Opinion

Populist wins come as no surprise to those whose heads are not embedded in the sand

This week's U.S. midterm election results, in which Democrats regained control of the House but were dealt a stiff setback in the Senate, proved less a blue wave than a light misting; hardly the wholesale repudiation of President Donald Trump that some had hoped for.

The midterm elections proved less a blue wave than a light misting — hardly a wholesale repudiation of Trump

Despite a respectable House win for Democrats, it appears voters were not clamouring for a return to "business as usual" governance. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

It is difficult, if not impossible, to unring the bell of populism once it has taken hold.

This week's U.S. midterm election results, in which Democrats regained control of the House but were dealt a stiff setback in the Senate, proved less a blue wave than a light misting; hardly the wholesale repudiation of President Donald Trump that some had hoped for. Despite a respectable House win, it appears voters were not clamouring for a return to "business as usual" governance.

This election result comes not long after another populist swept to power in the form of Brazil's new right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro — an outcome that some characterized as "unthinkable." But for those whose heads are not firmly embedded in the sand (or elsewhere) Bolsonaro's election should not have come as a surprise.

Populist sentiment has been gaining steam worldwide for years — most notably in the election of Trump in 2016 — and it shows no sign of abating. While many of our learned political betters wave away such developments as about little more than bigotry, much of the responsibility for the rise of leaders such as Trump or Bolsonaro rests on the shoulders of out-of-touch political elites, whose chummy insider politics voters increasingly reject.

The last several years has been a boon to fringe and anti-establishment candidates who have upended the political balance on a wave of populist rhetoric and protest votes. (Getty Images)

While perhaps its most notable success, the thumping of both the Democratic and Republican establishments by Trump on his way to the presidency in 2016 was not the beginning or end of populist politics. Former TV comedian Jimmy Morales won the presidency in Guatemala. Anti-establishment Virginia Raggi of Italy's Five Star Party won Rome's mayoral election. And then there was Brexit.  

The last several years has been a boon to fringe and anti-establishment candidates who have upended the political balance on a wave of populist rhetoric and protest votes.

This is not simply limited to the right either. Once-longshot outsider Jeremy Corbyn assumed leadership of the Labour Party in the U.K. In Canada, the NDP trounced the Progressive Conservatives in Alberta in 2015;  a direct result of the latter growing rotten after decades of uninterrupted power in the province.

This happens for good reason. The perception among many is that public office has simply become the vehicle by which politicians line their pockets and those of their well-connected allies. Perhaps this has always been the case in politics, but it seems not with quite the same reckless hubris politicians have displayed in recent years.

Canada's political class is no slouch in this regard, either. Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson reportedly still bills the Canadian taxpayer six-figures each year; a courtesy not even extended to former prime ministers. And we just learned this month that bureaucrats spent $23 million on 631 new cars for the G7 — some of which had as few as 41km on them — and resold them for pennies on the dollar. Just another day in the lives of Very Important People conducting Very Important Business.

Messages that resonate 

Establishment politicians are, of course, loath to engage in any serious introspection in this regard — to do so would be to challenge their own privileged position in society. Thus, when a politician of national stature comes along and speaks of draining "swamps" and the corruption endemic in both parties, it resonates with voters. Trump's victory in 2016, for example, was just as much a rejection of "establishment" Republicans as it was of Hillary Clinton.

With unprecedented flows of information now available to voters, the business-as-usual approach to governance has been turned on its head, and the feckless back-scratching of establishment lifers is on full display for even casual consumers of the news. The more ambitious and wily of politicians are now prepared to exploit this; there's Maxime Bernier, for instance, openly announcing his intentions to lead the sacred cow of supply management to the slaughterhouse.

Existing governments might believe they are immune to the impulses of outside-the-mainstream candidates, but then, the Republican and Democratic establishments said the same thing about the United States right up until they woke up to a President Donald Trump on November 9, 2016. Populists movements feed on political entitlement and waste. And as we've seen in Europe, the U.S. and South America, once they get started, they are exceedingly hard to stop.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Allan Richarz

Allan Richarz is a privacy lawyer in Toronto.

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