At virtually every public talk I give about the rise of populism and its threat to liberal democracy, I’m asked some version of the same question: “Aren’t there some parts of the world in which the populists haven’t had any success? What about Canada?”
The one country in which I have never been asked that question is, you guessed it, Canada. After all, many Canadians vividly remember the embarrassing reign of Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto who claimed to speak for the people, fulminated against his political opponents, and was, um, caught on video smoking crack with drug dealers.
Canadians also realized that the Ford moment could come back at any time. After all, Rob’s brother and closest political ally, Doug, continued to be active in the country’s politics and was cut from the same populist cloth. The fear that one brother could take over from the other has now been realized: Earlier this year, Doug Ford won a crowded primary to become leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. And at Thursday’s election, he led the party to a stunning victory, winning nearly two-thirds of the seats in Ontario’s Legislative Assembly.
The similarities between Doug Ford and Donald Trump are obvious: A rich entrepreneur, Ford has a long history of dubious business partners and revels in attacking political and cultural elites. When he was his brother’s right-hand man on Toronto’s city council, he called critical journalists “jihadists,” told an advocate for autistic children to “go to hell,” explained why neither he nor his brother would attend Pride events by saying he didn’t want to see “buck-naked” men, and complained that in his constituency, there were more libraries than Tim Hortons (think a Canadian version of Dunkin Donuts).
Ford’s run for premier has been no less populist. He has, of course, claimed that he alone stands for the people: “[T]his victory is for the people,” he said in typical fashion at his election night rally. He has also sought to delegitimize anybody who disagrees with him: Continually stressing the supposed corruption of Kathleen Wynne, then the incumbent Liberal Party premier, he promised to “follow the money” through an outside audit and implied that she may soon be going to jail. But it is the closing argument in one of the key debates that most clearly encapsulates his campaign’s distinctly Trumpian spirit:
After 15 years of mismanagement, scandals, and waste of your hard-earned tax dollars the liberal government is desperate to hold onto power to continue lining in the pockets of their friends and their liberal insiders. I want to make sure that we run a government that respects the taxpayers. You know me: I’m for the little guy.
Ford’s upset victory is yet another sign that all those political scientists and commentators who confidently dismissed fears of a worldwide populist surge as alarmist back in early 2017 have been proved depressingly wrong. But it offers four further lessons of particular relevance far beyond the land of milk and maple.
1. Populism is a chronic disease.
It is tempting to think of populism as an acute illness: A charismatic candidate like Donald Trump comes along and seduces voters with outsize promises. Once they see that the gifts on which he campaigned don’t materialize, and become fed up with his chaos and mismanagement, they slowly grow resistant to his charms. Things finally go back to normal.
As Jordan Kyle and I argued after the last Italian election, this simply isn’t what happens. On the contrary, populists are incredibly adept at surviving in office despite disappointments; at handing the reins of power over to political friends or blood relatives; and at infecting the political system with populist energy even if their own movement gradually fades.
The election in Ontario is a perfect example of this broader trend: Rob Ford was disgraced as mayor of Toronto because he literally lit up a crack pipe on camera. He eventually died. But his brother has proved capable of taking his mantle and now rules over one-third of Canada’s population. Even when things go wrong, populism, does not implode: It just hibernates.
This should remind Americans that they will have to keep up the fight against Donald Trump, and all he represents, well beyond 2020. Even if he fails to win re-election, Ivanka Trump or Tom Cotton—or an authoritarian populist of a different ideological stripe altogether—could well surge in 2024 or 2028. The fight against populism is a generational war, not a temporary battle.
2. Populists win when the opposition is divided.
Populists claim that they alone speak for the whole people. As we know from Donald Trump’s election, though, they often win large political victories without actually getting a majority of the vote. This was once again the case in Ontario: Though Ford won nearly two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, he only won a little more than 40 percent of the vote. The rest of the vote was split between the left-wing New Democratic Party, at 34 percent, the center-left Liberal Party, at 19 percent, and the far-left Green Party, at 5 percent. In other words, the far-right will rule in Ontario even though, cumulatively, the parties of the left had a much greater share of the vote.
Many Canadians are blaming Ford’s victory on the “first-past-the-post” system: Like in elections for the U.K. House of Commons, or the House and Senate in the United States, each district is represented by the candidate who wins the most votes. When a number of different candidates are competing for the left’s support, this allows a right-wing candidate to win with a bare plurality of the vote.
In truth, though, nearly every electoral system is vulnerable to similar vote splits. Poland, for example, has a system of proportional representation in which parties are allocated seats in parliament in proportion to their support in the general population. But to avoid an extreme splintering of the party system, Poland, like most other countries with proportional representation, also establishes a minimum threshold that smaller parties have to clear to gain parliamentary representation. Because the left was hopelessly split, this allowed the radical Law and Justice Party to take an absolute majority of seats in the Sejm in 2015 even though the party got 38 percent of the votes—an even smaller proportion than Rob Ford got.
While some institutional reform might help to alleviate these problems—Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, for example, makes an interesting case for the benefits of “ranked-choice voting”—the only real answer is for opponents of populism to unite when they face perilous elections. This is why it is so reassuring that the Democrats have, so far, avoided the civil war between the far-left and the center-left that so many had predicted for this spring’s primary season. But it is also why Democrats should not be too sanguine about victory in 2020.
Trump’s approval ratings hover at about 42 percent. That sounds like very good news for his opponents. But as Doug Ford has just reminded us, this level of support can, under the wrong circumstances, be more than enough for populists to win big—especially if third-party candidates swoop in to divide the opposition.
3. Right-wing populism is possible without racism or xenophobia.
It is tempting to think of right-wing populism as synonymous with racism or xenophobia. After all, from Donald Trump in the United States to Matteo Salvini in Italy and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, most right-wing populists do spend a lot of their time fulminating against ethnic and religious minorities.
But when you look at lists of the controversial statements made by either Rob or Doug Ford, racist dog whistles are, for the most part, conspicuous in their absence. In a sense, this should not come as a surprise: Toronto’s racial makeup is now majority minority. And while Ontario as a whole remains much less diverse, it would have been difficult for Doug Ford to become premier of the province without making significant inroads among minority voters.
In another sense, though, this goes completely against the prevailing narrative. Especially in the United States, the left continues to invest a lot of hope in the idea of the “inevitable demographic majority.” As I have argued before (and will do again), the moment when Americans who actually identify as being members of a minority group will be in the majority is much more distant than authors like Ruy Teixeira believe. Just as importantly, it is far from clear that minority voters could never vote for populist candidates: As Rob’s success in Toronto and Doug’s success in Ontario demonstrates, populists can do very well among minorities by singing from the same old hymn book while tearing out its most racist pages.
4. Populists can rise very quickly.
There’s a reason why all those people at my talks used Canada as an example of a country in which populists had not won major victories. The country is ruled by Justin Trudeau, one of the few remaining progressive leaders in the world. Until a few days ago, Liberals led Ontario for 15 years. Despite a few signs of turbulence—like the temporary surge of the Wildrose Party in Alberta—the country’s politics were remarkably placid.
What a difference a few months make. In Ontario, the Liberals have gone from dominating the political scene to being reduced to seven elected members in the provincial assembly. This is sure to give Trudeau nightmares: If he continues to be popular, he might well win re-election with a resounding victory in fall 2019. But if he stumbles, he could be felled by a resurgent right—and mutilated by his left competitors in the NDP.
The same holds true for many other countries as well. Populists are likely to do well when Sweden, another country that has long been hailed as an exception to the populist rise, votes this fall. The German political establishment still counts on the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) to fade at the next federal elections in 2021. But there is just as much of a chance that the AfD will grow stronger, making the country increasingly difficult to govern. Finally, France’s Emmanuel Macron pulled off an incredible upset in 2017. But with his popularity sagging, the populists could celebrate just as stunning an upset when he is up for re-election in 2022.
When Trump won in the United States, political elites in many countries put his success down to specifically American pathologies. But less than two years on, it is clearer than ever that America is not so unique after all: From Sweden to Canada, there isn’t a country in the world in which populists might not succeed. Even at a time when the cohesion of Western liberal democracies is more imperiled than at any time in recent memory, the dangers they face are astoundingly similar.
Support our journalism
Help us continue covering the news and issues important to you—and get ad-free podcasts and bonus segments, members-only content, and other great benefits.Join Slate Plus