No, Canada Is Not About to Become A Populist Hotbed
An American political scientist comes to Canada with a warning that doesn’t quite land
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We’ve all heard American liberals claim they were one election away from moving to Canada. It doesn’t happen very often. Rob Goodman is an exception. Sort of, anyway. He moved to Canada to teach political science at the Toronto Metropolitan University. But he’s not just living here—he’s fully embraced his new Canadian identity. However, he’s still carrying some American baggage that skews his assessment of Canadian politics.
In his new book, Not Here: Why American Democracy is Eroding and How Canada Can Protect Itself, Goodman contemplates why populism hasn’t come to Canada, and how Canada should navigate the global populist storm. His diagnosis of why American-style populism hasn’t taken root here to date is excellent, for the most part, but he doesn’t fully grapple with the distinct Canadian version of populism, which is based more on geographic than ethnic divides, that has been with us since the 1990s. Moreover, whether you agree with his prescriptions to keep populism at bay will depend very much on your views on his economic policy. This would unnecessarily divide the anti-authoritarian coalition.
Canada: No Myths, No Mythology
The first half of the book deals with mythology. Americans, famously, revere their Founding Fathers. There is also a worrying tendency to worship the presidency. And, rightly or wrongly, there is a general sense among a large swath of the population that there are “real” Americans.
Canada’s mythology is different. In fact, it’s barely there at all. Canadians don’t have the same attachment to their founders. In fact, we’re in the middle of a reckoning over the historical treatment of Indigenous Peoples. Criticizing Thomas Jefferson is taboo in America. That is not the case with John A. MacDonald in Canada.
Similarly, Canadians tend not to lionize politicians. Frankly, we have a hard time taking them too seriously. We’re a middle power that lacks the ability to blow other countries off the map, let alone to defend ourselves without help from our allies. Moreover, as the author points out, the Prime Minister is not the head of state. That’s the head of the monarchy. For nearly a century, Queen Elizabeth played that role and was a unifying figure. While our new king might not be quite so popular, it does help to not have the head of state determined by partisan elections. Frankly, we’d rather not hear our head of state’s political opinions.
Perhaps most importantly, the idea of “real” Canadians doesn’t really exist. We’re a fractious, multilingual country with significant regional and historic divisions. Ironically, as Goodman points out, those differences have prevented us from developing a singular vision of what Canadians should look or sound like. This is a bulwark against the nativist tendencies seen in America (which, itself, is a melting pot) and European countries where blood and soil nativism has deep roots.
The second half of the book deals with potential challenges to Canada’s relatively stable status quo, and the author’s proposed solutions.
Populist Seeds on Canadian Soil?
Goodman lists a number of challenges that could inflame populism: potential failure to reconcile with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples; exclusionary politics in Quebec; the erosion of parliamentary government. While these are all genuine concerns, they’re not new. In fact, they’re issues we’ve been grappling with for decades.
At this point in the book, a discussion of recent Canadian political history would have been helpful. After all, while Canada hasn’t seen American (or European) style populism, it’s had at least two notable, highly successful center-right populist movements over the past 30 years. The substance is, thankfully, very different from American populism. But it’s still populism.
The most obvious example to American observers should be the conservative Ford brothers: Rob and Doug. Given the international attention Rob Ford received for his tumultuous tenure as mayor of Toronto that brought him Hollywood fame, infamy following revelations of his crack cocaine use, I’d have expected at least as much discussion of Rob Ford as George Floyd. Alas, neither of the Fords even made the index.
It’s curious to read an entire book warning Canada about the dangers of populism without an analysis of how our biggest city was run from 2010 to 2014 by a globally famous populist, Rob Ford, who refused to quit after a substance abuse scandal and chose instead to rail against the media and his political opponents. Indeed, the main reason he didn’t run again was due to health issues, not because he was necessarily unelectable. Clearly, the success of Ford-style populism wasn’t a blip. Indeed, our largest province, Ontario, is currently run by his equally populist brother who has carried on the fight against the “downtown elites”.
The second, perhaps less obvious example to an outsider is Stephen Harper. Harper was Prime Minister for 11 years before Justin Trudeau. While he governed as a relatively middle-of-the-road conservative, his roots were in the populist Reform movement that sprung from Canada’s Prairie provinces in the 1990s. It’s true that the Reform Party itself (or its successor party the Canadian Alliance) was never able to garner more than a quarter of the vote in Canada, but the fact that one of the founding members went on to become a long-serving prime minister seems germane to any discussion of the prospects for populism in Canada.
But Goodman doesn’t discuss any of this in any detail.
That isn’t to say that he ignores contemporary Canadian politics entirely. He does take particular interest in current Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre, who he rightly notes has adopted some hard-edged, American-style populist rhetoric that flirts with grievance politics and conspiratorial thinking, culture war issues, and attacks traditional “gatekeepers” like the legacy media, as Janet Bufton’s piece at The UnPopulist noted last month. In particular, Goodman highlights that Mr. Poilievre was very sympathetic to the Convoy protests in Ottawa.
While I agree that the flirtation by the conservative movement with elements like the Convoy are problematic, if viewed in context they are nearly not as alarming.
If you’re looking for parallels with American politics, you will see them. But if you take a step back, the Convoy was a small movement that was deeply unpopular with the general public. Moreover, its success was largely a tragicomedy of local policing. It was unforgivable from the standpoint of local residents who had to deal with it, but it wasn’t Canada’s January 6th as he bizarrely suggests. To average people, it’s ancient history.
The reality is, blood and soil populism doesn’t have much of a constituency in Canada, and even to the extent that people involved with the Convoy might have been sympathetic to Trump-style populism, it’s a segment of a small, unpopular movement. The danger, to be frank, is overstated.
Misunderstanding Canadian Populism
This leads us to where the book hits a fork in the road. Goodman’s general concern is the erosion of liberal democracy. It’s a broadly shared concern that is worth highlighting. The trouble is, his prescriptions are surprisingly divisive.
The heart of his argument in the second part of the book is freedom, in the classical liberal sense, threatens Canadian nationality. His argument hinges on the notion that Canada’s relative disunity (Canadians think of themselves as Maritimers, Québécois, Western first and Canadian second)— while in many ways a bulwark against nationalism—requires public goods to maintain social solidarity. There’s a lot to unpack here.
Goodman claims that libertarian conservatism is a strange fit for Canadian politics. He argues that nation building—whether through public institutions like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, public works, or protectionist trade policies that are well in the past—have created barriers against American cultural influence. But a limited government ideology would undermine such public institutions and diminish Canadians’ unifying pride in them.
Whatever the plausibility of his account in theory, in practice, we’ve had libertarian influenced governments in the past, and they have neither slashed public spending nor eliminated any of these institutions. Of course, part of that is while libertarians often furnished policy ammunition for conservatives, they’re a small segment of the conservative movement. So while in theory a conservative libertarian movement bent on drowning the state in a bathtub might have some of the ill effects that Goodman identifies, in practice this doesn’t seem likely.
He also argues that libertarian conservatism is incoherent, and that very incoherence is causing it to be displaced by nationalist conservatism. Frankly, it’s easy to see the American influence in his analysis. The trajectory he’s hinting at is very much the history of the Republican Party. Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution in the 1990s followed by the Tea Party in the Aughts infused the Republican Party with folk libertarian rhetoric (pledging to slash taxes and shrink the size of government, for example), that was never translated into a coherent governing philosophy. When the Republican base started to feel that the Republican approach wasn’t in their interests, national conservatism gained steam. Is this happening in Canada? I’d argue, no.
Putting aside the merits or demerits of libertarianism as an ideology, and the extent to which it’s permeated Canadian conservatism, his warning about the growing threat of national conservatism taking hold in Canada rests on some pretty shaky anecdotes.
For one thing, he lumped in former Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole with blood and soil nativists like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Republican Senator Josh Hawley in America. For anyone who has observed Canadian politics up close, it’s a farcical comparison. While Mr. O’Toole adopted some carefully scripted bluster to win the leadership of the Conservative Party, his platform never resembled anything close to national conservatism, let alone anything darker (in fact, his parting speech in Parliament was seen as a parting shot aimed at populists). Sure, his successor, Mr. Poilievre, has been willing to associate with less savory elements and has been willing to adopt more overtly populist language, he’s never traded in any of the anti-government or nativist tropes of American or European populism. In fact, one could argue that his newfound popularity is almost entirely driven by cost-of-living concerns, such as the housing crisis that Mr. Goodman briefly mentions. That is normal meat and potato politics, even if the marketing isn’t.
Canadian populism is and always has been more about geography than the idea of “real” people. The modern iteration of the Conservative Party of Canada had its roots in the Reform Party, created over western Canadian alienation (Mr. Harper was a founding member). The Fords made their careers raging against “downtown elites,” who, if anything, are more likely to be white than their suburban Toronto counterparts. Nativism, discontent with trade policies —these are the hallmarks of American, not Canadian populism. We’re too diverse and concentrated in major metropolitan areas for blood and soil populism to catch on here.
This gets us to Goodman’s prescriptions. He worries that our liberal trade policies in particular undermines collective decision making by making us overly dependent on trade with the United States, which he continues to worry will see a major democratic backslide, as well as an increasingly authoritarian China. He believes Canada should take a page from its protectionist past and adopt a new trade posture that diversifies Canada’s trading basket to diminish the salience of the United States to Canada’s economy.
He proposes three principles to guide trade policy.
“Trade is not just trade.” In other words, trade relationships have implications for politics and culture, not just economics. So he worries that trade can become a “conduit for authoritarian ideas and practices.”
Given point one, trading with “eroding democracies and nondemocracies” can be harmful to democracy. He gives the example of Hollywood making concessions to Chinese state sensors.
“Given that we can’t forgo trading with eroding democracies and nondemocracies, diversification is crucial.”
These principles fit pretty squarely within Canadian liberal and conservative politics. Whether it is the Liberal impulse towards “friend-shoring” or the Conservative desire to expunge the influence of the Chinese government, there’s a pretty strong emerging consensus that we should continue to embrace free trade, but among democracies. The difference here, really, is that Mr. Goodman includes “eroding democracies—which he makes clear means the United States.
There are two things worth pointing out here. First of all, Canada is a small, open economy. Unlike the United States, which has a large internal market, Canada is inherently dependent on trade. We not only export large quantities of resources but our manufacturing industries are highly integrated with the American economy. Frictions are costly. It may be the case that more strategic redundancy is useful, and diversifying our trade relationships would be helpful (even if the potential is limited). But pivoting away from our largest trading partner even to a limited extent is no easy feat. Ask the United Kingdom. Re-orienting trade patterns is difficult in practice, particularly when it is your primary trade partner. That in and of itself could lead to economic disruptions that could lead to discontent, as we have seen in the UK post-Brexit.
Second, global trade has served Canada really well. Like the United States, many products that used to be manufactured in Canada are now produced in lower-wage countries. Unlike in the United States, the loss of manufacturing jobs hasn’t decimated entire communities. We don’t have a Rust Belt. Most of our economy is oriented around a handful of metro areas, which makes them more resilient to changing trade patterns. We don’t have many of the classic single-industry towns where you’d see Trump rallies.
More fundamentally, there is something deeply contradictory in suggesting that in order to maintain Canada’s open society, it needs to (partially) close itself to other countries, especially its large and prosperous neighbor that happens to be in a bad patch. By that logic, Canada should scale back on trade with Mexico even more given that country’s long history of authoritarianism and populism. Would ending the free trade deal between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico advance liberalism or play into the hands of populists given their strong streak of protectionism? It’s hard to see how (even partially) closing Canada to the world is going to help preserve our open society.
Free trade isn’t a dirty word in Canada and we shouldn’t turn it into one. While it is possible to believe that an alternative trade arrangement would be preferable, and indeed it does seem like there is a desire to diversify away from trade with China in particular, it’s a sharp pivot in trade policy that includes diversifying away from the United States would simply not stave off populism. To the contrary, in fact.
I don’t mean to sound too negative. The book has much to offer—particularly the first half. Goodman does a good job of accounting for why Canada hasn’t seen American or European-style populism succeed to date. I’d argue the book is incomplete. It would have certainly benefited from more discussion of Canada’s recent history of populism. Moreover, the book comes with a lot of baggage. Many of the diagnoses seemed more American than Canadian, which lead him to solutions that are counterproductive and would be much more relevant to Toledo than Toronto.
Goodman’s warning isn’t entirely without merit, but it also didn’t necessarily land. MAGA isn’t coming to Canada—thankfully.
© The UnPopulist 2023