Stephen Harper has said that from 2006 to 2015, the Conservative government he led practiced what he calls “populist conservatism.” A conservative party led by Pierre Poilievre – backed by Harper this week – will fully embrace that description.
One can only speculate as to why the former prime minister decided to take the unusual step of endorsing a candidate in the current leadership race – and why he chose to do so now. Perhaps the Poilievre campaign has reason to believe it takes an extra push to cross the line.
Maybe the Poilievre campaign is doing well, but wants to make sure the win is clear and overwhelming. Perhaps Harper’s blessing is meant to help consolidate the party after a bitterly contentious race.
Maybe Harper is just real, For real doesn’t like Jean Charest.
Whatever his reasons, Harper’s imprimatur symbolically links his personal political project with Poilievre’s own approach to politics and leadership. Not that Andrew Scheer or Erin O’Toole ever vowed to make a dramatic break from Harper’s approach. But if there are any conservatives who are concerned about where the next leader might take the party, Harper’s message to them is that Pierre Poilievre belongs to his conservatism.
Harper’s theory of populist conservatism
In his 2018 book Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption, Harper wrote that conservatives had three possible avenues ahead of them in this moment of populist turmoil.
They could hold onto a doctrinal view of conservatism and an ideological belief in supply-side economics. They could “double down on rampant populism.” Or they can “reshape conservatism to address the problems causing the populist upheaval … to adapt conservatism to the practical concerns, interests and aspirations of working-class and middle-class people.”
WATCH: Stephen Harper backs Pierre Poilievre for conservative leadership
Harper argued that this third approach — which he termed “populist conservatism” or “applied conservatism” — was similar to his style of government.
“A new populist conservatism must apply conservative ideas to the real challenges faced by ordinary people,” he wrote.
That’s not an inherently unreasonable idea, even if there are significant holes in Harper’s larger analysis. For starters, it’s still not clear what a “populist conservative” would do about climate change.
It’s also not clear how “practical” Poilièvre’s approach to government would be, as his campaign has largely avoided presenting detailed policy proposals.
He would appoint a federal ombudsman to make sure Canadian universities meet his standards for protecting free speech and he wants to make Canada the “blockchain capital of the world.” But his only climate policy is to eliminate the national price on carbon.
To be analysis of inflation exclude global factors and are take on the Bank of Canada has errors. His complaints about housing are generally in the right direction, although his solution is a new system of fines and rewards for municipal authorities.
Poilièvre .’s Loud Populism
Harper rather benignly defines populism as “any political movement that puts the broader interests of the common people above the special interests of the privileged few.”
But it can also be defined as something more inherently hostile – as “an ideology that considers that society is ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite'”, in the words of Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist. (I also quoted Mudde’s framing of populism in writing about the conservative leadership race in 2017.)
In practice, populism seems to have less to do with proposing practical solutions to real problems than with finding someone to blame or blame. It is anti-establishment in a way that can threaten traditional institutions.
“Populism,” wrote Mudde, “presents a Manichaean view, in which there are only friends and enemies.”
Harper has shown some of this populism. His government seemed enjoy fighting with academics and public policy experts and he attacked”liberal elitesIn Right Here, Right Now he puts forward the theory that Western societies can become divided into “somewhere” and “everywhere”.
But Poilievre has fully embraced the language of populism. If Harper suggested a conservatism that responded to the concerns that fuel populism, Poilievre seems to be proposing a populism that celebrates conservative ideals.
Poilievre has built his campaign around the idea that “gatekeepers” are holding back the Canadians. After he was criticized for vowing to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada, he claimed that “the elites in Ottawa are beside themselves that I would hold them. take into account [the] damage they have inflicted on ordinary people.”
He has called on his supporters to “stand up to shake up culture” and his campaign has criticized his own party for choosing a “Laurentian elite liberal media personality” to moderate a debate.
“Bad politicians make bad decisions and the system protects them,” Poilievre wrote in a fundraising appeal earlier this year. “The media, the experts, the professors are all saying I shouldn’t attack Justin Trudeau as hard as I do.”
Where does populism lead to?
Harper apparently approves. And if you believe that the world is as Poilievre describes it, his arguments are undoubtedly attractive. But where exactly will this populism lead the Conservative Party?
While pursuing the populist dream of Brexit, the UK’s Conservatives have burned three prime ministers over the past six years. Their current leader, Boris Johnson, was ousted in a hurricane of scandal.
In the United States, the Republican Party has gone down a populist rabbit hole and become a hysterical, anti-democratic personality cult. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who would likely consider himself a… populist conservativewas ousted by his own party barely three years after taking office.
If it is possible to imagine that populism could lead to constructive reform (at least in theory), the evidence suggests that a spirit of antagonism is not easy to master once embraced. Worst-case scenarios aside, it’s not hard to see how the populist approach could end up doing more harm than good.
But Stephen Harper’s party is now ready to embrace Pierre Poilievre as its new standard-bearer – and put a spin on an unabashed kind of populist conservatism.