In his campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, Pierre Poilievre is running a textbook campaign to appeal to the northern Trumpist crowd, a constituency with a populist, right-wing political outlook that has grown to be a substantial chunk of Canadian voters.
And should he win, do not count a Poilievre led Conservative Party out in the 2025 federal election. Appealing to the Canadian Trump crowd may be a recipe for electoral success in a country where a majority government can be won with as little as 35 per cent of the vote.
Remember, in the 2021 election, the Conservatives received 33.7% of the vote, the Liberals 32.6%, and the NDP 17.8%. If in the 2025 election the Conservatives get 35% of the vote, the Liberals 29% and the NDP 20%, there will likely be a Conservative majority government. And this is with only a 1.3% increase in the Conservative Party share of the vote.
The New Conservative Party: Anger and resentment are in, balancing the budget is out
But how are the Poilievre supporters different from traditional Conservative voters?
The first thing to understand about Poilievre supporters is that they are not overly interested in what governments actually do.
Those with a keen interest in politics have traditionally been concerned with how governments should act on issues such as taxes, the budget, the health care system and education. In conservative circles, this usually translated into reining in government spending and keeping taxes as low as possible. But there is not much of this kind of talk amongst Poilievre Conservatives. These days, most of the discussion on the Poilievre right is about how government is “taking away our freedom” with perhaps some references to expired COVID restrictions (masks, vaccination requirements, etc.).
In other words, Poilievre supporters aren’t motivated by the issues usually considered to be at the heart of conservative politics: things like low taxes, balanced budgets, a belief in the primacy of markets, etc. That’s because what Poilievre supporters know about “politics” is primarily what conservative politicians and the conservative media (including social media) tell them. In fact, they have pretty much cut themselves off from mainstream media and hard news about what government does and doesn’t do.
This explains the centrality of conspiracy theories and the relative indifference to the workings of government amongst the new Conservatives. They may be interested in “politics” but it is not politics as it is traditionally understood. It is more simple narratives with villains who are a threat to a way of life. Poilievre supporters consider themselves “real” Canadians and the villains in the simple narratives they are constantly being fed, are not “real” Canadians and therefore threaten their understanding of the Canadian way of life.
The new conservatives are angry and their anger is their politics. Of course, they may very well live most of their everyday lives not being angry. They almost certainly love their children and want the best for them. They love and care for their elderly parents and are likely kindly neighbours. But when they are not angry, they are not thinking about “politics”. When they go and vote, they will be thinking about “politics” and voting for the candidate that best captures their anger and resentment. In 2022, it’s their anger that makes them conservatives.
And Pierre Poilievre gets these angry voters better than any other Canadian politician. In English and French.
The New Conservative Party: Politics is about about freedom from government
Everyday, Poilievre supporters drive their cars and pickup trucks for free on streets and highways paid for and maintained by governments. For 10 months of the year, their children attend schools for free because they are paid for (and staffed) by government. And everyday, Poilievre supporters are admitted to hospitals or visit their family physician – all for free because the government picks up the tab for them.
And, of course, at some level, Poilievre supporters know and appreciate all this.
But while they may like the fact that they don’t have to pay out-of-pocket for using roads, schools, hospitals and doctors, they rarely think about it. And anyway, this has nothing to do with “politics”.
When their minds turn to what they consider “politics”, government exists only to close down things that they enjoy (stores, restaurants, and bars) and force them to do things they don’t want to do (wear masks, get vaccinated and fill out long forms like the census). When the new Conservatives are thinking about “politics”, they are thinking about freedom from government, not free government services. Government overreach (real or made-up) lends itself to simple narratives that make people angry. It bears repeating, the Conservative Party base is more and more defined by its anger and resentment.
This explains Poilievre’s high profile support for the truckers’ convoy whose political demands included the overthrow of the democratically-elected Liberal government. Poilievre was sending a message to all those people irritated with almost two years of masks and vaccine passports. His simple message was that he felt their pain, he shared their anger at the government, and that it was all Trudeau’s fault (simple narrative, predictable villain). To Poilievre supporters, that was all the information they needed. The fact that their preferred candidate for Prime Minister was showing a complete contempt for democracy in supporting the overthrow of a duly elected government, wasn’t an issue for them because the populist conservative ecosystem from which they get their information about “politics” never mentioned that the convoy was calling for the overthrow of Canada’s democratically elected government.
What did conservative media (especially social media) say about the truckers’ convoy? FREEDOM!!
And just as a majority of those who voted for Trump in 2020 still believe that the Democrats stole the election, so Poilievre supporters interpret his unflinching support for the truckers convoy as a vote for “freedom” not a trashing of democracy.
Who will be the future villains in the Conservative Party narrative?
Which is why Jean Charest’s April criticism of Poilievre did so little to dent Poilievre’s Conservative support.
Appearing on CTV’s Question Period, Charest said that Poilievre’s support for the trucker convoy extended to backing illegal blockades.
“Everyone knows that Pierre Poilievre supported the blockade,” Charest said. “If you say to Canadians, ‘I want to be the leader of the Conservative Party and I want to be the chief legislator of the country (i.e. Prime Minister), but I don’t have to obey the laws,’ I’m sorry. That’s not just a failure in leadership, it disqualifies you.”
What Charest didn’t appreciate when he made those statements is that most Conservative Party faithful in 2022 are not that interested in electing a “chief legislator” of Canada. Again, they are not particularly interested in the actual workings of government (legislation, programs, etc.) but rather, are attracted to “politics” through simple narratives with clear villains to blame for their problems.
And this is exactly what should keep Canadians up at night. Poilievre is drawing hundreds of thousands of angry Canadians into the political process (i.e. he is signing them up as Conservative Party members so they can vote for him on September 10), and in order to keep them engaged, he will have to continually provide them with new narratives and new villains to stoke their anger and resentment. This is the Trump formula pure and simple and as such, it is almost inevitable that at least some of these new villains will be imported from the Republican Party, Fox News, the American Christian right and right-wing American social media (likely all of the above).
And Poilievre is smarter and far more disciplined than Donald Trump. That makes him more dangerous. In fact, he is far more like Republican Florida governor Ron DeSantis than Trump.
Just this month, DeSantis blocked state funds for the NFL Tampa Bay Rays’ stadium after players voiced support for gun control in the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. He’s also continuing a fight to punish the Disney corporation for criticizing Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. In other words, DeSantis is willing to use government in a very strategic and disciplined way to inflame his base (white, working class Floridians) to keep himself in power (he is running for re-election for governor this year) and to launch a likely 2024 bid for President.
This is how Poilievre would govern as Prime Minister should the Conservatives win in 2025 – he would use government as a means of picking fights with people and groups he believes his political base dislikes (or could be made to dislike with the right narrative and villains). Remember, he needs to continually stoke the anger and resentment of his base to keep them engaged. Whatever issue that can be used to inflame his base will be considered fair game by Poilievre. As Prime Minister, there would be no point in asking what Poilievre really believes in. That’s because Poilievre is a pure opportunist determined to win at all costs. If, as Prime Minister, he finds a way to galvanize his base by reducing visible minority immigration, restricting abortion, ending same sex marriage, and relaxing gun laws (and these particular issues may very well work for him to get his 35% and keep them), he will use these issues.
A weakened commitment to the rule of law
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 if Pierre Poilievre wins the Conservative Party leadership, there is a real danger of Canada 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.
Put bluntly, the rule of law as defined above may not always work for Poilievre. Sticking with the rule of law may, on occasion, prevent him from the essential task of inflaming his base. And as we have seen with Trump, when an element of basic democracy doesn’t work for a wannabe autocrat (say, the principle that regardless of who wins, there is a peaceful transition to a new government), out it goes.
So here is my message to Canada’s progressive political parties: the key to stopping the growth of authoritarian populism in Canada is to restore the old left-right axis in Canadian politics and make questions related to inequalities of wealth, income and opportunity the fault line in Canadian politics. Cultural and identity issues should be placed on the back burner during elections. Economic issues – income stagnation, excessive corporate profits, taxes on the rich, etc. – should be the ballot questions.
Why economic populism works
How would this stop the rise of Poilievre populism?
Simple. A consequence of the growing anger and frustration felt by people who are working harder than ever but getting nowhere, is the deepening cynicism about politics described above. This anger, frustration, and cynicism, in turn, is creating a large and growing number of people susceptible to the appeals of demagogues, strongmen, and even sociopaths (eg. Trump). This is the terrain that Poilievre is cultivating.
On the cultural and identity issues, the populist right finds it easy to create a simple narrative with villains who pose a threat to “real” Canadians. While these populists have only a minority of Canadians on their side on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, anti-Covid measures, the truckers’ convoy, guns, crime, and immigration, that minority is pretty much backing only one party, the Conservative Party. On the progressive side of these issues, the majority on these issues are split between four parties (the Liberals, NDP, Greens, and Bloc).
In contrast, on the issue of income stagnation for the majority and the ever greater concentration of wealth at the top (or more broadly, economic issues), the populist right has a much more difficult time in creating a simple narrative with villains that threaten “real” Canadians. The obvious villains, the corporations whose political and economic power has led to a forty-year period of wage stagnation for Canadians and greater wealth for the top one percent, obviously doesn’t work for the populist right. But it does work for progressives. In fact, in Canada and the United States, there is actually considerable support for direct policies to level the playing field and reduce economic inequality.
But the problem is this. There are too many people in Canada who when they think about “politics”, focus on the white, heterosexual, (more or less) Christian world that they are comfortable with, and the threats to it to it that conservative politicians and media bombard them with. Add to this their recent experience with anti-Covid public health measures (governments closing down stores, bars, restaurants and schools and mandating masks and vaccines) and you have an aggrieved minority willing to embrace extremism. Again, this is a direct result of conservative politicians like Pierre Poilievre (and Donald Trump) bombarding them with simple (and often demonstrably false) narratives that portray their everyday lives as under threat from government, visible minorities, non-Christians, “secular elites”, etc. If those very same people were to see politics as a fight against powerful corporations who are keeping their wages low and preventing them from living the life that their parents took for granted (owning a home, renting a cottage for two weeks in the summer, etc.), you would see a political realignment in favour of progressive policies and political parties.
Put slightly differently, the concrete measures being put forward by Canada’s progressive parties to improve the economic lot of the majority are not getting through to a large segment of working and middle class Canadians. And the reason that this progressive economic message is not getting through is that Canada’s progressive parties are not appealing to the anger and frustration people feel about their economic situation. Having good policies is only part of what is needed for good politics. Having simple narratives with villains is just as important.
For example, a policy that has lots of potential to push the right buttons is NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s call for an “excess profits tax” to expand on the Liberals’ initiative to increase corporate taxes on big banks and insurers. Singh would expand the current corporate tax increase on big players in the financial sector to also include highly profitable supermarket chains and oil and gas companies. As part of Singh’s proposal, the revenue from this tax would go towards increasing Canada’s annual child benefit and GST tax credit by $500 each per year.
Such a proposal has the potential to tap into the anger and frustration out there but in order to do that there needs to be a villain to the story. The problem with Poilievre style of politics is not that he keeps the narrative simple and identifies villains. The problem is that, like Trump, Poilievre lies about his villains and makes up his narrative. Singh has to take a more aggressive approach and integrate the CEO salaries of the companies he wants to tax into his message. In order to appeal to the angry Poilievre crowd, it has to be personal. The total annual compensation of most CEO’s of big Canadian corporations is north of $10 million and this should be making them a big target. At the rhetorical level, at least, it’s the corporate CEO’s who need to be called out for their greed!
So that is task number one for Canada’s progressive parties. Highlight economic issues, appeal to people’s anger and frustration over their own economic situation, and put identity and other cultural issues on the backburner.
Task number two is to always stay on the offensive. The objective is not only to make the ballot issue about who gets what in Canada, it is to put Poilievre on the spot as to whether he supports things like higher taxes on the rich and large corporations to make life more affordable for average Canadians. If he won’t be clear one way or another, let his supporters know that he is buckling under pressure from big corporations and the rich (which would be true!). Remember, he only needs between 35-37 percent of the vote to get a majority and if he can get it on tightening up on immigration (or abortion, for that matter), he will go there. Don’t let him – keep him on the defensive on the economic equality issues and try to get his working class base to turn on him on economic issues.
Task number three for progressive parties? Co-operate with each other – before and after the next federal election.
Canada already has a model for post-election co-operation in the current Parliament: the Liberal/NDP confidence and supply agreement.
The problem with limiting co-operation to the post-election period is that there is always the chance that the Conservatives will get a majority and there will be no opportunity for post-election co-operation between progressive political parties in governing. This has to be avoided at all costs.
That means that, in preparation for the 2025 election, the Liberals, NDP and Greens have to identify forty to fifty ridings across Canada where there might be close races with the Conservatives and agree upon who the progressive front runner is. Once the progressive front runner is identified, the other two parties need to respect that choice and run only token candidates ensuring that the Conservatives will be defeated.
If all three parties are comfortable with some form of proportional representation, then this election arrangement need only be worked out once. Once a proportional representation system is put in place, the outcomes of Canadian federal elections will always be minority governments necessitating cross-party collaboration following an election. Should the Conservative Party revert to its historical role as a responsible centre-right political party firmly rooted in Canada’s democratic traditions, the party might even be part of a post-election governing arrangement.
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 is rooted in the death of the middle class dream, then we need to fix our attention on that challenge in the short to medium term.