Why Trumped-up Extremists are NOT “right-wing populists,” & Have Nothing to do with Real Populism
Quick Tip: Canada’s secret sauce is NOT what the New York Times says it is. Nor is “right-wing populism” a useful or accurate way to name the real problem.
Writing in a July, 2017 New York Times article, Amanda Taub blames a “populist wave” for fierce outbreaks of reactionary and racialist protests by working people in England, the US and other countries.
Taub wonders why Canada hasn’t been afflicted by such right-wing protest movements.
Bad question, badly framed, in my view, but the timing couldn’t be better.
It would really help to know how alt-rite views became all the rage with enraged working people, and to identify some strategies for more useful and constructive outlets foe the outrage many people justifiable feel.
The mood Taub is trying to understand is one of the more forceful, important — and in my view, more curable — dynamics behind today’s political doldrums.
I’m going to try an alternative explanation and framing to that of Taub. My analysis draws on my doctoral training in US and Canadian universities on American and Canadian history, and on my long career working on good food issues on both sides of the Canada-US border.
POPULISTS NOT POPULAR WITH PUNDITS
Right off the top, the very term “right-wing populism” betrays a pundit prejudice that leads to a case of mistaken identity.
American farm radicals from the American West of the 1880s and ’90s called themselves Populists, with a capital P. They blamed Eastern elites and the “moneyed power” — the one per cent of the Gilded Age — for their problems causing widespread farm bankruptcy and foreclosures.
They had a rich legacy of populist-style rhetoric and analysis to draw on.
The first generation of Radical Republicans came from the American mid-west, Abraham Lincoln’s power base, where farmers fought against the extension of slavery during the 1850s.
The next generation fought for a clean and comprehensive victory for anti-slavery forces after the Civil War, and for an extension of the American understanding of equality. They saw the need to go beyond “equality before the law,” and to also promote equality in society and the economy.
Their efforts were brilliantly described by David Montgomery, a machinist-turned-historian who wrote Beyond Equality— the book that inspired me to become a social historian, way back in 1967, when I was a grad student in Berkeley. You can learn about him and his generation of radical-populist academics here.
Despite their base in the rural and farm population, the Populists also drew heavily from the rhetoric and analysis of the Knights of Labor, passionate unionists who organized for the eight-hour day against the 12-hour days insisted on by the Gilded Age elite. You can sample the rhetoric and analysis of Knights’ views on class and racial solidarity in both Canada and the US here and here.
The Knights divided the social and political world between producers and plutocrats, not by race, religion, age or lifestyle. Since they came came many decades before the heyday of the consumer economy, they didn’t contrast producers with consumers— a way of seeing the world which implies producers and consumers have different interests, when the more important reality is that producers have conflicting interests with shareholders and the “idle rich,” as populists called them.
When today’s media pundits tag angry but conservative farmers and blue collar workers as populists, their name-calling discredits the real-life populists who deserve to be known as pioneers of direct grassroots democracy and social solidarity.
The Wizard of Oz, a famous book series inspired by the Populist movement, tells the story of a young Dorothy from Kansas. She and her famous friends exposed the smoke and mirrors of the Wizard. The story thereby invited people to take their own power.
The Oz novels and other Populist messages deserve recognition as forerunners of modern empowerment and direct action.
To be sure, the Populists expressed outrage. They also polarized political debate. But the comparison with today’s demagogic counterfeits of Populist anger ends there.
Populists united “the people” against “the wealthy elite.” They did not polarize according to religion, place of birth, color of skin or food preferences. Populists focused anger on groups that profited by imposing what they called “the money power” over ordinary people.
Populists did not have an anger management problem akin to those who carry a grudge against latte liberals, migrant farm laborers, Black youth, newscasters, female professionals, politically correct twenty-somethings, and Muslims — all notable for their lack of any power over working people.
The framing is so different as to make any comparison odious.
The popularity of of the term, “right-wing populism” among the punditry reveals the mis-education of Americans about their own history.
Truth be said, Canada’s resistance to right-wing populism should be credited to its richer, longer and less suppressed history of real populism. Real populism has served Canada as the strongest defense against demagogic conservatism.
Canadian farm and labor leaders of the 1920s and 1930s updated the legacy of American populism. That led to a national political party of workers and farmers, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation or CCF. It was the most radically populist political party in North American history.
The CCF government in Saskatchewan launched Canada’s free, public hospital and healthcare system. Public healthcare is the most obvious and dramatic difference between Canada and the US. Its very universality, regardless of income, race or religion, is a testament to the populist instinct. (In a previous life, when I was a labor historian and labor activist, I wrote several books and articles about these themes, one of which is linked to here.)
INGREDIENT LIST MISSES MAIN INGREDIENT
Taub mistakenly lists the “raw ingredients” of right-wing populism. In her view, the dish is made by stirring and heating a white ethnic majority distressed by falling behind immigrants.
Her recipe leaves out two major ingredients. One is loss of jobs that paid a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. The other is the disappearance of government programs to prepare workers with skills for new jobs, and to provide work opportunities via a “social economy” job strategy based on jobs reducing waste, protecting the environment and promoting health. Taub leaves economic downturn, class injustice, and broken promises by conservatives and liberals alike, out of her recipe.
In my view, this failure of analysis gives away the politics motivating pundits who use the term “right-wing populism.” They don’t acknowledge the grievances and injustices which cause peoples’ hurt and anger.
Nor do these pundits name the gimmick that keeps the hurt alive, but misdirected. That term is not populism, but demagoguery.
THE POISONED WELL THAT DESTROYED POPULISM AND populism
We often hear that racism (like sexism or any other form of bigotry) serves to “undermine the unity of working people.” Simple, perhaps simplistic, but nevertheless deeply true.
The Populist or People’s Party, which thrived in farm areas across the US during the 1980s and ’90s, was destroyed by racism. Anyone wishing to understand how that happened can do no better than read C. Vann Woodward’s biography of Tom Watson.
Watson was once an effective farm leader of Georgia, keen to bring white-skinned and black-skinned farmers together to fight against the rich and powerful minority that exploited farmers without regard to skin color. Then he returned to the Democratic Party and campaigned for severe forms of segregation directed against all Black people.
The anger Watson once directed at institutions controlled by a wealthy minority became venom directed against people defined by skin color.
Watson once directed popular anger against institutions controlled by a wealthy minority that impoverished farmers. But to win in politics, he turned anger into venom, and directed that venom against fellow farmers whose skin was dark. Jim Crow came out of the political defeat of Populism.
Building a wall of racism became the cornerstone of a politics that specialized in turning the impulses behind populist equity into their opposite — demagogically-motivated inequity.
The rise of Jim Crow in the aftermath of the failed Populist crusade to unite all farmers is especially timely now because of the controversy over the many monuments to arch-defenders of slavery during the US civil war.
Almost all of these monuments were erected in the period immediately following the defeat of Populism, as reported here. They are monuments to the spirit behind what is mistakenly called “rightwing populism.”
Once people accept the notion that the people can be divided on the basis of race or religion or gender, the possibility of building a capacious and inclusive movement based on a populist understanding of the common needs of the common people disappears. It is that simple.
That’s why it’s so slanderous to refer to racist outrage as populist-inspired. The exact opposite is true. It is inspired by demagoguery which corrodes populism.
MULTICULTURALISM’S MULTIPLE ORIGINS
Some white people in English and French Canada did practice slavery until the mid-1800s. But slavery was never embedded in a mode of production, as it was in the American South, where slavery was central to cotton and tobacco crops. Slaves in Canada were mostly associated with household labor in the homes of the rich.
For their dose of intense hatred, Canadians relied on religion, mainly the difference between Catholics and Protestants, which more or less coincided with the difference between French and English Canadians.
Even in the Toronto I grew up in, which wasn’t centuries ago, Protestants voted Conservative, Catholics voted Liberal. The Toronto Star was Catholic and Liberal, and the Telegram (later Sun) was Protestant and Conservative. The Orange Order, which despised Catholics, pretty well ran the city government, police force and public utilities through to the 1950s. Orangemen referred proudly to Toronto as the Belfast of North America.
This foundation for working class division and demagogic politics couldn’t survive the secularization of society after the 1950s. Nor could it survive multiculturalism. Nor could it withstand a vibrant labor movement and social democratic party.
Taub credits Canada’s popular policy of multiculturalism to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the father of today’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. To be accurate, this policy came from Trudeau’s predecessor, Mike Pearson.
More important, multiculturalism was proposed by a non-partisan public inquiry (called a Royal Commission), which built support for it in the course of cross-country hearings. Americans could well borrow this consensus-building process for dealing with touchy existential and identity issues.
Multiculturalism crystallized an emerging but defining difference between Canada and the US. The US put all its peoples into one WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) melting pot. By contrast, Canada began to offer a salad bowl, where each ingredient kept its original identity while adding health, taste and color to a new whole.
Pierre Trudeau’s contribution to multiculturalism was to open up immigration rules to accept non-whites from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Regardless of race or religion, applicants gained entry if they brought needed job skills or investment funds. Immigrants were often seen as immediate assets to the economy. Nor did they not compete for jobs held by others.
Once these skilled immigrants settled in, they invited their extended families. Many family members, lacking the language and job skills of their more settled relatives, took poorly-paid service jobs. They rarely competed with native-born Canadians for high-paying industrial or professional jobs. Few Canadian-born workers complained that immigrants took away “their” rightful jobs as dishwashers or farm laborers.
WORKPLACE SOCIAL SKILLS
Canadian unions, thanks to their populist traditions, made a unique contribution to multiculturalism — which has thrived so far without engendering conflict between immigrant and native-born working people.
Canada’s unions, unlike US unions, maintain a vibrant tradition of “social unionism.” Social unionism is the labor relations version of populism.
The tradition descends from the famous mealtime grace of J.S. Woodsworth, a former clergyman who played a leading role in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, and became the first leader of the CCF. “What we wish for ourselves,” his grace went, “we wish for all.”
Social unionists opposed US-style “business unionism,” which looked after its own members, but left other working people to fend for themselves. By contrast, social unionists preached the populist message that all working people have to stick together.
Most Canadian unions educated their members — almost 40 per cent of the workforce until quite recently — to press for the common needs of the common people, union members or not. Canadian unions were leading advocates of pensions, public medical care and strong minimum wage laws. US unions rarely campaigned on such empathy- and solidarity-building themes. This left a vacuum for demagogic politicians to fill.
I had a front row seat on a conflict about social unionism during the 1980s, when I was assistant to the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU).
An employer-financed group called the National Citizens Coalition brought a legal suit against OPSEU. The lawsuit accused the union of violating individual rights. The union used some dues money for social equality causes unrelated to bargaining, the Coalition argued. I wrote a book, called All for One: Arguments for the Labour Trial of the Century on the Real Meaning of Unionism, to defend the Canadian tradition of social unionism. The book was part of the union’s submission to the Supreme Court. In 1991, the Court upheld the right of Canadian unions to practice this form of unionism. (Wikipedia sums up the case here.)
THE GOSPEL OF POPULISM
As part of social unionism, unions backed a social democratic political party. The New Democratic Party still benefits from a hereditary working class voting base. Several of its strongholds are found in cities that have lost their industrial base since the 1990s. Right-wing populists do not have a base in Canada’s rustbelt.
Canada’s most important church, the United Church, has long preached a social gospel message. The social gospel, (written about here), is an expression of a populist-inspired and inclusive religion. In Canada, only a few tiny religious groups preach anything akin to the US religious right.
Taub credits the Conservative Party for reaching out to seek immigrant support and votes. That contributes to the political consensus around multiculturalism, she argues.
She would be on stronger ground if she named more populist institutions, such as unions and the United Church.
Canadian municipal policies have also buoyed up forces of tolerance and inclusion.
Canadian cities are not like US cities. The differences between them are as wide as the differences in healthcare programs.
Go to any inner city (as Americans call them). You will see privileged and white-skinned neighborhoods situated close to low-income ethno-cultural communities. Residents may go to the same churches, parks and schools. They vote in the same ridings. This makes it impossible for politicians to succeed by appealing to any one group. Mixed communities are central to tolerance and social cohesion.
The same mix of ethno-cultural and income groups holds for suburbia. Some school boards classify suburban schools serving racialized and low-income neighborhoods as “inner city.” This shows the impact of US TV shows on the cultural colony to the north. But it has no bearing on the real nature of Canadian suburbs, which are as multicultural as anywhere else.
Farm country is the only exception to this pattern. Few immigrants have the funding to buy a farm, or the know-how of working the Canadian climate. There are also fewer multicultural services in rural areas.
FOOD FUSION AND MULTICULTURALISM
Food trends promoted by the food movement also encourage multiculturalism, and counter any “right-wing populism” in Canada.
Immigrant and newcomer communities come to the country as champions of healthy and authentic food cooked from scratch. Visitors can sample scores of world cuisines in any Canadian city. Little Italies, Chinatowns, Greektowns and Little Indias provide a delicious way to meet and learn from new neighbors.
The food movement promotes multicultural foodways. Local food has no racial connotation. To the contrary, food leaders and food policy councils have championed the development of “world foods.” Kale, bok choy, and kalaloo are big sellers at fresh food stands.
Farmers markets make a point of showcasing foods grown or prepared by newcomers.
“Make it, bake it or grow it” is the standard used for most farmers markets. This standard flings the door wide open to newcomers.
Donald Trump’s presidency makes Canadians proud and grateful to be Canadian. Canada is not America with a bit more snow, and some public healthcare thrown in. Canada has a healthier and more robust history of populism.
A whole raft of factors explain why Canada has less white backlash than the US. Canada and the US have had different relationships with First Nations peoples, for example. The country is now in the thick of a process of Truth and Reconciliation with regard to past injustices done to Indigenous peoples, and many public meetings now start with thanks to the original inhabitants who stewarded this land. First Nations peoples have at least ten thousand years of dwelling on this land. That kind of seniority makes any difference between immigrants from 1900 and immigrants from 1990 seem like nitpicking.
MULTIPLE MULTICULTURAL REASONS
Canada and the US also have different histories of Black enslavement and anti-Black prejudice. We have different traditions of journalism and public-owned media. We have different approaches to health care and public health. We have different forms of democratic government. Our governments and armed forces have played different roles in world politics.
As a condition of maintaining separateness from the US, Canadians had to learn how to respect French- and English-speaking populations. That set a precedent for not turning bloodlines, language, religion or culture into bedrocks of nationality.
It’s said that Canada has more geography than history. There’s a more positive way to say that. The land, three oceans, hundreds of thousands of lakes, hundreds of rivers — and of course canoes — welcome everyone, and provide memes all Canadians touch base with.
Many explanations account for different ways each country manages inclusion and tolerance. “The better angels of our nature,” as president Lincoln called them, need many supports. American efforts to heal will need to rely on many initiatives, including populist ones.
THE NEW POPULIST OPPORTUNITY
Debating Populism and populism is not just about debating the past. It is about creating opportunities for the future. I’d like to move that process along by introducing you to an excellent article by Michael Lind, called The New Class War. Hey Mike, how about trying a title that’s a bit more inviting? It’s true: American radicals do have an entitlement problem!
Lind makes the point I tried to make about Taub’s mistakes in one sentence: Unable to acknowledge the existence of social class, much less to candidly discuss class conflicts, neoliberals can only attribute populism to bigotry or irrationality.”
Lind’s analysis of today’s economy shows there’s no better time for a populist revival. I won’t go into his presentation. It puts academic clothing and good analysis onto the statement that Occupy introduced several years back, and that Bernie Sanders dusted off for his run at a Democratic nomination — the one per cent controls the economy and politics.
One per cent is actually way off a careful estimate. We’re talking one per cent of the one per cent. Indeed, if we’re talking about the causes of global warming, a topic that badly needs an economic explanation, painstaking research by Richard Heede shows that less than 100 mega-corporations are responsible for almost all global warming emissions.
How often do we hear that little populist nugget in public discussions?
The one per cent of the one per cent, and the 100 mega-corporations that are making toast of our planet — does anyone see a populist opportunity there?
Back in the day, when I was a graduate teaching assistant at Berkeley on strike to demand a Black Studies program, we walked the line chanting “you don’t fight fire with fire, you fight fire with water; you don’t fight racism with racism, you fight racism with solidarity.”
I would say we have the economic numbers to do that up right.
Can we turn those numbers on the conentration of wealth and power into programs — job creation and skills training programs for jobs in green infrastructure, local food production and environmental protection?
Can we turn those programs into stories that can ignite passion, hope, good will and collaboration?
I think we can. We can start on that journey by respecting the populist visionaries who came before us, and who light the way for us still.
Wayne Roberts has an MA in American History (University of California) and a PhD in Canadian history (University of Toronto). To sign up for his free newsletter on food and cities, go to http://wayneroberts.us12.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=ab7cd2414816e2a28f3b35792&id=1373397df7