Something really important happened to President Trump this week – but it was not the Ukraine scandal that convinced the Democrats to begin formal impeachment hearings in the House. No, Donald Trump’s big event this week was that his job approval ratings have returned to where they have been pretty much since the day he was elected – recovering from a slight August slump. They sit at 45.3 percent as of Tuesday afternoon.
That’s right! On the day when new revelations related to Trump pressuring Ukraine to dig up dirt on his leading political opponent (Joe Biden) finally forced a cautious Democratic leadership to begin the formal impeachment process, a poll comes out putting Trump’s approval rating at 45%.
Meanwhile in the U.K., the British Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson illegally suspended Parliament, dealing him another heavy blow and thrusting the nation’s politics into even deeper turmoil, barely a month before Britain could leave the European Union without a deal.
So one would think that Boris Johnson is on his way out. Quite the opposite! Johnson returned to Parliament defiant and demanding an election. And an aggregation of polls released Tuesday came up with following results if a British election were held today: Boris Johnson’s Conservatives would win 323 seats, Labour 222, the Liberal Democrats 32, the Scottish National Party 48, Plaid Cymru (a Welsh independence party) four, the Greens two and the Brexit party one seat.
Does the right wing, populist voting block believe in the rule of law?
What does it mean that the president of the United States and the Prime Minister of Britain can emerge, virtually unscathed, from public revelations that they engaged in actions that, even a few years ago, would have immediately forced them from office in disgrace?
It means that their political base is indifferent, perhaps even hostile, to democratic institutions and norms. It means that no matter how anti-democratic their behaviour, Trump and Johnson’s base will stick with them – perhaps even delight in their outrageous behaviour.
What are the implications of this?
Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday that the House would begin a formal impeachment inquiry of President Trump, saying that he had betrayed his oath of office and the nation’s security in seeking to enlist a foreign power for his own political gain. These are the words she used:
“The actions taken to date by the president have seriously violated the Constitution.” Mr. Trump, she said, “must be held accountable — no one is above the law.”
But what if this sort of language – language that assumes support for the rule of law – has no resonance with the 45% or so of the U.S. electorate that comprise the Trump base? What if Trump’s populist voters don’t care if their president flouts the law even when it’s solely for his partisan gain? What does that mean for U.S. democracy?
A study which recently won a top political science award, has some unsettling insights into this question.
The paper, “A ‘Need for Chaos’ and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies,” came out in August 2018 but just won an award from the American Political Science Association—and subsequently got highlighted by the New York Times’s Thomas Edsall. The researchers, from Denmark’s Aarhus University and Temple University, were interested in why people spread “hostile political rumors” online.
One explanation is that in an increasingly polarized age, partisans are more likely to share nasty bits of gossip—true or not—about their political opponents.
But the paper’s authors came to a more disturbing conclusion. As reported by Edsall:
.””The responses to three statements related to a preference for chaos in politics were “staggering”: 24 percent agreed that society should be burned to the ground; 40 percent concurred with the thought that “When it comes to our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking ‘just let them all burn”; and 40 percent also agreed that “we cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.”
If this “preference for chaos” thesis is correct, Trump might actually be impatient for the formal, televised House impeachment hearings to begin because basically, the televised circus is the part of politics that he fundamentally enjoys. And he enjoys it because that is the part of politics his base follows and this reality TV aspect of politics is why they bother to vote.
In other words, as the 2020 U. S. election approaches, we can expect Trump not to be deterred by the prospect of the House impeachment hearings. In fact, he is likely to embrace them! He has proved repeatedly that he is willing to gamble on his ability to profit from a climate of chaos and threat, to rely on an ever-present sense of crisis to energise and expand his base.
Populist Authoritarianism in Canada
But does any of this apply to Canada? Unfortunately, there is considerable evidence it does.
First and foremost, we have last year’s Doug Ford victory in Ontario.
Ford won with 40% of the Ontario vote. He also won without a platform and with most of his campaign consisting of calling the then Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne “corrupt” and promising to “drain the swamp”.
Ford’s idea of “draining the swamp” turned out to be hiring as his Chief of Staff, Dean French, who immediately instituted a regime of intimidation and bullying of cabinet ministers, back bench government MPP’s, and ministerial staff. He also tried to get Ford’s old buddy, Ron Taverner, appointed as head of the Ontario Provincial Police – a position the 72 yr. old Taverner was manifestly unqualified for. French was eventually forced to resign as evidence mounted that when not bullying ministers and ministerial staff, French had pulled strings to get numerous friends and family members hired or appointed to various Ontario government departments and agencies.
But the fact remains that 40% of Ontarians voted for the right wing, populist Ford. Ford was a well known political figure in Ontario at the time he was elected and Ontarians who voted for Ford knew that tearing things down (eg. the loss of 10,000 teachers over the next 5 years) would be his paramount concern with competent government being pretty far down on his list of priorities. Given that most Ontarians knew this about Ford, it is worth examining the mindset of those who put him in power.
Pollster Frank Graves and commentator Michael Valpy see the emergence of two distinct blocks of voters in Canada.
One block consists of “people rooted in a specific place or community, socially conservative, often less educated, mainly male, mainly but by no means exclusively older and white”. This is the right-wing populist voting block.
The other block consists of “those who come from “anywhere” — footloose, often urban, socially liberal and university educated.” Graves and Valpy see Canada’s main political parties orienting themselves around these two blocks of voters with the Conservative Party attracting the vast majority of right wing, populist voters and the three other parties splitting the more socially liberal voting block.
In their eyes, the polarization between these two distinct kinds of voters “have created two irreconcilable Americas, two irreconcilable Britains and two irreconcilable Canadas.”
Graves and Valpy point out that the numbers of Canadians being drawn into the right-wing populist camp are not noticeably increasing. While that may be the case, they also caution that:
“It’s not the populist numbers — about 34 per cent of the adult population, smaller than the 44 per cent in the U.S. — it’s the extreme polarization exhibited by those swept into the populist vortex: the depth of their feeling, their anger and their passion. Plus in the last few years they’ve become politicized, drawn almost entirely into one political party, the Conservatives.”
Graves and Valpy also assert that like the populist base of Trump’s Republican Party and that of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in the U.K., the the Conservative Party of Canada base is mistrustful of the “mainstream” media, facts, science, experts (including the civil service) and climate change. Most importantly, they prefer to base their policy preferences more on a given policy’s gut appeal than on evidence. This voting base also reflects the interests of “old stock” Canadians and is uncomfortable with the growth of visible minorities in urban areas across the country.
The two studies (one of American voters and the other of Canadian) may analyse the values of the right-wing, populist voting block in slightly different ways, but there is no question that they are talking about the political values of the same kinds of voters. And in Canada, these voters are overwhelmingly supporting Andrew Scheer’s Conservative Party.
What this post is arguing is that the right wing populism we are witnessing globally poses a serious threat to Canada’s democratic institutions and norms. If democratic institutions in countries such as the U.S. and Britain – with their strong traditions of democracy and the rule of law – are beginning to buckle, the same forces undermining democracy in these two countries will be present in Canada as well.
And this is the really scary thing. While conservative political parties created the right-wing, populist voting block in whose eyes leaders such as Trump, Johnson and Ontario’s Doug Ford can do no wrong, they are also prisoners of it. As Trump has made clear time after time, right-wing, populist leaders will do and say anything to energise their minority base.
Cutting taxes and reducing “red tape” just won’t do it for this crowd. Old school conservative policies are boring for these folks – they need the circus like atmosphere and chaos that leaders like Trump, Johnson and Ford excel in to be motivated to get out and vote. As such, right-wing populist leaders like Trump, Johnson and Ford need to keep “feeding the beast” in the form of more and more extreme rhetoric to keep their base fully involved in the political process.
It is possible that in Canada as a whole, the right wing, populist voting block is not quite as large as it is in the U.S. and Britain. Maybe in Canada it is closer to 35% (see quote by Graves/Valpy above) rather than the 45% in those countries.
But that is likely because populism takes a different form in Quebec. One would be naive to think that English Canadian political culture differs significantly from that of the U.S. and Britain. After all, Doug Ford got 40% of the Ontario vote by campaigning (and subsequently governing) right out of the Trump/Johnson playbook.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer may not have the populist flair that comes naturally to showmen like Trump, Johnson and Ford. But as Graves and Valpy show, the right wing, populist voting block in Canada is overwhelmingly supporting his Conservative Party and that means he will have to give them enough populist, “red meat” to get them to vote in sufficient numbers for him to win.
In summary, right wing populism is proving to be an extremely dangerous global phenomenon and Canadians need to do everything possible to resist the chaos and attacks on our democratic institutions that we see today in the U.S. and Britain.
Right now, the Conservatives and Liberals seem to be in a dead heat in the federal election and it appears that both parties will fall short of a majority government.
Behind the scenes, the Liberals, NDP, and Greens need to quietly begin to talk about the kind of government Canada will have after October 21 should no party win a majority.
Some sort of post-election agreement between these parties may be the only way to prevent the destructive politics of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson from taking power in Ottawa.
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