Those concerned about the rise of populism are unwittingly making it more popular

With bitter divisions plaguing Western democracies, it is increasingly difficult to identify the issues on which both sides agree.

Shane Miller Montreal QC

With bitter divisions plaguing Western democracies, it is increasingly difficult to identify the issues on which both sides agree. If there is one proposition that can achieve harmony between fractionated minds, it is that populism is an irritant we can’t ignore.

There has certainly been no dearth of interest in populism, but there has been a lack of inquiries into possible remedies for the maladies that contributed to its rise.

Factions on both sides have responded differently to the peculiar trend. The Left-liberal elite is predictably in denial about the actual realities which inspired widespread populist revolts.

Some have decided that hyper-radicalization of policies and rhetoric is useful for mounting an opposition. Given the cultural, political, and social norms that begot right-wing populism in the first place, this will only intensify it.

The Right has divided itself into different categories. The American example is perhaps the best case study for this. There are the Always Trumpers, a group that includes those who’ve been faithful votaries of Trump since the beginning, and those who fully embraced Trumpism after the election.

There are the Never Trumpers who still identify as conservative but are appalled by Trump’s populist takeover of the Republican Party.

There are also those who are neutral, or what Ben Shapiro calls “Sometimes Trump,” which consists of classical liberals and conservatives who are skeptical of Trump and aspects of populism but will sometimes express their support depending on the policy.

The strength of the last group is that it emphasizes objectivity and shows a willingness to understand the populist moment, as people like Stephen Harper and Daniel Hannan have so passionately urged.

Some Never Trumpers, anti-Brexiteers and the Left rely on reductionism, boiling down the rise of populism to the bigotry and stupidity of their fellow citizens.

In America, a culture of contempt has crystallized. Once a prized custom of representative democracy, compromise with one’s political adversaries is now considered an admission of defeat. Data collected within the last year has rebuked historical trends, showing that Democrats are more likely to dislike elected officials who compromise. Both sides are more prone to defeatism with 67 percent of the public thinking that their party is always losing on the pertinent issues, which explains the aggressive salvos people often launch against their political opponents.

One can see comparable polarization throughout Europe with many societies wrecked by disruption and unrest. The conventional wisdom amongst those in the mainstream appears to be that the community was tranquil before those bombastic populists arrived, ergo failing again to realize that populism is very much a product of the political landscape they helped create.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has explained why this might be the case. Analyzing the moral foundations of nationalists and globalists, Haidt opines that as globalists loudly extol open-border policies with no regard for valid concerns about the host culture, nationalists will become more influential since they aspire to “preserve” the nation and culture.

Moreover, they are more likely to capture the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens, as well as intrigue “status-quo conservatives” who have similar goals when it comes to the migration question. According to Haidt, “status quo conservatives” can ally with nationalists if they think that “progressives have subverted the country’s traditions and culture” to an unbearable point.

Constantly calling those who refuse to endorse open-borders racist hasn’t worked, and will undoubtedly continue to push people towards populism.

Illegal immigration is now a completely partisan issue, with 75 percent of Republicans seeing it as a severe problem compared to 19 percent of Democrats.

Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and many of her fellow Democrats decry any measures Trump has tried to implement to ameliorate border problems. They’ve failed to put forth any other ideas that would prove better, suggesting that they don’t have any intention of securing the border. Which is a significant deviation from Democratic opinion before Trump, since Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Barack Obama were all firmly committed to border enforcement. Such swift turnarounds effuse a foul stench of political opportunism.

Their base has realized the efficacy of being militant, making immigration an issue for which a deliberative approach isn’t possible. David Frum, no ardent Trumpian, published an article this week in which he argued that liberals must “make tough decisions” about problems that have long been ignored. Including the number of migrants, and the burden that Americans must shoulder because of certain types of migrants. Frum called for a responsible approach to immigration that allowed Americans to “carefully consider whom they will number among themselves,” as not to leave the problem to “irresponsible politicians.”

The usual suspects have pilloried the article, targeting Frum as a fascist apologist and a xenophobe. Such opprobrium for this logical piece reflects the fashionable idiocy that prevails on these issues.

Since they’re subordinate to the axioms of John Lennon’s Imagine (“Imagine no borders / Imagine no countries”), it is unfathomable to immigration doves why ordinary people might be opposed to how they think society ought to be organized. They confine themselves to environments in which their fallacies are voguish, yet claim to be the voice for the common folk while being insufferably condescending towards them.

For example, prominent anti-Brexiteers—most of them great intellectuals—have denounced Brexit as “crooked,” a pipe dream, and economically destructive. When it comes to its supporters, commentators have dismissed them as useful idiots for the machinations of Vladimir Putin, and, of course, animalistic racists.

Indeed, Brexit is an issue of high complexity, and there are serious questions about its economic and diplomatic implications. As Niall Ferguson often says wryly, “It’s a divorce.”

However, fervent supporters are indifferent to these debates. Most want to depart from the EU because of immigration, and the obstacle the EU poses to sovereignty. Many are tired of the lackadaisical attitude of politicians and the EU’s demand that they subscribe to its open borders ideology, which has proved calamitous in the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis with the increasing frequency of terror attacks and culture clashes.

So it’s understandable that populists whom historian Daniel Pipes calls “Western civilizationists” have come to prominence.

Some have said that Canada may not be immune to a populist insurgency of this scale. With the desolate state of Alberta’s economy (brought on by a loss of jobs due to misguided federal and provincial policies) and widespread apprehension about the country’s direction, such prognostications might be right.

Now, we shouldn’t be blind to the flaws of populism. Its isolationist or unilateralist impulse might hinder a country’s ability to conduct an effective foreign policy if it becomes too rigid. Some of the promises made by ambitious populists are also expected to materialize instantly only for them to come into conflict with the checks-and-balances arrangement of liberal democracies. Trump has run into an impasse with his national emergency declaration being repudiated by members of his party due to constitutional questions about executive overreach.

Be that as it may, it isn’t fantastical concerns driving populists. The core issues that drive the movement should be discussed openly without political correctness. Denigration or becoming more radical will only hasten populist dominance. The sooner everyone—particularly those most disturbed by that prospect—realizes that the sooner we can work towards social cohesion.


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