Populism is a catch-all phrase for a movement that in some way challenges the status quo; but how it does so may vary. It may be, in simplistic terms, be right-wing (for example, and Donald Trump in the United States) or left-wing (Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, Bernie Sanders in the United States), based on hostility towards immigration (several of the European populist governments and Donald Trump) or to capitalism (again, Bernie Sanders). It likely targets the judiciary (because one of its purposes is to keep government and legislative action within certain bounds (Trump, the Polish Law and Justice party, Viktor Orbán in Hungary). Not all populist movements are autocratic in nature (or become so if they gain power), but many are (of those mentioned above, only Sanders does not attack all institutions and is focused only in a general way on reducing the power of the banks).
Populism in any meaningful sense thrives on divisiveness, pitting segments of society against each other. It is usually manifested in an individual who plays the demagogue, appealing to the populace with simple slogans and easy solutions to what ails them.
Thus Doug Ford’s slogan “For the People”, while seemingly inclusive of everyone, is actually intended to be a rejection of the so-called “elites”. His campaign was built on encouraging divisiveness. Doug is the “every guy” who, despite his wealth, is an outsider who knows what his kind of crowd likes: “a buck a beer”. The rejection of “the elites”, however, is not only about people, but about rejection of those institutions that have been developed by “the elites”, including the mainstream press, the independence of the judiciary and other institutions that have been created to maintain order and ensure the smooth functioning of society. And here lies the rub: for populists, the elites who generally speaking do control those institutions as a result of their education and organizational skills, but also often as a result of their family heritage, operate the institutions to maintain their own power and keep others in their place. (That Ford himself inherited his business (as did Donald Trump) and whose father was a successful politician misses the point: he lacks the gloss and smoothness of elite members.)
When populists do gain power but fail, they blame the elites for subverting them. Elites do the same: blame populists for subverting the institutions that they, so-called elites, consider necessary for effective functioning of society, for democracy and for the economy in ways that pursue particular objectives or values.
Doug Ford is not the first Canadian populist, but he is the one in power now. Ford has been described as “Trump-lite”; one might think of him as “mini-Trump” (a letter writer to the Globe and Mail described him as “Trump of the North”). The reason for comparing Ford and Donald Trump, who casts a larger shadow over traditional and established — and now progressive — expectations, is to see what we can learn about Ford — and the future of Ontario — by tracking Trump. They share some important traits, but as far as we can tell at this point, they are also dissimilar.
What is important about them both is that they claim to speak for “ordinary” people, castigating the so-called “elites” for emphasis and neither respects existing institutions. Where they differ is perhaps in their bigotry, with Trump being racist, something we haven’t seen particularly in Ford. Although he ended the arrangement with the federal government in relation to resettlement of asylum seekers, he has also said he is supportive of immigration and immigrants. Withdrawal from the agreement might be seen as an indirect attack on the movement of immigrants into the province, but it is also akin to the challenge to the federal carbon tax plan. Both are broadsides at the federal government. (Ironically, on that point he is resorting to the very courts he has argued don’t have the right to overturn legislative enactments — more on that below). He is catering to religious minorities who do not like the new sex education curriculum by reverting to the old curriculum in order to undertake what he advertises as “the largest consultation ever in Ontario” on education (this despite the extensive consultation prior to creating the new curriculum) and brought a halt to creation of supervised injection sites without further study (he has been clear that he is against them).
Without diminishing the substantive nature of these issues, most significantly, perhaps, Ford has acted quickly to realize his agenda within days of assuming power as premier. And equally significant, this is a very personal agenda: he is determined to fashion Ontario in his image.
I don’t intend to rehearse all the ways Donald Trump has challenged the status quo or has taken over the Republican Party in the name of populism (or how the Republicans have taken advantage of Trump to accomplish a few long-term goals). Goodness knows, we’ve had enough of that. Let me provide more or less a summary of what we have observed going on during the last going on two years and then consider Ford’s conduct through this lens.
He claims to be working for the common or ordinary person, yet his tax cuts will eventually harm them, as will efforts to dismantle Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. He used as his slogan “Drain the Swamp”, but has put together a cabinet (initially and replaced) composed of members of the economic upper class who have in many cases used their positions for personal gain and spent taxpayer money on expensive furniture and first class flights, among other things. He posits “the elites” as the enemy, yet he himself lives extravagantly, and ridicules the elites by claiming he has a bigger apartment than they do — this with the goal of aligning himself with the ordinary person.
He has sought to undermine both the judiciary and the free press. He has captured the Congress (at least until the coming mid-term elections perhaps), which has failed in performing their proper function in a system of checks and balances. In many ways, he has ignored the norms and expectations of the presidency: his erratic tweeting and his failure to put his businesses into a blind trust (they are in the hands of his sons), his upending of long-established international economic arrangements through impetuous imposing of tariffs, his preference for dictators rather than international “friends” and much else have the effect and probably the goal of disrupting the established order.
Some of this is a reflection of his personality: impetuous, narcissistic, hungry for praise (to the extent of constantly praising himself), a high degree of ignorance about the world and processes and lack of interest (or capacity) in learning about them coupled with arrogance and a belief that he knows more than anyone else, paranoid, petty, vindictive and untrustworthy. Indeed, one might argue that many of Trump’s actions result not from a deliberate effort to achieve specific goals, but are merely manifestations of his psychology much more so than most people and much more so than is desirable in a president of the United States. However, they are all directed at disrupting the status quo, whether prompted by his own agenda or that of others. Trump has been a very effective demagogue attracting the ongoing support of a surprisingly large number of people, although he may be losing support.
Watching Trump has given us a head start on understanding Doug Ford; we’ve also had the advantage of seeing Ford’s behaviour while he was on Toronto Council. (Like Trump, election to “high” office does not seem to have matured him.) Although Ford maintains he governs “For the People”, “the People” turn out to be a rather select group. They aren’t people living on a limited income, whether unemployed or the working poor. He wasted no time in reducing social assistance increases and cancelling the pilot project about a guaranteed income. We can expect his government to repeal the amendments (in whole or part) to the Employment Standards Act that would have improved the working conditions for part-time and casual workers and others, many of whom could be described as “precarious”. He will not be raising the minimum wage to $15, although he will leave it at $14. Ford’s “buck a beer” slogan (and implementation, although not effectively) is meant to substitute for effective policies and programs that might actually improve the conditions of workers and the poor. It tells us what he really thinks about “the People”.
Ford’s decision to reduce the size of Toronto council through Bill 5 reflects both a vindictive streak and a desire to disrupt . This was a chance to get his own back at a council and councillors who had little time for him or his brother, Rob. By giving no notice during the campaign and making the change after the election period had begun, he was able to create the greatest chaos. And lording it over a municipality, especially Toronto, he could exercise a provincial power that (almost) is without restriction.
He has displayed both ignorance and arrogance, as well as a disregard for established norms and constitutional principles in his decision to invoke section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to override the Superior Court decision holding Bill 5 to be unconstitutional. (Reenactment of the legislation includes the override.) (His neophyte attorney general, it is noted, did not appear with Ford when he announced his use of section 33.) This latter is a gift to his supporters who admire his maverick approach and how he’s “putting it to the elites”.
There are, of course, many people who believe in parliamentary supremacy, despite the enactment of the Charter by Parliament, but there is a significant difference between them and the premier of Ontario. Ford summed up this on-going tension when he said “I was elected. The judge was appointed.” (Unfortunately, in addition to revealing that he has no appreciation for the complexities that govern the written constitution and constitutional conventions, he also displayed his ignorance of the system by stating that the judge was appointed by “McGinty”, the former premier of Ontario, when superior court judges are federally appointed.)
More significantly, as a newbie with no experience in governing other than as a municipal councillor or in constitutional matters, he jumped headfirst into upending over 25 years of constitutional norms, during which, other than in Quebec, section 33 had been invoked only rarely and not always implemented and never in Ontario. The override is part of the constitution and part of the democratic process. It is in inception and impact a political provision, since it reflects a compromise in the constitutional debates resulting in the Constitution Act, 1982, including the Charter, and it expires after five years, leaving the legislation open to judicial review unless the legislation is reenacted with section 33 included.
Ford also intends to appeal the decision (this is the normal thing to do and there is some good chance of success). However, because Ford had rushed through Bill 5 in the first place, waiting for the outcome of an appeal, even if undertaken quickly, would pose even more challenges for the Toronto election. Invoking the notwithstanding clause reverts the election to the status quo ante reflected in Bill 5, an election based on 25 wards. Thus Ford and his attorney-general justify invoking section 33 as a way of bringing stability to the election process. Yet Ford himself is the reason for the instability.
What have we learned if Ford continues as he has started? The model of the populist leader in a democracy south of us provides some insight. The democratic system works only when everyone plays their part. In the United States, Congress is meant to counteract an impulsive, erratic president, but so far it has not done so. This is the risk of the party holding the presidency and Congress. In Canada, with a majority government we must rely on the members of the governing party to challenge their leader. Trump often makes decisions (apparently) without much thought, often merely to allow him to act the bully or assert his superiority. This seems to be the approach Doug Ford has taken so far with respect to most of the decisions taken within a short time since his election. In both cases, they relish being unpredictable and pursue personal agendas. And in both cases, their greatest flaws override respect for the institutions that together make up democratic governance and the rule of law. Although elected (by the Electoral College), Trump governs as a strong man. Doug Ford is on his way to doing the same. He illustrates that the process of governance is as important as the substance of policies and political decision-making.