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Monday, March 16, 2009

The rise of Harper populism

One of the significant shifts in the political landscape of late that I’ve focused on in particular, given my libertarian perspective, is the move away from small-government/fiscal-conservative tendencies by the Conservative Party of Canada. 

While many of been quick to view this move by the party, or maybe more specifically Stephen Harper as a step to “the left”, I think to say this is jumping the gun. 

Labels are fun.  People like labels--and we label everything.  I’ve got nothing in particular against labels.  Practically speaking, everything can have a label to describe it’s physical state.  Sometimes one-word is too ambiguous a label to convey the nuance of a particular state, but I think you get the picture. 

One of the underlying themes of the Manning Centre Networking Conference 2009 was the attempt to define the “conservative” label. 

Certainly, the word conservative means many different things to many different people.  In fact, the word can carry both left-wing and right-wing connotations depending on where you are in the world, and where you are in history.

Some people, including myself have started to coalesce around terms like the freedom movement as opposed to the conservative movement to try and break away from the outward ambiguity that the word conservative implies.  In fact, I think such distinction will become increasingly important as we move forward into the near future. 

The word populism means a great many things to a great many people, too.  Strangely though, it seems to carry with it a positive connotation among a great many people--especially in the conservative movement.  I’m not sure that these people have actually opened up an encyclopedia to fully understand the meaning of, and the history of, the word and it’s place in political history.  But anybody who believes in freedom and liberty as high ideals should pause before using the term in a positive regard.

I identify populism with a negative connotation because it is often broadly associated with collectivist tendencies.   It is also often very sinister, in that, populist sentiment is usually the product of intentional and intellectually vacuous political agitation.  Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Party is probably the most poignant example of populism in the twentieth century, and I assure you that I’m not trying to Godwin this argument but: I find it curious that a great number of conservatives also call themselves populists.

Perhaps it’s not so curious.  Conservatives do, in fact, rely heavily on populist appeal as a cornerstone of their modern platform; tough of crime being the most prime example of this. 

Naomi Klein’s book Disaster Capitalism attempted to promote the theory that neoconservatives were using disasters as an opportunity to back-end load deregulation and pro-corporate agendas in the midst of the rebuilding. 

In the recent economic meltdown, many on the right have been quick to point to what you might call Disaster Socialism: using the economic plight and apprehensions of the masses to spread collectivist socialist agendas.

The problem, I think, with Klein and even those who respond to her is that they are both missing the point.  The point is that when push comes to shove, the people in power almost always see disaster as an opportunity to use populist appeal to manufacturer consent.

The 9/11 attacks allowed a Bush Administration--filled with tough of crime goons--an opportunity to convince the public that they were in need of a giant security apparatus that would untangle privacy rights, abridge due process and justify massive increases in defense spending.

The financial crisis, has allowed leftists to put forward agendas of mass government spending, nationalization of private interests, and increases in business regulation.

The last point is perhaps too specific, because it’s no longer just leftists pursuing that agenda.  Rather it’s both the left and the right, with the right championing it all as necessary whilst saying they would be far more measured in their government intervention than the left--the matter of degree argument.

Perhaps what was most stunning about the Manning conference was the degree to which Conservatives are eminently aware of the game being played.  Some of them even blatantly promoting using populist appeal/sentiment to maintain power; the placation of the masses so they can survive electorally.

The problem with populism is not that it’s about appealing to the masses by responding to the desires of the masses.  Rather, the problem is that the populist sentiment is reciprocal.  It is as much about leaders telling the masses what to think, as it is about the masses thinking it. 

Whether you like it or not, many average people look to their political leader of choice to educate themselves about the issues. When Stephen Harper says something is necessary for the survival of the Canadian economy, a great deal of people will buy into this implicitly, and then will proceed to demand action to that regard.  This is the problem with populism.

Hitler’s agitation of anti-Jewish sentiment bred and coalesced support for the Nazi Party on that ground.  They manufactured the support as much as they inherited it.

Once again--not trying to Godwin the argument--but the Conservatives have decidedly taken a populist path towards advancing their support.  It takes the form of fear, uncertainty and doubt.  But it is not decidedly ideological in and of itself.

Stephen Harper defines conservatism as the three Fs: freedom, family and faith--with the enemies to these three pillars being everyone else who’s not conservative.

Freedom is a good enough pillar, except for the fact that one must have some sort of lucid concept of it for the use of the word to be interesting in and of itself.  Coincidentally, socialists believe they’ve cornered the market on freedom as well.

Family has long been ingrained into the fabric of conservatives as a principle.  It’s quite hard to actually figure out, just how, conservatives promote and protect family.  Certainly, opposition to same-sex marriage, and favourable tax policy towards families with children have been typical examples.  In general, the idea that the concept of family is one to be politically advanced, maintained and protected falls distinctly into the populist category for me.

Faith is well, another element of populist appeal.  Don’t even get me started on that.

The implicit enemy to freedom, family, and faith is the Liberal and NDP party.  And the underlying message is now: sure we’re doing lots of stuff wrong, but they’d do worse. 

Personally I would prefer more specific policy planks like: less government, less taxes, and more choice. 

But the debate has become almost purely emotive.  You can just feel better that Harper is in charge.  Forget the fact he’s wholesale abandoned the classical liberal principles which in reality, were the underpinnings of the tenuous big-tent intellectual alliance that comprises the CPC.

It was the so-called fiscal conservatism that was the glue that held the social conservatives, Red Tories, and libertarians in a quasi-stable state.  But for Harper, fiscal conservatism is no longer essential to his populist message.  It is rather the opposite: government is here to save you.  Government will help you.  Government will save the market from itself.  And we’ll promote and protect freedom, family and faith for good measure.

Harper is busy throwing libertarians and classical liberals under the bus as part of his move to re-brand the party as an aggressively centrist party that promotes false notions of pragmatism and steady governance.  He is, in fact, building a new house on the foundations that the Liberal Party of Canada is built on by building a populist mythos to replace the mythos of Trudeau’s Canada.  A senior Conservative Party strategist even went so far to say that “the Conservative Party is well on it’s way to becoming the natural governing party of Canada”.

Back in 2006, Conservatives were absolutely offended by the idea the Liberal’s had the tenacity to consider themselves the party of Canada.  Today, the Conservative Party is doing everything it can to transform itself into a centrist, populist apparatus that identifies with Canada, and Canada identifies with it. 

Fiscal conservatism will not be the only victim in this tirade.  There will be many more. 

The Conservative Party is in dire need of being saved from itself.  It is in dire need of being defeated so real debate, instead of naked partisanship and populism can be replaced by real principle again.

Posted by Mike Brock on March 16, 2009 | Permalink


Thanks Mike. I fear my fellow libertarian-conservatives in America got the same treatment. George W. played a great game on social conservatism so nobody was really paying attention to the big Wyoming corporate guy right behind him. We seem to forget that either you are for more government or for less, that should be the question.

I, for one, would like acute governance - government has certain roles to play and does them extremely well. Not a government that can give you anything because...

Posted by: Josef | 2009-03-16 4:31:36 PM

Canadians as well as the Western Standard whine and whine and whine that they never have a politician who is a true leader. And especially one that is right of centre. Someone that they can trust to steer the ship so they can sleep at one.

Well, we finally have one in Stephen Harper who is arguably the best post WWII Prime Minsiter we've ever had and all the Western Stupid does is consistently tear him down, call him a populist and bizzarely accuse him of not carrying out a llibertarian agenda.

How soon you forget those dark decades when the corrupt Liberals were in charge. You have no idea of the work it takes to gently wean socialists off the teats of government.

How many months of operating cash do you guys have left? I hope it is more than your common sense.

Posted by: epsilon | 2009-03-16 4:42:48 PM

So Epsilon, you take no issue with deficit spending and socialist economic policy wrt Stimulus package?

Why do you post here if this is such an awful place -filled with people who do nothing but whine and criticize Stephen Harper? There must be something that keeps you coming back.

Posted by: MW | 2009-03-16 4:56:08 PM


SH is embarking on a massive Keysian spending spree. What is the point of voting for a party that presents itself as diametrically opposed to the liberals and NDP and then turns around and implements their agenda?

Posted by: Charles | 2009-03-16 5:30:58 PM

Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Party is probably the most poignant example of populism in the twentieth century.....

I find it curious that a great number of conservatives also call themselves populists.
Posted by Mike Brock on March 16, 2009

There we have it. The Conservative Party are actually Nazi's. Go out and buy a black uniform, some jackboots and learn to goosestep.

In fact Brock the Nazi's were ethno-nationalists not populists. And the best example of populism is Argentina where Peronism still exists after 60 years.

Posted by: The Stig | 2009-03-16 5:38:35 PM

I think Stig might have a point with respect to populism. I don't think you can acurately characterize what Harper is doing and has been doing as a "populist" sort of thing.

In practice Harper's actions are not very populist at least insofar as he has been led by the majority of the party. Remember his position on Sec13 HRC, His position on the abortion debate, and his position on gay marriage.

Party members may feel or think that the party is populist, but in reality -- Harper's got his own thing going and doesn't seem to care about the majority of his party's opinion.

Posted by: MW | 2009-03-16 5:53:18 PM

"In practice Harper's actions are not very populist at least insofar as he has been led by the majority of the party. Remember his position on Sec13 HRC, His position on the abortion debate, and his position on gay marriage."

Populism is largely misunderstood as meaning: doing what the majority wants. This seems to be your definition, and it's not what populism is at all. It's far more nuanced.

Read this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Populism

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-03-16 5:58:07 PM

And Stig can read this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right-wing_populism

"The strategy of right-wing populism relies on a combination of ethno-nationalism with anti-elitist populist rhetoric and a radical critique of existing political institutions.[3][4][5][6]"

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-03-16 6:00:25 PM

yah, I read the wiki entry.

Going through it... "a personalistic leader seeks or exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, uninstitutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganized followers."

I don't see Harper as "personalistic". Do you?

I also don't see any evidence that Harper listens to anybody - except on occasion Tom Flanagan.

But I could be persuaded...

Posted by: MW | 2009-03-16 6:05:12 PM


I don't think that Harper is a "populist", but I would say that the party is edging towards populism with it's embrace of populist tenets as opposed to ideological principles as a way of maintaining power for powers sake.

I'm using populism a little more broadly than the perhaps traditional image of a populist, like a Hitler or a even a Chavez, but my point is that the illusive "political centre" is by it's nature a form of repressed populism. It's not same type of populism built-atop a personality cult, but it's populist because it appeals to the emotional and traditional, whilst demonizing false enemies both real and abstract.

I guess you could call it soft populism.

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-03-16 6:11:18 PM

Good distinction Mike. Now I see where you are coming from...

I also grabbed this from the wiki entry:

"Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell who, in their volume Twenty-First Century Populism, define populism as pitting "a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice" "

If that's accurate, then I definately can see why somebody might characterize what's going on, as populism.

Lots to think about here.

Posted by: MW | 2009-03-16 6:16:59 PM

Harper entangled himself with playing political games for sake of it. It had worked well for him till Dion become the leader of the opposition. Having not real strong opponent reduced this play to amateurish level symptomatically expressed by sophomoric drawings of pooping bird. I don't know if you can lock a populist position in the narrow mentality of halls on Parliament Hill. I even don't think that the populi knows what is the message. A 5-year old can see that decision-shy pragmatism and the hazy promise of stability is just begging: "I have this good family and some faith, sprinkled with tempered freedom, so let me enjoy my personal status of Prime Minister"

Posted by: xiat | 2009-03-16 6:20:37 PM


Another excellent post. I like your idea of "disaster statism" (I don't think you used that term, but it fits, no?)

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-03-16 6:41:18 PM

Hopefully there are enough Canadians who are intelligent enough to realize what Harper is up to.

One of the priorities of the next government has got to be to make educating children on the Parliamentary processes a mandatory core subject from Gr. 5 through to 12 or 13; with thorough discussions on the thinking process.

I can't believe that this pack of goons is in charge of the PMO.

Posted by: Elizabeth Montgomery/Calgary | 2009-03-16 8:33:53 PM

Harper is doing whatever he can to stay in power. If it means being a populist, putting through a huge stimulus, attacking Quebec favouritism and then embracing it, attacking corporate welfare and then practicing it, calling himself a libertarian on television and later attacking libertarians, etc. Harper ran for leadership of the Alliance on an anti-merger platform and then he worked hard at completing the merger. Harper will be who you want him to be, whoever you are. That's Harper. So that being said and the Conservative party exposed as a traditional brokerage party, let's take stock of the bigger picture. The Tories remain the lesser of the evils. Until we get proportional representation, we're stuck with the two major parties wielding power. Support PR or some form of it and you will see a more interesting parliament and some new ideas which will challenge the status quo.

Posted by: Realist | 2009-03-16 10:30:08 PM


I liked this post but I'm even more impressed by the civil and productive discussion. There have been some disagreements but also good faith discussion. Refreshing.

Posted by: Kalim Kassam | 2009-03-17 1:35:03 AM

Self centered PM Stepen Harper is doing whatever he can to stay in power, and still really is not looking after other's good welfare, to me sadly typifies what a Conservative really is, Conservatives basically they don't care about anyone else but themselves. The word liberal in contrast means to give generously to others.

Posted by: thenonconformer | 2009-03-17 3:29:42 AM

Harper's attempt to stay in power is costing the Canadian taxpayer's billions and billions of dollars.. " It's generally conceded that Stephen Harper lost his chance for a majority government by alienating Quebec with a $45 million arts cut. Seen there as a glimpse into the Conservative soul, that petty parsimony restored the flagging Bloc, costing the ruling party badly needed seats. Now this Harsh political and economic realities is forcing minority Conservatives into decisions inconsistent with their past ideology. Rescuing corporate failures, picking industrial winners and protecting losers from creative economic destruction are not policies Conservatives would normally support. Harper facing an early election against a more credible Liberal leader and with two of the Big Three automakers in Canada in imminent danger, Harper faced brutally difficult choices... toss many billions at General Motors and Chrysler, praying they don't fail, or come back for more before the next federal lections. Or he can stand back while the shrinking auto giants restructure under bankruptcy protection, risking a broader collapse carrying away dependent parts suppliers and even more jobs, particularly in vote-sensitive Ontario and Quebec." Of all appeals for public support, Chrysler's is most instructive. Controlled by a private equity firm, the company is essentially begging taxpayers to take a risk it won't ask of its investors. That pokes a gaping hole in the argument that Chrysler, along with the rest of the industry, just needs some time and money to weather the current crisis, while raising serious doubts about how much long-term protection public money will provide for auto jobs. In a different political environment a majority government, Conservative or Liberal, with a four-year mandate, would have been be inclined to look harder at other more practical solutions. Instead of falling back on bailouts, It would focus spending on stimulating vital demand, not specific rescues, and on retraining workers for the jobs that will exist in five or 20 years. Either way, that $45 million in arts cuts now looks like the most costly money the federal Conservatives ever promised not to spend... James Travers

Posted by: thenonconformer | 2009-03-17 3:40:21 AM

Populism = Corruption. The 2 go hand and hand. Populists make me cringe. Think about the corrupt Louisiana governor that began life as a so called populist? Think about the French Revolution and the Terror - that is what mob mentality leads.

Posted by: Faramir | 2009-03-17 2:57:14 PM

Populism can be either negative or positive. It depends on who is pushing it and how. "Tough on crime" can be a good thing. The death penalty was reinstated because of the popular will of the American people(versus the desires of leftist judges). I'm sure many Canadians wished for such a successful populist push. It is populism(together with constitutional history) that has made our right to bear arms a lot more secure than yours in Canada. It is the will of the people that partial birth abortion can be banned. Populism often goes offtrack when it is brought into the economic and foreign policy realm. One example is Pat Buchanan's battle cry to raise tariffs and fight free trade. Another is the pseudosocialism and corruption of the Louisiana Kingfish(Governor Huey Long). Thus,it is more a question of how populism is employed.
The sad fact is that Harper is still probably the most right-wing Canadian prime minister since Bennett(Conservative 1930-1935). I am sadly disappointed by many things that Harper has done. I oppose him on the stimulus, his refusal to allow an abortion vote, his failure to dissolve the human rights commissions, his unwillingness
to use the nonwithstanding clause to overturn the activist judicial ruling on gay marriage, and other issues. There are only two reasons that I see left to vote for him. One is that he is the toughest on criminals. The other parties seem to have a "coddle a criminal" approach to crime. The other is that the Liberals, NDP(look at early 1990's Ontario), and Bloc(look at Quebec) would be even worse on spending.

Posted by: David | 2009-03-17 3:41:52 PM

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