Stephen Harper has said that the Conservative government he led from 2006 to 2015 practiced what he calls “populist conservatism”. The Conservative Party, led by Pierre Poillièvre, endorsed by Harper this week, will fully accept that definition.
One can only speculate why the former prime minister took the unusual step of backing a candidate in the current race for leadership, and why he chose to do so now. Maybe the Poilivre campaign has some reason to believe it needs an extra push to get over the line.
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Maybe Poilivre’s campaign is doing well, but she wants her victory to be clear and overwhelming. Perhaps Harper’s blessing is meant to help the group come together after a fierce race.
Maybe Harper is just really, Indeed dislikes Jean Charest.
Whatever its reasons, Harper’s endorsement symbolically links his personal political project to Poillevard’s own approach to politics and leadership. Not that Andrew Scheer or Erin O’Toole ever vowed to drop Harper’s approach abruptly. But if there are conservatives worried about where the next leader might lead the party, Harper’s message is that his conservatism includes Pierre Poilivere.
Harper’s theory of populist conservatism
In his 2018 book Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in an Age of Upheaval, Harper wrote that at this moment of populist unrest, conservatives had three possible paths.
They could hold firmly to a doctrinaire view of conservatism and an ideological belief in supply-side economics. They could “doubling down on rampant populism.” Or they could “reform conservatism to address the problems that cause populist upheavals…adapt conservatism to the practical concerns, interests, and aspirations of the working and middle class.”
WATCH: Stephen Harper backs Pierre Poilliev as Conservative leader
Harper argued that this third approach, which he called “populist conservatism” or “applied conservatism”, was similar to his style of government.
“The new populist conservatism must use conservative ideas to solve real problems faced by ordinary people,” he wrote.
This is not an inherently unfounded opinion, even if there are significant gaps in Harper’s broader analysis. First, it is still unclear what the “populist conservative” will do about climate change.
It’s also not clear how “practical” Poilivre’s approach to government would be, as his campaign largely avoided presenting detailed policy proposals.
He will appoint a federal ombudsman to ensure that Canadian universities meet his standards for protecting free speech, and he wants to make Canada the “blockchain capital of the world.” But his only climate policy is to remove the national carbon price.
His inflation analysis excludes global factors and its take over the Bank of Canada has disadvantages. His complaints about housing are generally on the right track, although his decision represents a new system of fines and rewards for municipal authorities.
The loud populism of Poileva
Harper rather mildly defines populism as “any political movement that puts the broader interests of the common people above the special interests of a privileged few.”
But it can also be defined as something more inherently hostile — as “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately divided into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups: “clean people” versus “corrupt elites”.” words by Casa Mudde, Dutch political scientist. (I also quoted Madde’s populist language when writing about the conservative 2017 leadership race.)
In practice, populism seems to have less to do with proposing practical solutions to real problems than with finding blame or dissatisfaction. It is anti-establishment in the sense that it can threaten traditional institutions.
“Populism,” Mudde wrote, “is a Manichaean worldview in which there are only friends and enemies.”
Harper demonstrated some of this populism. His government seemed have fun fighting scientists and public policy experts and he attackedliberal elitesIn Right Here, Right Now, he develops the theory that Western societies can be divided into “somewhere” and “anywhere”.
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But Poilivre has fully mastered the language of populism. If Harper was proposing a conservatism that responded to the fears that fueled populism, Poillèvre seems to be proposing a populism that glorified conservative ideals.
Poilivre built his campaign around the idea that the “gatekeepers” were holding Canadians back. After being criticized for promising to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada, he stated that “the elites in Ottawa are beside themselves that I will keep them.” for the accounting [the] the harm they have done to ordinary people.”
He urged his supporters to “stand up in defense of an awakened culture” and his campaign criticized his own party for choosing “the Laurentian elite of the liberal media” to moderate the debate.
“Bad politicians make bad decisions and the system protects them,” Poilivre wrote earlier this year in a fundraising appeal. “The media, pundits, professors – everyone says that I should not attack Justin Trudeau as much as I do now.”
Where is populism leading?
Harper clearly approves. And if you believe that the world is as Poilivre describes it, his arguments are certainly attractive. But where exactly will this populism take the Conservative Party?
In pursuit of the populist dream of Brexit, the Conservatives in the United Kingdom have burned three prime ministers in the past six years. Their current leader, Boris Johnson, has been ousted by a hurricane of scandal.
In the United States, the Republican Party has slid down the populist rabbit hole and turned into a hysterical anti-democratic personality cult. Alberta Premier Jason Kenny, who would probably consider himself populist conservativewas ousted by his own party just three years after taking office.
If it can be imagined that populism can lead to constructive reforms (at least in theory), the evidence suggests that the spirit of antagonism is not easily controlled once it has been adopted. Worst-case scenarios aside, it’s not hard to see why a populist approach could end up doing more harm than good.
But Stephen Harper’s party is now ready to accept Pierre Poiliev as its new standard-bearer and take part in unabashed populist conservatism.