A recipe for populism

I am going to deal, for a few days, with the threats that I see facing liberalism and liberal democracy and, consequently, facing Canada, too.

NF-forumThe celebrated Scots-American author and historian Niall Ferguson, speaking in 2016, BEFORE Donald Trump was elected and when most people still believed that Hillary Clinton would be the next US President, explained to a staunchly anti-Trump audience that the rise of populism was a) nothing new in America; and b) could be explained as a recipe ~ he likened himself to Gordon Ramsey, but in a historical kitchen ~ which needed only five ingredients:

  • Rising immigration;
  • Increasing inequality;
  • The perception of corruption;
  • A big financial crisis; and, as a catalyst or, as he calls it, a sort of “secret sauce”
  • A demagogue.

The first four, he explained, were present in the USA in the 1880s and ’90s and led to e.g. the Exclusion Act (1882) which led to the even stricter Immigration Act of 1924 (and was the model for the Canadian Immigration Act of 1923), and they led to almost zero immigration into the USA in the 1930s and to other destructive regulations and attitudes.

Professor Ferguson is careful to explain that populism is not always or even often the same as nationalism and, especially, not like fascism. Donald Trump, he points out, it not at all like Hitler, Mussolini or Japanese general and prime minister Hideki Tojo. Trump might, foolishly, like tariffs and trade wars but he seems reluctant to enter a real shooting war with anyone. He’s full of bombast and bluster, but in most other respects he seemed, in the late summer of 2016, almost pacifistic. And Professor Fergusion reminds his audience that it was progressive, even leftist politicians who seem to have started the worst modern wars while conservatives are generally content with gunboat diplomacy and small wars.

If one accepts that the first four ingredients on Niall Ferguson’s recipe, rising immigration; increasing inequality; the perception of corruption; and a big financial crisis are all either perceived to be present in the USA or that the USA is still feeling the effects of them, and if one regards President Donald J Trump as the final ingredient, a demagogue, then a populist revolution, and an inevitable progressive counter-reformation are, likely, both underway in America and, very likely in Europe, too. My personal sense, exacerbated by the outcomes of the European Parliamentary elections several days ago ~ where the populists fell short but still made appreciable gains ~ is that, throughout the West, the centre has not held, is not holding and, perhaps, cannot hold …


… the centre, in 2019, it seems, to me, lacks conviction and has ceded the field to the extremes on the political left and right. I see, in Britain, that a choice looms between the anti-semitic, far-left looney Jeremy Corbyn and the radical conservative and populist Boris Johnson. I think that here, in Canada, Maxime Bernier is the right-wing populist counter to the cloying, treacly progressivism of Justin Trudeau … which means that some otherwise sensible people are abandoning the solid, moderate middle ground exemplified by the centrist Conservative, Andrew Scheer:


The only one of Professor Ferguson’s first four ingredients missing in Canada is a pressing financial crisis, but some people think that Justin Trudeau and Bill Morneau are in the process of creating one as we watch. Both of Maxime Bernier, who has zero chance of winning more than a tiny handful of seats but who could cut Conservative support by just enough, and Justin Trudeau have the capacity to play the demagogue role ~ demagoguery, Professor Ferguson reminded his audience back in 2016, is not the sole purview of the extreme right and either could, therefore, trigger a populist explosion in placid, sensible Canada.

I need to repeat: “Democracy is fine … it is liberalism that is in danger.” Modern liberalism has been with us for centuries since  John Locke, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, but the Liberal Pary of Canada tossed it aside in 1968 and now, in Canada, it is Conservatives who preach and (sometimes) practice liberalism.

Xi Jinping, Donald J Trump, Justin Trudeau and Vladimir Putin all detest liberalism …

… each is a highly illiberal leader who believes that his opinions, his desires, his plans and his policies must prevail over the hopes and dreams and opinions of you and me. Liberalism is, at its most basic, about the individual being sovereign, in his home and on his land, and about the sovereign individual’s rights being more important than those of any collective, including church or state. There are, as I have explained, three sorts of democracy: liberal democracy, as found in e.g. Australia, Britain, Canada and Denmark; conservative democracy,* which is rarer and is found in e.g. Japan, Taiwan and Singapore; and illiberal democracy which is altogether too common and is found in too many countries, including France, Screen Shot 2019-05-27 at 07.22.48Greece, Hungary, Italy and so on. The difference was, recently, summed up rather neatly by Andrew Scheer who said that the main difference between liberals, by which he meant Conservatives, and their illiberal opponents is that the illiberal Liberals believe in the state while the liberal Conservatives believe in the individuals who make up the people.

Illiberalism and populism and radical politics, whether on the progressive left or on the religious or isolationist-protectionist-nationalist and ‘know-nothing‘ right, are all, equally, dangerous to the liberal order which has grown and prospered and made the world a better place since the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

There is no doubt as to why Putin and Xi don’t like liberalism and why they act to foil it; Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau are a bit more complicated but, I think, they both see liberals as obstacles to what they consider to be self-evidently “good” plans and policies that they intend to implement, using the full coercive power of the state, if needed, because they, each, are the ‘peoples’ choice‘ and it is their democratic right to impose their will on the rest of us .. Trump and Trudeau remind me more of King Louis XIV of France (L’État, c’est moi, and all that) than of, say, Abraham Lincoln or Sir Wilfred Laurier.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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