9.4.3 North American Populism

Conrad King

The conditions for a flourishing of populism in the USA seemed to culminate in the year 2016. That year, Donald Trump, a right-wing populist, contested and won the US presidential election as the candidate put forth by the Republican Party. His Democratic Party opponent, Hillary Clinton, lost the election in part because she was painted as a corrupt member of the political establishment in Washington, with Trump using slogans like “lock her up” and “drain the swamp” to demonstrate that he was a political outsider who would govern in the interests of “real Americans.” Things might have looked quite different had Bernie Sanders won the Democratic Party primaries and if he decided to persist with his left-wing populist rhetoric. We would have seen an American presidential election contested by the conventional establishment parties (the Republicans and the Democrats), yet also contested by two very different kinds of populists, both of whom claimed to govern for “real Americans.” Although Trumpism is now its own established phenomenon (which will likely persist long after Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election), it is not the first time we have witnessed populism in American politics. Beyond the “invention” of populism during the 1890s with the short-lived People’s Party, there have been other American populists, usually but not always of the right-wing persuasion: Huey Long (governor of Louisiana from 1928–1932), George C. Wallace (governor of Alabama on three separate occasions), Senator Joseph McCarthy (whose persecution of alleged communists during the 1950s became known as McCarthyism), and Texas billionaire Ross Perot (independent presidential candidate in the elections of 1992 and 1996). There have also been significant populist social movements on the left (The Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011) and on the right (the Tea Party Movement that began in 2009). Yet until Trumpism, populism in North America has been characterized by weak organizational capacity and highly regionalized mobilization. Trump was perhaps the first American populist who was successful on a national scale.

Video 9.1 covers the history of populism in the USA.

Video 9.1. What Is Populism? by History Channel.

Canada follows this pattern of weak organization yet strong regional mobilization amongst populist parties and movements. Indeed, some argue that Canada has been barren soil for populism because of its moderate political culture, lack of party polarization, and widespread norms of inclusivity and tolerance for immigrants (Adams, 2017). Yet, angry populist politics has emerged at the regional level. Preston Manning was a member of Parliament who founded the right-wing populist Reform Party in 1987, and his party had some electoral success in western Canada during the 1993 federal election before eventually merging into the federal Conservative Party in 2003. Right-wing populism has perhaps been strongest in Albertan provincial politics. The current premier of Alberta, Jason Kenney, has been called a populist, yet he has had to compete with more marginal right-wing populists like the provincial Wildrose Independence Party and the federal Maverick Party – both of which agitate for the secession of Alberta from Canada. Frustration with “politics-as-usual” is growing outside of Alberta as well. In 2018, Doug Ford was elected premier of Ontario, and François Legault was elected premier of Québec. Both ran populist electoral campaigns, yet they have not consistently governed as populists when in power. It would seem that provincial populism is becoming an avenue for voters to express frustration with federal politics without actually seeking a populist alternative in Ottawa. The only populist party that has been national in scope has been the People’s Party of Canada created by former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier in 2018. Yet, his national populist message resonated weakly amongst Canadian voters, and his party failed to win any seats (including his own) in the 2019 federal election. Canada continues to follow the North American pattern of regional populism that surfaces occasionally when conditions permit but without a Trump-like figure that has been able to mobilize populism on a national scale.

Video 9.2 discusses the rise of regional populism in Canada, especially Doug Ford.

Video 9.2. What’s driving populism in Canada? by CBC News: The National.


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