Wikipedia defines populism as “a political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against a privileged elite.” Populist politicians therefore portray themselves as anti-establishment despite, in most cases, coming from privileged backgrounds. Once in power, such politicians typically strive to centralize power in their own hands, using that overarching (but usually phony) struggle to justify their authoritarian policies which undermine democratic norms. Every issue is over-simplified and anyone who disagrees with them is deemed an “enemy”, vilified as being part of the “elite” against which they are struggling for the good of the “common people”. That includes the media, academics and any “experts” with the temerity to use facts and evidence to rationally argue against any of those politicians’ typically ideologically-driven policies.
As exemplified by Donald Trump, populist politicians are usually lacking in experience in government, patience with complexity and willingness to listen to and accommodate opposing views. Such willingness is essential to a well-functioning democracy which serves the interests of all of its citizens. Lack of experience means making lots of expensive mistakes. Not listening magnifies those mistakes. And believing that every complex problem should have a simple solution is an exercise in futility. Our world is inherently complex and is becoming inexorably more so. One-man government inevitably underperforms. Ironically, authoritarian populists attract and surround themselves with wealthy power brokers who have little interest in or empathy for the needs of those in the low- to middle-income strata. As we’ve seen time and again, the result is increased inequality and millions of people who had been attracted by the populist slogans and angry, divisive rhetoric finding themselves worse off than before.
The burning question for Ontarians at this time is whether Doug Ford is at heart an authoritarian populist and, if so, what his becoming Premier would likely mean for our future. While all of us as voters need to decide that for ourselves, his past performance as a Toronto City Councillor from 2010 to 2014 is highly indicative of such tendencies. A well-documented Toronto Star editorial categorizes his behaviour during that period as “a study in presumption, impulsiveness, indiscipline, indiscretion, bullying and an inability to put the team first”. Bullying is certainly one of the classic behaviour traits of an authoritarian populist. Another is an utter disregard for truth in statements and promises made while seeking to win votes and maintain control. Truth has no value or meaning to populists, since words are only a means to an end. They believe that when their promises are not met, people will either have forgotten or it will be easy to shift the blame to a scapegoat. In the case of Mr. Ford, his own words in the many email fundraising appeals which he sends to the PC base exemplify his disregard for truth.
Some have argued that Mr. Ford can’t be a populist because, unlike other prominent populist politicians around the world, he has yet to publicly attack immigrants. But not all populist politicians are inherently racist. Rather, they need scapegoats against which they can raise a wave of popular anger that they hope will sweep them into power. In most countries, the immigrant population is sufficiently powerless to make for a convenient target. Canada (especially Toronto) has long since passed the threshold of having a sufficient percentage of voters who identify as immigrants as to make the expression of such views tantamount to political suicide. Mr. Ford is having to make do with “liberal elites”.