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May. 24, 2022 | Tuesday
Editorials and Opinions
The power – and danger – of political populism
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Michael Eagen/Special

As we prepare for an election here in Canada, it might be worthwhile to consider alarming trends in democratically elected legislatures around the world.

We are quite familiar with the cult of leadership in autocratically governed countries with Kim and Putin being good examples.

However, there appears to be an increasing number of individuals who are being elected in democratically governed countries based entirely on their perceived attractive traits – so much so that they become the lone face of the political party they represent.

Of course, Donald Trump is one of the best examples, but Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines are given celebrity status and therefore get free passes on personal objectionable behaviour because “they are getting things done.”

One naturally asks why this trend is occurring and the answer may in the works of José Ortega y Gasset who wrote about the rise of fascism and communism in Europe in the 1920s and ’30s.

He held the view that local cultural traditions were lost as small states were unified with others, as happened in Germany, Italy and Russia, This left citizens confused by new economic forces as well as technological changes.

The First World War loss plunged those economies into free fall and allowed Hitler and Mussolini to provide simple solutions to complex problems and emphasize strength through unity.

They both used newspapers and radio to deliver the message and hence the formula was established.

Today, TV, radio and the internet have together allowed the cult of personality to emerge in the same way in democracies.

These leaders observe the world in crisis; mass movement of people escaping war and poverty; loss of jobs in industrialized countries; growth in the gap between rich and poor. The rise of violent crime usually accompanies these issues and citizens at home become fearful and suspicious of “others” – notably newcomers or people who look “different.”

The response from would-be leaders? “I have all the answers and if we all pull together, I can solve all the problems.” Trump brought this view to the forefront when he recently said that he is the Chosen One with regard to solving the Middle East issue.

These individuals have been assisted by mass media, which tend to see politics as a blood sport with sound bites and gotcha reporting. Witness the relentless polling by media companies so they can tell the public who is winning and losing support in an election which might be a few years away. And when an election occurs, the emphasis is on the “winner” of the debate or the personal style of the leader instead of platforms or policies.

This tendency undermines serious discussion of issues and allows a person like Trump and others to find scapegoats; the Chinese cheat; Mexicans are rapists and killers; all intellectuals are elitist and naive and also to simplify problems with slogans such as “Drain the swamp” or “Make America Great Again.”

In Canada, we are also falling into the pattern of seeing Trudeau or Scheer or Singh as the “party” as opposed to the leader of a collection of members of Parliament who have their own viewpoints and make important contributions to policy which benefit citizens.

One can reach a few conclusions as we observe how leader-dominated democracies operate today.

We will likely see more shoot from the lip policy initiatives since these populist leaders come to believe they are brilliant and special.

Let us buy Greenland, let us reduce ward boundaries mid-election, let’s give police in Philippines the power to kill crooks.

Koch family in the United States has funded hundreds of campaigns for politicians who are on the side of climate change denial and advocate for the removal of environmental protection laws.

In Canada we are seeing an increase in third-party advertising by various interest groups in an attempt to sway federal or provincial policy. Anti-immigration billboards or pro pipeline TV ads can lead to public policy decisions which do not represent the majority of Canadians.

But if historical precedent is a guide, the outcomes for populist-based democracies are quite clear. The struggling democracy of Russia has been hijacked by Putin as he has seized control by dint of his celebrity personality and his influence with the KGB.

The U.S. election of 2020 will be a rejection or acceptance of the cult of leadership. A win for Trump will further fracture the social fabric of a country already badly divided. Gun control, Obamacare, environmental protection and other programs likely will disappear as Trump becomes the Republican Party.

In Canada, we know that when the U.S. sneezes, we catch a cold. So, a populist leader is problematic when it comes to honouring trade deals or funding NORAD. It’s awkward if we are seen not as an ally but as a bothersome neighbour.

We, too, have to be vigilant if we wish to avoid the election of federal and provincial leaders who are not simply sloganeers, but are measured in style and informed about the issues which are of importance to Canadians.

Let us hope that the upcoming election is about policy and not personality and that we are not seriously divided in the process.


Michael Eagen lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake.