“In his quest for the national Conservative leadership it seems there are no limits on what Pierre Poilievre is prepared to say to curry favour with the angry anti-vax constituency in his party, the same people prone to disappear down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories about globalist plots to run the world,” the Star’s editorial board wrote on June 8, about the man who is the clear front runner in the federal Conservative Party leadership race.
Poilievre is running a textbook campaign to appeal to the northern Trumpist crowd, a constituency with an authoritarian political outlook that has grown to be a substantial chunk of Canadian voters. And do not count Poilievre out for the 2025 race for Prime Minister. Appealing to the Canadian Trump crowd may be a recipe for electoral success even in a general election in a country where a majority government can be won with 35 per cent of the vote.
And the truth is that the same angry, populist political outlook that drives Trump supporters in the U.S. and is driving Poilievre’s federal Conservative campaign, was the key to understanding many of Doug Ford’s supporters in the June 2, Ontario election. After all, that same block of voters made Ford’s brother Rob, Toronto’s mayor and have been with the Premier a very long time.
What all this amounts to is that the traditional left-right political axis in Canada is slowly being displaced by a new political axis which is profoundly different from the old one. Put simply, status quo (or traditional) conservatism is being transformed into an authoritarian populist movement in Canada much as it has in the US (Trump) and the U.K. (Brexit and Boris Johnston).
This new populism has a particular disdain for elites. Yet, the elites that are vilified by the new populism are not the people who run our giant banks and insurance companies, our telecom companies or our food conglomerates. They are not really economic elites at all. Rather, in the eyes of the new populists, they are shadowy political elites who are out of touch with the lives of ordinary people and may even be secretly plotting against them.
And strikingly for a political movement, the new conservative populism is not very interested in what governments actually do. Political debates used to about how governments should act on issues such as taxes, the budget, the health care system and education. But there is less and less of that kind of talk amongst conservatives. These days, political debate on the right is rarely about how our health care system can do a better job keeping us healthy or how our schools, colleges and universities can better educate our young people. Instead, there is endless talk about how the government is taking away our “freedom” and the constant stoking of anger, fear, resentment and outrage through demonstrably false statements and conspiracy theories.
To some readers, what I am describing may very well describe the populism of the moment but it may not explain why I describe the current populism as authoritarian populism. In other words, where is the threat to democracy in all of this?
As described above, at the core of the current wave of conservative populism, lies a vague fear by a segment of the voting public that there are “elites” out there that don’t respect them and don’t have their interests at heart. Throw in a growing number of conservative politicians willing to exploit that fear with extreme, over-the-top rhetoric that derides facts as “fake news” and uses a belief in conspiracy theories as the secret password to join their club, and you have real problems.
More than anything else, what this means in a country where a political party that receives 35% of the vote can form a majority government, is that there is a real danger of electing a government with a weakened commitment to the rule of law. And by “rule of law” I mean the principle that all citizens and institutions are accountable to the same laws, that regardless of which party wins a general election, there is a peaceful transition to a new government, and that minority rights (all minorities) are respected.
The rise of authoritarian populism is a serious challenge to politics in many advanced Western democracies and Canada is no exception. It is profoundly anti-democratic and typically does not solve the problems that give rise to it. It tends to be xenophobic, racist and mistrustful of science, established institutions and even facts. It is also unsympathetic to diversity and gender issues and much more likely to see hard news and quality journalism as suspect (fake news).
In fact, there are virtually no examples of this form of authoritarian populism which ultimately serve the public interest. While we must strive to understand the sources of the fear and anger driving this outlook, having a large block of voters with an authoritarian mindset is not healthy for democracies, economies or societies. Unfortunately, the level of awareness and recognition of this force in Canada is very low. The level of understanding of what truly causes it, let alone how to approach it from a public policy perspective, is lower still.
While a policy agenda for dealing with such an acute and rising threat will only be hinted at in this post, I will make the following observation. Ignoring the problem or sneering at its supporters as deplorable and wrong-headed will only make things worse. This approach merely strengthens the emotional engagement of those drawn to authoritarian populism (and its leaders), and denies the undeniable fact that many of its supporters have experienced difficulties in the new economy through no fault of their own. Most of those drawn to this outlook are the losers in the post-1980 era of globalization, automation and the withering of the middle-class dream of shared prosperity. Any effective response to this problem requires not only a recognition of its existence, but a clearer understanding of what has produced it. It also requires respect for, if not agreement with, those who hold these views.
It is the thesis of this post that the main forces driving the growth of authoritarian populism are multi-decade income stagnation for the majority coupled with a growing hyper-concentration of wealth at the top. This post also posits a concurrent cultural backlash, linked to society-wide value and demographic shifts (in other words, a reaction against things like gay marriage, the blurring of traditional gender roles and the growth of the visible minority population), which has left those with a traditional view of Canada feeling threatened by trends that challenge their notions of what is “normal” and, more generally, their sense of the best values to guide society.
All of the forces noted above are clearly on display in Canada right now but it is also important to note that all these drivers of authoritarian populism are dramatically reinforced by the pervasive role of social media. Ad supported platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have enormous financial incentives to fine tune their algorithms to maximize eyeballs and this, in turn, results in more and more inflammatory content being sent to users to hold their attention and increase platform ad revenue.
In summary, the same forces underpinning the global rise of authoritarian populism (Trump, Brexit, etc.) are at play, in abundance, here in Canada.
The Conservative Party and authoritarian populism
While one could drill down on any of the above topics, for the purposes of this post, the most important point of the analysis presented above is that Canadians who hold an authoritarian populist viewpoint are currently overwhelmingly parking their vote with the Conservative Party, a party that is always in contention to win a Canadian federal election. Moreover, those that have tried to accurately measure the degree of support for authoritarian populism by using a reliable and valid index (Frank Graves of EKOS has developed an especially sophisticated index) have found that over one in three Canadian adults (34 per cent) are expressing this outlook (although this is smaller than the 44 per cent estimate in the U.S.). Again, in a country where 35% can deliver a majority government, this is truly alarming.
I have alluded to the fact that authoritarian populism is clearly linked to mistrust, deep dissatisfaction with the current societal direction, a heightened (and exaggerated) sense of external threat, and dramatically higher resistance to immigration in general and visible minority immigration in particular. Those expressing this outlook are more willing to accept increased police powers over civil liberty, are much less trusting of news and journalism (and basic facts), and are dramatically less sympathetic to the pursuit of gender equality and minority sexual orientations. This same widening polarization is also evident on other key issues such as climate change (with authoritarian populist voters dramatically less supportive of initiatives to deal with global warming).
One important point is that there is no clear evidence that Canada as a whole is opting for authoritarian populism – it is more the case that traditional conservative voters are morphing into authoritarian populists. Despite this aggregate finding, the intensity (even rage) of those supporting this view is deeply unsettling. Authoritarian populism is much more pronounced in those less educated (who are having a much more difficult time in the new economy) and those who identify as working class. It also rises with age. There are also important geographical connections, with Alberta and Saskatchewan being the most populist and those in the coastal provinces being the least so. Authoritarian populism is also dominant in rural Canada west of the Ottawa River. Finally, more men hold this view than women.
As alluded to above, by far the strongest connections, however, are to partisanship and authoritarian populism is now a critical sorting variable for vote intention. It is only when we look at these connections and the shifting characteristics of partisan voting blocks that we see the full impact of the movement. As mentioned above, the current political home for those expressing this outlook is the Conservative Party (and, of course, the much smaller People’s Party). And Conservative Party support has changed substantially in the last several years. The current Conservative Party base is far more economically pessimistic and much less content with national direction than it was in the past and much more unhappy than non-Conservative voters were at the end of the Harper regime. It is also clear that there has been a clear, steady rise in the incidence of Conservatives identifying as working class since 2013.
The once modest differences between Conservative Party supporters on the one hand and Liberal and NDP supporters on the other, on issues related to visible minority immigration, have become massive differences. Similarly, both immigration attitudes and authoritarian populism have been shown to be prime predictors of voter shifts in the last couple of federal elections in ways that were not present in the past. Much of this mirrors the transformation of the political landscape in the United States. Although our northern populism captures a somewhat smaller overall share of voters and is not primarily bounded by race, the key ingredients are common. Since at the federal level, the larger (around 60%), non-populist cohort is diffused over four centre-left choices, and has lower levels of emotional engagement than those expressing the authoritarian populist outlook, the Conservative Party will certainly be a threat in the next federal election.
Opposition to anti-Covid measures is just a small part of the problem
While anti-Covid measures have been a flashpoint between the two solitudes in the past eighteen months, growing frustrations among conservatives in North America are not only about strict pandemic measures. They’re also very much about a sense of lost identity – a white, Christian identity that sees immigration and multiculturalism as a growing threat to its dominance.
In Canada, neo-Nazi and Confederate flags were seen flying among QAnon logos at the “Freedom Convoy” truckers protests and members of the convoy were heard yelling racial slurs.
These longer-term identity issues are now playing a role in our electoral politics. In a survey conducted from June 10-12, with 1,528 Canadians, Leger polling found that of the Tory voters who responded to the survey, 65 per cent of them believe Pierre Poilievre, a supporter of the Freedom Convoy and a man very much at home trafficking in conspiracy theories and over-the-top rhetoric, would make the best party leader.
Jean Charest, Quebec’s former premier, came in a distant second at 14 per cent among Conservative voters, according to the survey’s findings, while the four other remaining candidates ranked even lower.
A recent EKOS poll shows further evidence of extremism in the Conservative Party: 95 per cent of Liberal voters, 94 per cent of NDP voters, 88 per cent of Bloc Québécois voters and 83 per cent of Green voters disapprove of the trucker’s convoy, while 89 per cent of supporters of the People’s Party of Canada — and most critically, 55 per cent of Conservative voters — approve. Which makes the Conservatives the convoy party now. Given that most polls show the Conservatives tied with the Liberals as of this writing, this is deeply unsettling.
Perhaps even more unsettling is a survey conducted with 1500 Canadian adults from May 20 to 24, by respected polling firm Abacus. It found that 37% of Canadians (or 11 million) think “there is a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native born Canadians with immigrants who agree with their political views”. This is an articulation of what is commonly referred to as replacement theory.
Amongst those who said they believed in this theory, 76% of Peoples Party supporters expressed agreement, 50% of Conservative Party supporters agreed with far fewer NDP, Liberal and Green Party supporters agreeing.
On May 14, a teenage gunman entranced by this white supremacist ideology, opened fire at a supermarket in Buffalo, methodically shooting and killing 10 people and injuring three more, almost all of them Black, in one of the deadliest racist massacres in recent American history.
Yet, less than two weeks later with the incident still prominent in the headlines, 50% of supporters of the Conservative Party of Canada expressed support for this theory.
Some initial policy suggestions
So here is my message to Canada’s centre-left political parties: the key to stopping the growth of authoritarian populism in Canada is to restore the old left-right axis in politics and make Canada’s political discourse more about how wealth and income should be divvied up amongst Canadians. Cultural and identity issues should be placed on the back burner and economic issues – wage stagnation, excessive corporate profits, taxes on the rich, etc. – should be the ballot questions.
In taking this approach, it soon becomes clear that while we now have two irreconcilable Canadas where there is virtually no common ground on many of the most important issue of the day, there is one area of partial consensus that should be front and centre in our political debates. While Canadians adamantly disagree about gender issues, minority sexual orientation, the truckers’ convoy, guns, crime, climate change and immigration, there appears to be at least partial agreement that long-term income stagnation for the majority and the hyper-concentration of wealth at the top of the system, is fundamentally wrong. Moreover, in both Canada and the United States, this partial consensus sees direct policies to level the playing field and restore shared prosperity as enjoying considerable support. This explains the overwhelming popularity of measures such as a wealth tax and an aggressive approach to raising the minimum wage.
The problems of authoritarian populism in Canada are complex and require much more careful study. If, however, the collapse of the middle-class dream originally set these forces in motion, then perhaps this is where policy-makers need to focus on creating a new economics of hope. The totality of the problem is almost certainly more complicated than this, but implementing measures such as a 2% wealth tax on individual assets over $10 million and increasing the minimum wage to $20 hr. over a four-year period (primarily a provincial responsibility), would be a promising start to rebottling the authoritarian genie. It would give people hope and re-assure them that the government is there for people who work hard and play by the rules.
The problem of authoritarian populism may be the key political challenge of this era. There is no path to solving other critical challenges in a Canada irreconcilably riven into two incommensurable views of the future.
Solving this challenge requires acknowledging its existence and understanding the factors that produced it. Cultural backlash, racism and xenophobia are perhaps even more daunting challenges than the economic forces that set this in motion. However, if the resentment and anger currently on display were initiated by the end of shared prosperity, then we need to fix our attention on that challenge in the short to medium term.
The evidence is very clear. Authoritarian populism is a critical and poorly understood force in Canada. It has produced a much more starkly divided Canada and recent federal and provincial elections did little if anything to mend this new rupture. If anything, the deep dissatisfaction with recent election results may be a harbinger of even deeper polarization in the near future. The most obvious fault lines — social class, region, gender and education — may be less important than the authoritarian populism that cuts across those divisions.
Canada needs to rapidly increase its understanding of how this force is evolving here and what the right policy response to this might be. Whatever you might think of Pierre Poilievre and the current iteration of the Conservative Party (and this writer doesn’t think much of either), the sneering among many in the professional classes is almost certainly going to make things worse, not better.