Populism and Pierre Poilievre

There’s a new brand of populism in Canada being tapped into by Pierre Poilievre and his rise to fame.

This is not to smear Poilievre or other politicians who appeal to the concerns of the common people. I’ve noticed that populism is often a dirty word when it comes up in universities or academic circles. This is understandable since populism openly positions itself in opposition to “the elite,” whether they be the financial elite, cultural elite, or academic elite — all of which are present in our academic institutions.

There are valid criticisms of populism that we should be mindful of when considering Pierre Poilievre and his bid for Canada’s Conservative Party’s leadership. The tendency of populist leaders to manipulate and take advantage of the common people is something that should be addressed. Populism often also suffers from its dismissal of the elite, especially the cultural and academic elite. While it’s true that the elite sometimes becomes disconnected from the common people and their problems, the elite often has great wisdom, expertise, and knowledge in their respective domains that in some sense cause their rising above average. Self-made businesspeople and successful academics demonstrate the disproportional skills and talents of the elite. Populists reject the merits of elitism at their own peril and generally suffer from the blind spots of the common people.

Pierre Poilievre seems to have tapped into current populist sentiments among Canadians. His YouTube channel and other social media platforms highlight his support for those frustrated with covid mandates and those economically suffering from inflation and rising housing prices. While these issues aren’t traditionally political, Poilievre has used these concerns to rally support among Canada’s political right-wing.

Given the force and relevance of these issues — rising housing prices, frustration with covid mandates, and increasing costs of living — voters on Canada’s left-wing are affected as well. Throw in other populist concerns such as sentiments towards minority and indigenous issues, soaring fuel prices, and the current mental health crisis, and we could have a powder keg about to explode. Those who care about a balanced and healthy democracy should worry about how Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh will respond to these rising populist sentiments. Will our political leaders use populist anger and outrage to further their own power, further driving a wedge between Canadians? Or will our leaders honestly consider populist concerns and integrate solutions for common people into their party policies? Hopefully, Pierre Poilievre is choosing the second option.

Only time will tell, but we can hope for the best. If populism is to be a successful force for good, it will succeed on the virtues of the common people rather than their vices. If Canada’s political scene will go the road of populism, let us hope our leaders further the people’s needs rather than the people’s anger.

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Matthew McKenna

Matthew McKenna

When facing hardship and burned by flame / We look to myth for where to aim / As stories of old were understood / Extract the gold and make it good.