Canadian Social Democracy Study


Populism and Social Democracy: Threat, Tactic, or Political Philosophy?

What is the relationship between populism and social democratic parties? Policy Network, a British social democratic think tank, has commissioned a series of articles about the relationship between the two, occasioned by the rise of parties and movements on the left and the right such as Syriza in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, the Front National in France and the UKIP and the English Defence League in the UK. For Policy Network, populism is a threat precisely because it can disorganize traditional social democratic voting blocs by making irresponsible appeals.  Social democrats are then left in a situation where pursuing what is possible in the short-term and making responsible promises can come at significant electoral cost.

It is worthwhile thinking about the relationship between populism and social democracy because we can discern a very different experience between the two in Canada as compared to continental Europe.  It could be argued that populism – when it moves from being a tactic of established parties to cultivate support to manifesting itself in new parties and extraparliamentary social movements - is a signal of discontent and that citizen preferences are not being met by the established system.  This is one reason why Western Canada has been the focal point of Canadian populism. Its traditional economic and demographic weakness made it subordinate to the “Empire of the St. Lawrence”. If this is true, then we could make the case that European social democracy is suffering from a greater mismatch between citizen demands and parties' capacities to meet those demands. Canada, on the other hand, appears to be functioning more stably.  We are not witnessing extraparliamentary activity such as is evident in Europe.

However, this tension is not absent from current politics in Canada.  The use of populist imagery and positions was one of many variables that led to the rise of the federal NDP  from 2004 to 2011, although the dramatic breakthrough in Quebec likely had other explanations.  One need only recall the party's emphasis on simple policies that might impact middle-class voters' monthly budgets or how well the party positioned itself as the only way for voters to fix a broken Ottawa in 2011. The former appealed to the median voter's very narrow rational self-interest, the latter capitalized on a vague impression that the “system” is broken and that a vote for the NDP would “fix” it. In Ontario, Andrea Horwath has taken the party even further down the populist path by opposing increases to the Harmonized Sales Tax and the provincial gas tax to finance public transit investments on the grounds that the “average family” is too overburdened to pay.  Rhetorically, the party's inability to propose or advocate sources of financing for this investment creates the impression with voters that they can get something for free. Small wonder that she is the most popular leader in the province. 

 There are good reasons why political parties on the right and left avail themselves of populist policies, without transforming themselves into populist parties.  The information environment parties are working in is far more complicated than in the heyday of mass parties.  Markus Prior's work on “post-broadcast” democracy in the United States suggest that the gap between low- and high-information voters is growing because it is becoming easier for voters to segment themselves to suit their interests.  In order to watch Johnny Carson in the 1980s, most voters had to suffer through at least parts of the evening news.  His work suggests that there was at least some learning about public affairs through this process. But those days are gone. People can easily avoid the news in favour of the most recent episode of Dancing With The Stars.  One consequence of this is that it might be more important – tactically – for parties to adopt high-profile, simple, easy-to-digest, in short – populist, policies just to break through the information clutter. The archetypal example of this might be the Conservatives' commitment to drop the GST from 7% to 5%.

It is also the case that stagnant real incomes and the lack of likely upward career mobility in parts of the service sector also play a role. Working class voters are ripe for the argument that the only “raise” they’ll ever get is a tax cut.  Left populist campaigning around cost-of-living issues on significant non-discretionary (at least in the short-term) expenses like heating and auto insurance provide a way to speak to these voters. Yet this kind of pocketbook politicking, for all of its populist potential in taking on insurance companies and big natural resources firms, remains profoundly individualist in its potentials.  It closes down spaces to make a more collective argument, namely that paying for public services through taxes is the best deal going for working people. 

This presents a deep challenge for social democrats, who, at their core, are marked by their commitment to the notion that the state can be – and ought to be – a solution to pressing social problems, rather than being a source of problems.  This presents both an opportunity and a challenge for social democrats. On the one hand, tax increases on privileged groups can easily fit with a populist rhetoric.  This might be electorally viable and might even make fiscal sense and create the opening for Canadian social democracy to advance, rather than stand still. On the other hand, an argument for tax increases on the citizenry as a whole in order to finance public services for the citizenry is the opposite of populism. It caters to enlightened – not narrow – self-interest and avoids catering to desires for punishment of the enemies of the undivided “people”. 

This opportunity/challenge paradox can be seen in the NDP’s recent trajectory in Ontario.  The populist positioning has allowed the ONDP to sit in the mid-twenties in opinion polls, sometimes reaching into the low thirties, nearly double its standing through the first decade of the new millennium.  Positioning Andrea Horwath as the “tax fighter,” the ONDP has steadily increased its legislative representation through a string of by-election victories.  Yet this success has limits, because, consistent with the Policy Network claims, populism involves a retreat from dealing responsibly with the world in the here and now.  Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne sounds not unlike the European social democrats in decrying Horwath’s strong popularity despite her supposed lack of answers to pressing questions like the minimum wage and investment in transit. The difference, of course, is that in Europe, the social democrats at least attempt to define what might be possible to achieve in 2014, through what means, and serving what values.  In Ontario, we are left with a social liberalism, with no political relay to challenge it with more egalitarian and ecological alternatives.

Simon J. Kiss is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University. Peter Graefe is an Associate Professor of Political Science at McMaster University. Both authors have written extensively on the NDP and social democracy in Canada.




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