The Canadian case against populism

Who would have thought Canada could be so different from everyone else? The country that has traditionally stood out for its lack of standing out as anything is now one of the most prominent liberal democracies remaining in the western world. Canadians have zigged when much of the western world has chosen to zag. Trudeau supporters went from being predominantly older Canadians longing for the simpler days of Pierre’s “sunny ways” to a full-blown international coalition of progressives and liberal-thinking minds. Want more Canada? Drake and The Weeknd are among the most listened to music artists globally, Toronto and Vancouver two of the world’s hottest real estate markets, and Lonely Planet named Canada the number 1 country in the world to visit in 2017. It’s like suddenly we’re cool or something, I guess. So what could possibly go wrong?

Enter Kelly Leitch. The conservative “firebrand” (media code word for racist) from the glorious bleh province of Manitoba is a front runner in the leadership race for the Conservative Party of Canada. While Leitch isn’t as bad as Trump or Duterte, comparisons to someone like Nigel Farage seem fair. She comes across as a politician who believes in ripping up incrementalism and nuance, and doesn’t really care if doing so offends certain segments of the population. She seems to have no issue making ridiculous statements for the sole purpose of manufacturing anger and resentment, a cheap way of procuring votes. It’s modern populism in a nutshell, and Kelly Leitch is bringing it to Canada on a national scale.

The Conservative Party chooses its leader in the spring of 2017, and despite Leitch’s media-grabbing presence there’s actually a large amount of candidates available. One of the other front-runners, Andrew Scheer, could turn out to be quite the formidable foe for Trudeau. He has big game experience as Speaker of the House of Commons and now as Leader of Opposition in the House of Commons, and he’s something like 35 years old. The problem is he’s not yet a household name though, and by choosing him the Tories may be punting on 2019 and aiming for the election after that.

Scheer is also not a populist, and at the time of writing neither are any of the other candidates besides Leitch (I guess others are trying to be, but they just aren’t, you know, popular enough). That might not matter, but given what we’ve seen in 2016, it seems that the candidate who’s able to grab the most headlines has the best shot at winning. Leitch appears well positioned to do exactly what Trump did in the GOP primaries, when he created a presence so dominant that it crowded out all the other candidates around him. In a leadership race with only a fraction of the U.S. coverage, it’s theoretically even easier for one loudmouth to stand out.

For argument’s sake, let’s say Kelly Leitch wins the leadership race and becomes Leader of the Opposition. Could she topple Trudeau in 2019? I mean, of course she could. But assuming that Trudeau and the Liberals remain roughly as popular as they are now (a strong assumption I realize, but there are just as many reasons to believe it will persist as there are reasons to believe it’ll fall off), there’s a feeling that Leitch would have a harder time selling her schtick to a national audience than she maybe expects.

For one, Canadians recently had an experience with a populist politician, and it didn’t turn out very well. Rob Ford was so unfit for office that he was effectively impeached less than a full term in. Not only were his unfavourable ratings really high, but Torontonians went on to reject his de-facto re-election bid when Doug Ford ran in his place in 2014. So it doesn’t appear that Toronto will be voting for another populist anytime soon. And the fact that Canadians hate Toronto and everything associated with Toronto means they probably won’t either.

There’s also the matter of all Canadians having a smug sense of superiority when comparing themselves to Americans. If there’s one thing that Canadians of all political stripes are united by, it’s our arrogant attitude of constantly telling ourselves we are better than our neighbours to the south. This has perhaps never been more evident than right now, when our neighbours find themselves having an identity crisis of sorts while we cruise along at 100km/h with the sunroof open (admittedly while ignoring many of our own issues). Culturally our two countries are so similar, bordering on identical, and the political arena is one of the few areas where we seem to diverge. In that light it just doesn’t seem likely that Canadians would follow Americans in electing a populist leader. If anything, we wouldn’t do it just to make a point.

Finally, as discussed earlier, populists tend to get a big lift from their ability to grab all the headlines. Trump crushed his GOP opponents in this regard, and stole headlines from Clinton at opportune times througout the general. Rob Ford was front-page news literally every day for three years. Still, no matter what Leitch says, it’d be tough for her to reach the level of Trump/Ford tabloid fodder. She just doesn’t seem to be that interesting of a person. Kevin O’Leary would fit the profile more.

Oh yeah, him. Look, whether he runs and whether he can win is another discussion for another day. Even if O’Leary runs and wins the nomination, there’s no guarantee he would be able to outmuscle Trudeau for media attention. The media adores Trudeau. They eat him up. The aura of Trudeau and the brand he’s created is the single biggest roadblock his competitors face. It’s early days still in terms of what direction the Conservative Party chooses to go, but if they assume that populism is the way forward based on what they’re seeing in other countries, they would be wise to step a few steps back and reconsider. Canada is cool now, and cool kids don’t like to go with the flow.