Populism is not your friend

Populism is not your friend

(The Toronto Star published a shorter version of this piece on October 10, 2018)

It never ceases to amaze me how much smarter and perceptive politicians are before and after their time in office but never during. Take Stephen Harper. He used to be a great libertarian thinker who wrote memorable screeds, and now he’s produced what appears to be a mostly decent book about populism and the sorry state of our politics. In between though, during his time as a Reform MP and then leader of the opposition before becoming prime minister, he was just another power-obsessed hack who cared not a whit about principles, coherent logic or, you know, conservatism.

That new book of his, excerpted here, seems alright. But in case you’re worried about me damning him with faint praise, which is so not my style, I have a few quibbles. Well, OK. More than a few, starting with the self-serving rhubarb he gets into about his time in government and his brand of “populist conservatism” which I’ll leave for other disillusioned-by-Harper-conservatives to take apart because it wasn’t especially fun the first 632,2087 times I personally tried it.

My biggest objection? I don’t believe one bit that the future belongs to populism. Harper is right about his main observation, that: “A large proportion of Americans, including many American conservatives, voted for Trump because they are really not doing very well. In short, the world of globalization is not working for many of our own people.” True as far as that goes. Many Trump supporters — including a bunch of Canadians — are no fans of globalization. Whether they could tell you exactly what might have happened to the standards of living of everyone including themselves if North America had remained at 1970s levels of technological lack of advancement while the rest of the world adopted just-in-time delivery, automation, and all the other fun stuff we can no longer live without would be an interesting question to ask them, but fortunately for them nobody ever does that.

Harper says we have a choice between trying convince Trumpians “that they misunderstand their own lives, or we can try to understand what they are saying. Then we can decide what to do about it.” OK, I’ll bite. I don’t think those who voted for this president misunderstand their lives. But they misunderstand a whole bunch of nearly everything else. I’ve listened to them a lot, and as far as I can tell what the folks who vote for whatever populist yahoo is on offer have to say is, “we’re sick and tired of not being respected and of not having a big enough say over the rules we have to live under, move over elites we don’t need you”, which is sometimes neatly translated as “lock her up.”

Harper, using categories invented by someone else, then launches into a long explanation of the “fault line in modern Western societies” between “those who live ‘anywhere’ and those who live ‘somewhere.’” I’ll save you what felt like 4,000 redundantly repetitive words: what he means is that society is divided between the haves and the have-nots, or as I like to put it, people with options and people without. If you want to be insulting about it, you call them globalists and deplorables.

You probably know which basket is yours. Basically, if you’re doing well today and are educated with a good job as a professional or a creative, you’re fine. Otherwise, not. If you’re reading this, you’re likely doing alright. Media literacy and a thirst for knowledge of what happens in the world around you is a great sign of a “have” kind of person even if your income doesn’t quite reach that level yet. If you’re over 18 and spend more than four hours a day playing video games without being paid to review them for an audience larger than your extended family, sorry. You’re in the other group.

So, uh, yeah. I don’t know quite how to explain this without sounding condescending to the have-nots, but of course it’s the people with options that make the rules for everyone. How many high-school dropouts who had three kids before they reached the age of 25 get to be senior assistant deputy minister of anything worth mentioning, you figure?

It was always like that. Machiavelli was a highly influential 15th-century counselor whose book Stephen Harper knows very well. What did his daddy do, you think? He was a doctor of law with a vaguely aristocratic family tree. Cardinal Richelieu, who was the brains of the French monarchy back when it was busy sending my ancestors to New France was also known as the Duke of Richelieu and of Fronsac because sheesh, one duchy can’t possibly be enough. It’s only in fairy tales and, I suppose, the Bible that perfect nobodies get to be the power behind the throne. (That’d be Joseph, in case you were wondering; I may be a person with education and options who despises religion and dislikes those who cling to it, but unlike many people without options, I do know my stuff. At the risk of sounding unduly harsh, that’s sort of why I have options.)

Not only was it always thus, it will remain thusly for as long as bipeds roam the earth. I get that business-as-usual politicians are aggravating. They’re also self-serving and often useless. And that’s when they’re not corrupt. I’m not saying the system doesn’t need fixing. But electing the nearest bull because you’re sick of the existing china shop will not result in nicer dishes in your cupboard. It will only result in a big old mess to clean up. Which is a job for the have-nots, by the way, while the haves continue to enjoy their fine dining somewhere else where they can laugh at the other basket among themselves. I get that it’s not fair. But to think that Donald Trump (who, by the way, owns some very fine dining-room furniture in all of his private residences) can make it more fair, at best, delusional.

Harper isn’t sure “whether Donald Trump’s presidency will succeed or not.” But he’s pretty confident “the issues that gave rise to his candidacy” need to be addressed quickly and well if we want to avoid some unspecified societal catastrophe. As though “President Donald Trump” wasn’t horrible enough already.

I say balderdash. Populism, like an out-of-touch elitist ruling class, is not a unique trend so much as a fixture of just about any organized society you care to name in any time period you want to cite. Those with knowledge, connections, influence (or, you know, options) rise to the top and make rules for the others to live under. If the rules are reasonably just and beneficial to as great a number of people as possible, society works pretty well. When they’re not, when they unduly favor the elites over the governed, you get revolutions and wars (for examples, see the nearest history book).

It comes and goes, and right now we are, at the risk of using the wrong metaphor, in the thick of a massive wave of discontent. Which we’ve seen before, especially if we’re the sort of optionful people who read books. The pitchforks are out — again. And no wonder. When the masses of people without a whole lot of options rise against their so-called betters, they use the tools at their disposal, and those usually ain’t the banks or Hollywood studios or the courts because you know. But watch what’ll happen when the pitchfork-wielders realize they’ve been had, again, by the Donald Trumps of this world who made big promises to get elected and then worried about getting re-elected and then sorry what was your name again? Ah yes. Mr. and Mrs. Disenfranchised. Yeah, sure is tough out there for y’all. Have you seen my new buffet? Solid mahogany, I kid you not.

What to do about it? Well, we can start by talking in a calm and reasonable manner, as I have tried to do here. It beats twitter fights. But more practically, what we need to do is make sure the number of people without options dwindles as fast as possible by helping them acquire some. Start by not being a have-not yourself, as much as possible. I understand it’s not easy for everyone, but you know, right here in the real world we are, by and large, left to ourselves. We have to work at something reasonably useful, get a decent education (NOT synonymous with going to school), acquire marketable skills, etc. Then we can help those around us do the same. The more altruistic in our midst can offer practical assistance to the many who may need it. We can also campaign and agitate for better rules and policies, and vote accordingly.

What we shouldn’t do is encourage the disenfranchised and the left-behind to feel justified in their resentment. Because that never leads anywhere good for anyone. What we need to do is help people develop more options for themselves, not promise them we can bring back 1970s jobs to the rust belt, lock up the Clintons, impose tariffs on foreign stuff, reduce immigration and make the country great again with hateful rhetoric and rude behavior. Because even if all those promises could be kept, and we did return to 1978, it would still be the people with options who’d make rules for everyone.

Populists promise voters it’s possible to live in a world where a pair of twos is worth as much as a full house. It’s the worst kind of lie there is, and it sure is guaranteed not to help anyone, no matter how many fancy words Stephen Harper uses to claim otherwise.