Homegrown populism

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Those who believe that a Trump-style wave of populism could never gain a toehold in New Brunswick might want to conduct a little thought experiment. It’s easier than you imagine.

Take one dynamic, provocative, plain-spoken leader who wears his or her “devotion” to the common man or woman on his or her sleeve, add a mastery of social media gimmickry, sprinkle in coarse rhetoric about the evil of “elites”, lay on dark musings about the “enemies” within, and, hey presto, you’ve got yourself one, delicious cake you can both have and eat simultaneously.

That’s, of course, at the bleakest end of the spectrum. In fact, successful populists come in all shapes, sizes and shades, representing various threat levels to rational discourse.

When former Alberta premier Ralph Klein died in 2013, the Toronto Star ran an obituary that noted, in part, “Soon after his mayoral election in October 1980, when boom town Calgary was a magnet for unskilled labourers from across Canada, Klein gained less than favourable national attention by blaming eastern ‘creeps and bums’ for straining the city’s social and police services. He said the only solution was to ‘kick ass and get them out of town.’ It was this down-home, off-the-cuff style that fuelled his popularity both when he was mayor and premier.”

Roger Gibbins, then a senior fellow of the Canada West Foundation and a former department chief of political science at the University of Calgary, observed in the story, “It’s a difficult phrase to use in Alberta, but there was class politics at play even though class politics doesn’t play much of a role here. Klein was an authentic populist in the province. . .Klein was the real thing. Real working class.”

New Brunswick, we know, is not Alberta (though, from time to time, we have supplied that western province with a healthy proportion of its labour force). But we do possess many of the ingredients a savvy populist would need to settle in nicely. These are, in no particular order: An under-employed and anxious population; an economic divide between rural and urban areas; high rates of illiteracy and innumeracy; rising costs of just about everything; and an entrenched, if not yet dominant, sense that facts are handmaidens to opinions, no matter how outrageous our thoughts are at any given moment.

It’s no surprise that many of these conditions presaged the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom earlier this year. Writing for Forbes magazine’s online edition last July, geopolitics expert George Friedman observed, “There’s a growing distrust of multinational financial, trade, and defense organizations created after World War II. The EU, the IMF, and NATO are good examples of this.

Many who oppose the EU believe these institutions no longer serve a purpose. Not only that, these organizations take control away from individual nations. Mistrust and fear of losing control made Brexit a reasonable solution to them.”

The operative words there are “mistrust” and “fear” – music to many populists’ ears. Who do we tend to regard warily in this province? Politicians representing traditional parties? Government institutions? Corporate bigwigs? Banks? Entrenched wealth? Conversely, who do we like to embrace? Working stiffs? Small-time entrepreneurs? Boot-strapping innovators? Community volunteers? Remember the COR Party, about which New Brunswick political scientist Geoff Martin once wrote, “In electoral terms (it) was not a party of big business or the affluent. . . In its heyday (it) was dominated by middle-income and small-business people, professionals, and the self-employed.”

Suffice to say, back in the early 1990s, that was no mere thought experiment. Neither, we now know, is a Trump presidency.

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