The electoral dynamics related to the right-wing populism that is reshaping the politics of Western democracies are becoming increasingly clear.
Essentially, what is emerging are two voting blocks that differ profoundly from the left-right voting blocks of previous years.
One voting block (a minority of the Canadian electorate) has a “traditionalist” worldview. These voters have concerns about the increasing number of visible minorities in Canada and are uncomfortable with a more diverse Canada more generally. They also have a strong sense of financial insecurity, believe more in gut instinct than in evidence when it comes to public policy, are skeptical of the fact-based “mainstream” media, place little importance on expertise (whether that expertise is found in government or the scientific community), and generally believe that fighting climate change hurts their economic interests.
Finally, they are resentful – both of those who they think look down on them (think Doug Ford’s “elites”) and of those they believe are getting “something for nothing” (think social assistance recipients).
It’s this sort of resentful, traditionalist thinking that is infiltrating and ultimately taking over Western right-of-centre political parties such as the U.S. Republican Party and the U.K.’s Conservative Party.
Canada’s federal Conservative Party, along with provincial small “c” conservative parties, have largely succumbed to this trend. Research from the polling firm EKOS suggests that about 30 to 40 per cent of adult Canadians are drawn to this strain of right-wing populism and the overwhelming majority of these voters support the federal Conservative Party and their provincial, conservative counterparts. Strategists in the federal Conservative Party feel that they have no choice but to cater to this voting block whether they truly believe its broad political narrative or not.
Given that the left-of-centre vote in Canada is splintered between four parties (Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and the Bloc), 35% of the vote would easily give Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives the most seats in Parliament in the upcoming election, while 37% would likely give the Conservatives a majority government. Therefore, Conservative strategists see no need to reach out to voters outside of this right-wing, populist voting block. On the contrary, they see the path to victory as mobilizing these voters and getting them to the polls in record numbers in October.
Canadian right-wing populism has already had its first significant victory in the form of Ontario’s Doug Ford government. Clearly, Doug Ford did not win the 2018 Ontario election by reaching out to the political centre. Quite the opposite, he doubled down on energizing his populist base. Federal Conservative Party strategists have clearly taken note of this.
The above describes the political sensibilities of the emerging right-wing, populist voting block. However, in demographic terms, what kinds of people are most attracted to this sort of populism?
The demographic basis of right-wing populism
At the heart of this populist voting block are men without university degrees. According to polling done by Frank Graves of EKOS, in the 2018 Ontario election, Doug Ford did surprisingly well amongst millennial men – contrary to the conventional wisdom that millennials lean left. According to Graves, millennial men split their votes evenly between the Ontario NDP and Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, and they led female millennials by 10 points in turning out to cast ballots. Women, meanwhile, preferred the Ontario New Democratic Party by a margin of 25 points, and the millennial women who didn’t vote NDP largely stayed home (at least partly explaining the collapse of Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario Liberals).
Survey evidence from EKOS strongly suggests that young men without university degrees supporting right-wing populism are angry about the poor job prospects they face and their more general sense that their living standards will not match those of their parents.
And they are right to be angry. A recent study of the southern Ontario labour market reports that only 44 per cent of millennials in the region have full-time, permanent jobs, that the majority have not found work that provides extended health benefits, pension plans, or employer-funded training, and that formerly high-paying blue-collar jobs there are rapidly vanishing. This, in turn, makes men without university degrees ideal targets for the appeals of right-wing populism.
What is happening electorally challenges the conventional view that the youngest adults in Canadian society—the millennials, now Canada’s largest electoral demographic—operate with roughly similar, progressive views and values. To be blunt, young men without university degrees are not exactly obsessing about climate change. On balance, they strongly support new pipelines and big infrastructure projects that bring good paying jobs. And why wouldn’t they?
It is also worth noting that while Canadian right-wing populism tends not to overtly play the immigrant/race card to nearly the extent of its U.S. and British counterparts, 65 per cent of Conservative supporters told EKOS this year that Canada admits too many non-white immigrants. EKOS reports that this compares to 20 per cent of New Democratic Party supporters and 13 per cent of Liberal supporters who believe too many non-white immigrants are entering the country. And while a majority of Canadians are open to immigration, EKOS finds that those Canadians that do oppose immigration, do so intensely.
What all this suggests is that right-wing populism will be a significant factor in the upcoming federal election. In the 2015 federal election, EKOS pollster Graves reports that party voting differences by gender for all age groups were negligible. Now the federal Conservatives hold a 17-point advantage among men from all age groups other than seniors —a huge change in three years. Federal Conservatives also hold an advantage over Liberals and New Democrats with voters who self-identify as working class, and the party has overwhelming support from non-university-educated Canadians, the group most likely to feel left behind by the disappearance of good paying, blue-collar jobs with benefits.
Andrew Scheer leads a Conservative Party whose base is increasingly a casualty of a changing economy rather than the traditional Conservative Party base of the comfortably off. This new conservative base is also uncomfortable with the increase in visible minorities in Canadian society – even as the Liberal government announces Canada will admit an additional 40,000 immigrants by 2021, bringing the annual number of new, mostly non-white arrivals to 350,000.
What this means is that any campaign rhetoric that equates “Canadian values” with multiculturalism and high levels of immigration will only exacerbate the anger of this right-wing, populist voting block. Again, those who oppose immigration are a minority – but a minority who feel strongly about the issue and who are largely united behind one party – the Conservative Party. In contrast, the majority supporting immigration and a multicultural Canada are split between three parties (one assumes that Bloc supporters, while progressive in many ways, are not particularly pro-immigration).
What we do know is that the populist Doug Ford Ontario government is what many Ontario men voted for. Of course, it is likely they didn’t vote for the specific policies enacted by the Ford government once in power. Maybe, in their anger, they just voted for a plain-talking, tough guy who they saw as “one of us” and who would shake things up.
But as is the case with Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Doug Ford is not “one of us”. He is a rich man’s son who was a MPP in the Mike Harris, Ontario conservative government. And when you are a rich man’s son who was active in conservative politics, you know who you take your orders from.
Which brings us to what right-wing populist governments actually do once elected and who really the calls the shots in determining their legislative agenda.
Why right-wing, populist governments hurt the people who vote for them.
The most important thing to understand about right wing, populist parties is that their actual legislative agenda and program initiatives when in power, do little to improve the economic well being of their working class base.
In fact, the central story of U.S., British and Canadian conservative governments since the 1970’s is an intense determination to slash taxes for the wealthy and large corporations, gut labour and environmental legislation, and undermine the social safety net.
This is why the Conservatives are also increasingly supported by Canada’s self-defined upper class – people who do not go with their “gut-instincts” but who follow politics very closely and are directly involved in setting the legislative agenda of provincial and federal governments.
EKOS polling suggests that the Tories have a huge lead with this group who support the Conservatives because they strongly believe that a federal Conservative government’s actual policies and programs will serve their class interests.
In other words, Canada’s wealthiest one percent are swinging strongly behind Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives because the Conservatives support a policy agenda consisting of cuts to social programs, tax reductions for business and the wealthy, deregulation, weak labour and environmental legislation, and the privatization of public services. And they expect a Conservative government to implement this agenda once elected.
Canada’s business community also supports this traditional conservative policy agenda and under Canada’s small “c” conservative federal and provincial governments, business backed lobbying groups have been the real muscle in pushing through legislation and programs that favour the wealthy and large corporations. This largely hidden electoral alliance of those that are struggling economically and the lobbying organizations of the biggest winners in the new economy, is critical to right-wing populism’s success. Again, exactly the same thing has happened in the U.S. and Britain.
This policy agenda of cuts to social programs, tax reductions for business and the wealthy, weak labour and environmental legislation, and privatization, however, is broadly unpopular. Most voters believe that the rich should pay more, not less, in taxes, and want spending on social programs to rise, not fall. This is as true of the angry men that form the core of the right-wing, populist voting block as it is of the broader population.
That is why right-wing populist parties have to play to the fear of change and the general resentment of their working class base. If they campaigned on their true economic agenda, which favours the rich and large corporations, they would suffer politically.
How do Conservative parties win elections if their actual governing program is not in the interests of the people who vote for them?
They actively encourage the fear of change and the resentment of their working class electoral base.
How do they actually govern?
Just follow the money.