraphs to say what we mean.
While the meaning of populism is less clear, the fundamental concerns of the poor and working class are not. Canadians yearn for leaders who are pure of heart, not opportunists who use them as stepping stones to promote their warped ambitions.