If one were to listen to the legacy media and mainstream politicians, populism is now an extremist political ideology that threatens to upend democracy and bring an end to Canada as we know it. 

In very recent political discourse, the term has become a dirty word of sorts and a taboo that politicians are encouraged by polite society to avoid.

While at the EU, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau derided the presence of “cynical populists” in reference to the recent Freedom Convoy protests. 

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing a rise in cynical populists who are trying to exploit these anxieties. They pretend to have easy solutions that play on people’s fears,” Trudeau told European parliamentarians. 

Most recently, Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) leadership candidate and MP Pierre Poilievre has been branded as a firebrand populist, even by his opponent Jean Charest who accused him of “stoking the flames of populism” on Apr. 9. 

Meanwhile, on the right flank of the Conservatives, People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier has been attempting to revive populism in Canada since he founded the party in 2018. 

Many Canadians are left wondering, what does populism mean, and is it really as bad as it sounds? 

In reality, the truth couldn’t be further from this narrative. Populism has a long and storied past in Canadian political history both on the left and the right. 

The CPC itself was a merger of the Canadian Alliance (a successor of the populist Reform Party) and the Progressive Conservative Party. Even before that, the regional political parties of the United Farmers of Alberta and the United Farmers of Saskatchewan set a precedent in their explicitly populist intentions and programs during the 1920s. 

Even NDP founder Tommy Douglas has been called the “prairie populist,” and was lauded for his fierce populist style and rhetoric while advocating for socialist ideas. 

Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning told True North in a recent interview that it was a shame that the populist movement was now being denigrated and misunderstood, especially with such a long and respected history in Canadian politics.  

“It’s so unfortunate that populism is misunderstood by Canadians and I think I can prove that Western Canada’s had more experience with populist movements of populist parties and populist governments than virtually any other part of North America,” Manning said.

At the most basic level, a populist views society as being divided between two broad classes: the people and the elites. That division also often takes on a moral dimension, with the people being seen as inherently good, while the elites are depicted as being unvirtuous or self-interested.  

The ultimate goal of populism is that the people will persevere and have their concerns finally represented more fairly by the power structure. In this way, populism is not incompatible with democracy. In fact, it encourages democratic participation en masse and often promotes a form of direct democracy where the electorate has more say in decision making through referendums and other democratic tools.

In many ways, this simple categorization is what makes populism so appealing to many. In 2011, it played a contributing role in the Occupy Wall Street movement’s famous distinction between the 1% who own the majority of the world’s wealth and the 99% representing everyone else. 

Former US President Donald Trump adopted a populist message in 2016, promising to “drain the swamp” of self-serving bureaucrats in Washington, DC, and to represent the marginalized views of rural America. That message landed Trump in the White House – to the shock of many mainstream observers. 

The focus on dividing society between the people and the elites can also be seen as an internal flaw or contradiction inherent with populism. After all, when a populist politician is elected to power, is he not now a member of the elite? 

Whether one agrees with this division or not, populism continues to be an attractive and convenient framework for politicians of every camp to adopt whenever the wealth gap becomes a major political issue. 

Populism is often successful because it addresses real grievances and inequalities present in modern society. After all, it is difficult for anyone to deny that countries afford exclusive privileges to an elite while denying those same privileges to the vast majority of its citizens. 

These qualities also make populism highly amenable to the needs and messages of individual politicians. As recently as the 2020 US presidential election, Senator and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders was branded by many as a populist for his attack on banks “too big to exist” and for his calls to further tax the billionaire class. 

Even Trudeau himself has been described at times as a populist by the media. Not long ago, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte referred to both Trudeau and himself as the “right sort” of populists. In that sense, populism can be both right-wing and left-wing. Even centrists can be populists depending on how they frame their message. 

Despite this, the recent wave of anti-populist attacks and accusations is exclusively levelled towards the right end of the spectrum. There are several reasons for it, but foremost among them is the rising success of right-wing populism throughout the world, including grassroots movements like February’s Freedom Convoy.