Justin Trudeau’s sweeping victory in Canada could be read as one more indication that voters in the Western world are moving left — and toward populism. The past year has seen the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of Britain’s Labour Party. In the United States, Bernie Sanders, a self-professed “democratic socialist,” has shaken up the Democratic primaries. But the lessons of Trudeau’s victory are somewhat more complicated.
First, Trudeau benefited from the 10-year itch. After politicians have been in power for about a decade, voters usually want a change, no matter how popular the leader — think of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Canada’s Conservatives had held office for nine years, and their leader, Stephen Harper, was no Tony Blair — being widely perceived as intelligent but reserved and uncharismatic.
But why did Trudeau win? After all, his party was in third place only months ago. Some of the momentum has to do with his name and personal charisma. (He is the son of Canada’s most famous prime minister, Pierre Trudeau.) But much of it has to do with the kind of campaign he ran, which was neither very left-wing nor populist.
Justin Trudeau promised to respond to Canada’s economic slowdown by running modest deficits and building infrastructure. (That’s something that most mainstream economists would support.) He has refused to raise Canada’s corporate tax rate, although he wants a slightly higher income tax for the top 1 percent to fund a middle-class tax cut. He has been noncommittal on the new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, placing himself to the right of Hillary Clinton. He wants to legalize marijuana. And he has promised, vaguely, that Canada will have a more progressive climate change policy. This would put him squarely at the center-left in any Western country.
Were Canada truly lurching leftward, the beneficiary should have been its New Democratic Party, which has traditionally been the party of populism, drawing its roots from the labor and agrarian movements.
The hallmark of populism is anger, but Trudeau was resolutely cheerful. In his acceptance speech this week, he spoke of the power of “positive politics” and “sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways.” When Harper tried to stir up fear about Canada’s Muslim population, Trudeau loudly rejected it. He talks of consensus politics and said this week, “Conservatives are not our enemies; they’re our neighbors.”
If you want to hear angry rhetoric in the United States, you can get it from Sanders, but also, in its right-wing variation, from most of the Republican presidential candidates. Left-wing populism is mostly about economics. Right-wing populism is mostly about culture. Both hate the big-city elites who, in their view, run the country and the world.
Populism makes noise, gets attention, even forces issues onto the table. But it rarely wins. In a perceptive essay in the American Prospect, written 13 years ago, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz noted that although Democratic populists often see themselves as embracing the mantle of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, in fact they misread history. The real Democratic populists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were agrarian reformers, anti-immigration activists, advocates of prohibition and ardent believers in the moral superiority of farms and small towns. And they were wiped out at the polls for decades, with their favored presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, losing in three bids for the White House.
Roosevelt, by contrast, embraced the modern industrial economy and built his coalition in the industrial states and big Northern cities, with Catholics, Jews and recent immigrants playing major roles. Far from being suspicious of elites, FDR had his “brain trust” and relied on the ideas and service of prominent economists and experts throughout his administration. While the Democrats of the 1930s and 1940s sometimes used populist rhetoric, Wilentz noted, “in everything that mattered . . . they repudiated populism.”
The Democratic Party, when it has been successful, has never been about populism. Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton and Obama are all part of a movement that embraces free trade, immigration, regulated capitalism and cultural diversity. Above all, this movement has been optimistic and forward-looking. One could imagine FDR, in the depths of the Depression, cocking his head up, with his cigarette holder jutting skyward, saying, “Sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways.”
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