How Pierre Poilievre's 'soft populism' is riding a global wave of voter frustration

The governing Liberals have been working to hitch Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre to Donald Trump’s ‘MAGA’ populist politics

Article content

OTTAWA — If there is a common feature of the populist eruptions around the world this year it may be the belief that everyone in charge is just not up to the job.

Elites, experts, sacred institutions and, yes, even gatekeepers have been widely maligned.

Article content

And there are as many flavours of populism as there are countries. In Holland, long-time anti-immigrant campaigner Geert Wilders won the most seats in the recent general election, but may struggle to form a governing coalition.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Argentinian president-elect Javier Milei, a former economist, has been described as an anarcho-capitalist and libertarian. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has been described as a nationalist and right-wing populist. Other parties in Europe considered to be hard-right are rising in the polls.

In Canada, the Liberals have been working to draw a parallel between Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “MAGA” populist politics, to limited effect.

“The talk of Pierre Poilievre being a populist is really exaggerated and overblown. I think he’s recognizably conservative,” said Dan Robertson, a senior advisor for FocalData and the chief strategist for the 2021 Conservative general election campaign.

“He just happens to be more aggressive in the way that he communicates but there’s nothing out of the ordinary about Poilievre’s political views. They’re all recognizably conservative within a Canadian context,” said Robertson.

Pierre Poilievre takes a bite out of an apple during an interview with Times Chronicle editor Don Urquhart in a video posted by the Opposition leader Oct. 14, 2023.
Pierre Poilievre takes a bite out of an apple during an interview with Times Chronicle editor Don Urquhart in a video posted by the Conservative leader Oct. 14, 2023. Photo by Pierre Poilievre/Twitter

It may not matter that Poilievre isn’t an all-out populist, because this is more of an anti-incumbent moment than a populist moment, said Robertson. Simply holding Liberal feet to the fire, a job Poilievre relishes, could be enough to win an election.

Advertisement 3

Article content

A general trend towards stability during the COVID-19 pandemic, which benefited the incumbent governments in most western countries, has seen a stark reversal while most of the world confronts high inflation that has squeezed household budgets.

A recent poll by Ipsos found that three in four Canadians want Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to step down, while his Liberal party trails Poilievre’s Conservatives badly in the polls.

While right-wing populists have been racking up victories, it’s not as simple as about where they sit on the spectrum. Robertson points to the incumbent U.K. Tories that have been battered by a polling nosedive that will look familiar to Canadian Liberals. There is a general aura of discontent that any incumbent will struggle to overcome, he said.

Poilievre is best described as a conventional politician building a base of populist voters, said Henry Olsen, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington Post columnist, and student of global populism

“He is a Canadian version of a populist. I would say Poilievre is a soft populist whose coalition is shaping up to be a classic example of a populist conservative coalition,” said Olsen.

Advertisement 4

Article content

Olsen believes traditional left-right labels are slowly becoming useless for the moment. Western conservative parties are building a new base of working-class supporters that are more likely to be in favour of government intervention and less likely to support core free-market ideas like free trade.

Working-class Americans flipped longstanding Democratic Rust Belt states to Trump in 2016. The 2022 Ontario election saw Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives pick up seats in working-class ridings that had been dominated by the NDP for decades. 

And one of Poilievre’s first hires after becoming leader was Ben Woodfinden, a political theorist who has argued the party should “craft an ambitious new blue-collar conservatism.”

Related Stories

It’s a slow shift, but Olsen argues we are in the third decade of a global populist era that kicked off in the late 1990s, after China was admitted to the World Trade Organization.

The West was deprived of a unifying enemy after the Soviet Union fell and, since then, the working class has been the primary victim of a cascade of elite failures, from the uneven distribution of the gains from free trade, to the Iraq War, to the Great Recession and, now, the response  to the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis that followed it. Urban professionals, who primarily vote for progressive parties, have been on the winning end of many of these upheavals, Olsen said.

Advertisement 5

Article content

“I think we’ve had a quarter century of elites getting virtually every major issue wrong,” said Olsen. “So I don’t think it’s an anti-incumbency, ‘throw the bums out’ sentiment. I think it’s ‘we no longer trust you as a class.’ And that sentiment is growing dramatically.”

It’s why conservatives like Poilievre and Milei have won over younger voters who had long belonged to the progressive left but are fed up feeling like the economy is rigged against them. Wilders has channelled Dutch voters’ anger over the cost-of-living and housing crises as much as he has over immigration. Meloni managed to become Italy’s first female prime minister running on promises of economic reform, and getting tough on immigration, although her lack of follow-through on the former a year later could put her at risk if the patience of voters wears thin.

Olsen said that even when conservative governments have been voted out recently, they were more likely to be centrist and technocratic parties that were getting overwhelmed by populist rivals, either on the right or left. Anyone or anything that represents the ruling class, whether it’s politicians, the media, or academics has suffered from declining trust and a new level of skepticism from the public. The U.K. Tories briefly captured the hearts of the working class under Boris Johnson in 2019 on a promise to get Brexit done, but quickly got bogged down in the details and then found post-Brexit migration numbers soaring to dizzying new heights.

Advertisement 6

Article content

In Canada, the Liberals have been working to draw a parallel between Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “MAGA” populist politics, to limited effect. Photo by JABIN BOTSFORD /POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Mistrust of elites has always been a hallmark of populist thought and Poilievre’s “Canada is broken” message puts most of the country’s ruling class in his crosshairs. He has decried “gatekeepers” who are holding back average Canadians, especially in the housing market. He has also picked a high-profile fight with Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem and tussled repeatedly with reporters.

But Poilievre’s populist style may disguise a lack of substance on the issues that really matter to populist voters, said Eric Kaufmann, a Canadian professor of politics at the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom who has studied populism’s rise in the West.

“Poilievre is pretty conventional, I’d say, in his views on both immigration and cultural wars. He’s taking some elements from the wider (populism) playbook, but he’s not actually promising much concretely on the issues that are probably driving a lot of support for him,” said Kaufmann.

There is evidence, for example, that Canadian attitudes are beginning to change about immigration, a subject where Poilievre has remained evasive. If the Conservative leader sweeps to power on a populist wave partially driven by immigration skepticism, he may find himself pushed into more populist cultural positions, Kaufmann said.

Advertisement 7

Article content

“It obviously depends what he does to satisfy the cultural concerns. But if he keeps immigration high, I think it’s almost certainly going to lead to what’s happening here in Britain, which is widespread disaffection with the Conservatives,” said Kaufmann.

Poilievre may be content to keep his focus on the “common person” in a fight against the elites and gatekeepers. Olsen describes this new division as the “ins versus outs” rather than the conventional left-versus-right battle, which Poilievre himself describes as outdated. If it’s true that many Canadians feel left behind in the new global economy and agree with the Conservative leader that the country is broken it may not be long before the global wave hits Canadian shores.

National Post

[email protected]

Our website is the place for the latest breaking news, exclusive scoops, longreads and provocative commentary. Please bookmark and sign up for our politics newsletter, First Reading, here.

Article content