Canadians are primed for some Trump-style populism


A new survey finds half of Canadians are open to populism given their distrust of government and fear of being left behind—and it’s a right-of-centre phenomenon

Half of Canadian voters hold opinions that might make populism appealing to them, a new poll from Earnscliffe Strategy Group shows, and while Canadian populists lean distinctly to the right, they are not alienated outsiders but rather highly motivated politics watchers.

In the report, the lobbying firm cautions that “in order to avoid unnecessary hysteria,” it’s important to keep in mind that populism doesn’t belong to the left or right, it isn’t inherently good or bad and the negative connotations associated with it at the moment (Donald Trump, Brexit, the rise of strongmen in Brazil, Hungary and the Philippines) are not always present.

“Populism isn’t a person, it’s not even a political party; it’s a political approach,” says Allan Gregg, a principal with Earnscliffe. “And it’s aimed at the elites as the target, and the audience for the message are people who clearly believe they are not being represented by those. That can come from the left or it can come from the right, but it’s overwhelming in these data that to the extent that it manifests itself in Canada, it is a right-of-centre phenomenon.”

For the report, Earnscliffe went with the Oxford Dictionary definition of populism, which is “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”

The report finds that exactly half of Canadian voters hold attitudes that make them open to populism, including one-quarter who go even further to embrace the views that allow populism to flourish. “For populism and populists to find support, there needs to be an environment of distrust in politicians and institutions, a feeling that government serves interests other than those of ‘the people,’ a sense of frustration over the direction of government and a sense of fear of being ‘left behind’ in a changing world,” the report says.

The shape of this poll was inspired by Gregg watching the 2016 U.S. presidential election play out. While the shorthand for Trump’s supporters hinged heavily on an older, white hillbilly stereotype, when Gregg looked at the exit polls, the real dividing line between Trump voters and those who supported Hillary Clinton wasn’t demographics, but the answer to whether they believed the best years for the United States were ahead or behind: Trump voters were looking back and Clinton voters were looking over the next horizon.

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