Revisiting Populism; A Case Study

In light of Doug Ford’s recent win of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party’s nomination, it is important that we reexamine the influence and force of the populist movement within our politics. Contemporaries from Macleans and Globe and Mail have both commented on his populist nature, but what exactly is a populist and what does it mean for Canada?

Contributor from The Toronto Star, Rick Salutin said, “What I fail to see is any inherent opposition between democracy and populism. Populism isn’t the enemy of democracy; it springs from it and yearns for it.

The Economist explained in an article that, while populism is thrown around regularly, it lacks a clear definition. It is an ideology “that merely sets up a framework: that of a pure people versus a corrupt elite” which can then be translated into almost any economic movement. Populism is a purely social movement that focuses on upsetting the status quo, which is not attached to any economic position. As such, many politicians on both the left and right wing have been assigned the term.

In the first round of France’s 2017 election, two of the top three candidates were back by populist movements. Far right Marine Le Pen and far left Jean Luc Melenchon were both formidable individuals with populist appeal. They both sought general approval through denouncing the elites.

Populism can take the form of socialists denigrating the one percent, or laissez faire capitalists fighting the socialists. It also has the potential to present as a tired middle ground, sick of both sides fighting and appealing to the public’s wish for a resolution.

This is why, as described by The Economist, it is difficult to pin down. The most accurate descriptor would be that populists seek popularity by professing to represent “the people”, whomever they may be. It is also accompanied by the opposition of the force currently – or believed to be – in control. This is to say that populists identify an enemy that either is the oppressor, or becomes painted as one.

In Doug Ford’s case, the Ontario PCs have elected their own populist leader, with the enemy being Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals. Ford has not only managed to overcome his past as a city counselor who was seldom taken seriously, but has grown stronger for it. His reputation is that of a loud-mouthed provocateur, but has demonstrated an uptake in diplomacy throughout his leadership campaign.

Not only is he the master of the soundbite – as he delivers quick one-liners with ambitious goals and approachable language – but he also carries charisma. His appearance on an episode of TVO’s Political Blind Date is a testament to that. Ford appeared opposite Jagmeet Singh in the Canadian series which paired political opposites for entertainment and insight. Singh and Ford, however, were not just opposites in political position, but also in reputation. Singh has an image of serenity – as evidenced by his dealings with racist protesters and supported by his motto, “Love and Courage” – that seemed polar opposite to Ford’s history. Despite this, upon watching the episode, it became clear that Doug Ford was just as charming as his New Democratic counterpart. In doing so, the public has borne witness to his growth as a leader.

By allowing voters to watch him struggle, but eventually lead, Doug Ford has made himself a relatable provincial government hopeful, and connected with constituents in a way that more polished candidates cannot. As such, he is able to frame himself as a man of the people and garner support by alienating the more elite, and by populist standards, the more out-of-touch, within the party and the government.

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