As Canadians, we sit atop the continent, watching as our neighbours slide into cultural civil war. It has become easy to just be appalled as America becomes riven, with social media and antagonistic rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum erasing the middle ground. There are two Americas, incommensurably separated on the fundamental issues of the day: climate change, the economy, social issues like health and education, employment, the media, immigration in particular, and globalization and free trade.
We’ve learned more and more about the populism that has fuelled this complicated moment as the fracture in America races like wildfire throughout Western democracies. It is the biggest force reshaping democracy, our economies and public institutions. It is the product of economic despair, inequality, and yes, racism and xenophobia. It is an institutional blind spot, largely denied or ridiculed by the media, and by the more comfortable and educated portions of society.
It is very much alive in Canada. In fact, our populist explosion has already had its first bangs and is likely to have a major impact on next year’s federal election.
...Meanwhile, research over the last 10 years has found that Canada, like the United States, is turning into a society fissured along fault lines of education, class and gender. These are social chasms defined by the concentration of wealth at the top of society and, for everyone else, by economic pessimism and stagnation; by a comfortable feeling on one end of the societal teeter-totter, and a fear on the other end that a subscription to the middle-class dream might no longer be available.The irony is that populism is no exclusive preserve of the radical right. Populism, presented in the form of progressivism, is very much centrist. There was a time when progressivism had at least some toehold within the Liberal Party. The Liberals, however, chose to embrace the global neoliberal order which gutted their ability and willingness to accommodate progressivism where it mattered (see the two paragraphs above).
Although there has been a recent uptick for the first time in 15 years, the portion of Canadians who self-identify as middle class since the turn of the century has declined from 70 per cent to 45 per cent, a stark number that mirrors America’s—signalling that Canadians have a deeply pessimistic view of their personal economic outlook. Only one in eight Canadians thinks they’re better off than a year ago. Only one in eight thinks the next generation will enjoy a better life.
Six months into his term, Justin Trudeau proclaimed himself, first and foremost, a global free trader even as his finance minister, Morneau, told Canadians they were being consigned to the precariat and would have to get used to a working life of "job churn," living from paycheque to paycheque and hoping not to fall between the cracks. There was a time a Liberal would sooner swallow hot coals than say those things, at least openly.
When Trudeau displaced Harper I had hoped he would heal the divide Harper nurtured and exploited to take power. Trudeau, to his credit, has tried to unite Canadians but he hasn't tried hard enough. There's only so far he can go and remain true to his neoliberal creed. Trudeau stops well short and, in the result, hands our far right the powerful weapon of populism.
The old nonsense about "it's the economy, stupid" is not the reality of today. Fear is driving public opinion and fear is easily manipulated. Trudeau needs a much better sense of where he stands.