Doug Ford is a populist, but it's not yet clear what kind

There's a rich history of Canadian populists, and Doug Ford certainly falls into that category. The big question, however, is what kind of populist would he be in the premier's office?

The Ontario PC leader is not Donald Trump, but that's beside the point

Doug Ford loudly declares that he is 'For the people' as he campaigns to become premier of Ontario. (CBC)

Doug Ford is not Donald Trump. Whatever the controversies and criticisms he now faces, Ford has not promised to build a wall along any of Ontario's borders. He has not suggested that Muslims should be banned from immigrating to the province. He has not been caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.

But "not being Donald Trump" isn't a particularly useful measure of political leadership. And what links Ford and Trump is arguably more interesting than what sets them apart.

Put simply: both Donald Trump and Doug Ford are populists.

U.S. President Donald Trump is a populist who hasn't been shy about breaking political norms during his first term in office. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Though the label is often thrown around a bit loosely, Dutch scholar Cas Mudde has defined populists as those leaders who split society into "two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other." On those grounds, Doug Ford is the very definition of a populist, having explicitly positioned himself against the "elites" and "for the people" (there's even a song).

The important question then is what it might mean, for good or bad, to have a populist in the premier's office. 

A short history of Canadian populism

The potential upside of populism was laid out by Charlotte Gray in a profile of Preston Manning from her book, The Promise of Canada. Gray places Manning within a rich history of Canadian populists, from farmers parties to the Maritime Rights Movement, Social Credit, Tommy Douglas and the Reform Party. And with that history in mind, she argues that "successful populists can redirect the way we think about our country, shake up the other political parties, and jump-start new initiatives."

Douglas, for example, championed a national health insurance program. Preston Manning's emergence in the 1990s, Gray argues, doused the flames of Western separatism and widened the political debate within Canada.

The populist might speak to something that needs to be heard or stir up stagnant waters. If, for instance, Ontarians are seeking change, the Progressive Conservatives are presenting a candidate who is very much the antithesis of Kathleen Wynne.

Preston Manning, the Reform Party leader seen in a file photo from 1997, is credited with bringing the West's concerns to Ottawa.

But even in Gray's account there is a hint that populism can go astray.

"There is a lot not to like about Bible Bill," Gray concedes of William Aberhart, premier of Alberta from 1935 to 1943. "He was dictatorial, contemptuous of many aspects of democracy including a free press and ... anti-Semitic."

Both Gray and Manning try to find the good in Bible Bill, but the bad — "Was Aberhart a Fascist or a Dictator?" asks the entry for Aberhart in the Canadian Encyclopedia — lines up with the modern concern about where populism can lead.

The new worry about populists

That potential downside is laid out by Yascha Mounk in the People vs. Democracy, one of a number of recent books to warn about the uncertain future of liberal democracy. Populists, Mounk writes, have contributed to a politics that views opponents as enemies and they are likely to challenge democratic "norms" — the unwritten conventions and standards of behaviour that maintain a healthy democracy.

"The reason why populists and political newcomers are so willing to challenge basic democratic norms is in part tactical: whenever populists break such norms, they attract the unequivocal condemnation of the political establishment, Mounk writes. "And this of course proves that, as advertised, the populists really do represent a clean break from the status quo."

Norms have emerged as a significant concern in the wake of Trump. He has referred to journalists as "the enemy of the people" and suggested that a judge of "Mexican heritage" should recuse himself from ruling on a case involving him. He has refused to release his tax returns, called for his political opponent to be jailed and encouraged violence against protesters. In various ways, he has expanded the frame of what might have previously been considered unthinkable.

Though not to the degree that Donald Trump has regularly said and done things that would have previously been considered unacceptable, Ford has shown a certain willingness to ignore the niceties of decorum and restraint.

Would Ford restrain himself?

As a city councillor in Toronto, he attacked the media and disparaged those who filed complaints against him. He asked the city's integrity commissioner to apologize or resign after a conflict-of-interest case against his brother, the mayor, was dismissed. He suggested the chief medical officer should be fired for proposing a law that he disagreed with. He accused the police chief of conspiring against his brother. And he once suggested the mayor should have a veto over council business. After being reprimanded for assisting clients of his family business, he referred to the ruling as a "joke" and a "political attack." 

For the leader of a government with a majority in the Ontario legislature there are relatively few restraints beyond public opinion. Would Ford generally refrain from running roughshod over the opposition? Would he accept the findings and criticisms of legislative officers like the auditor general?

How would he approach an unclear election result? Say, for instance, that Ford's Progressive Conservatives win the most seats but fall short of a majority. How would someone who positions himself against "elites" handle a decision by the lieutenant governor to let someone else govern? He has already criticized the possibility of a "backroom" deal to keep the Liberals in power.

Shortly before he won the PC leadership in March, Ford claimed that the process had been "corrupted" by party insiders who were siding with another candidate. But he has been generally restrained since becoming leader. Party politics and cabinet government might require a more disciplined approach than city council.

Ford showed a willingness to ignore the niceties of decorum and restraint when he was a Toronto city councillor. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Populist politicians and norm-breaking leaders (populist and otherwise) have come and gone without doing permanent damage to Canadian democracy. And some norms might even deserve to be challenged: Preston Manning's attacks on the Senate could be credited with, eventually, leading to Justin Trudeau's reforms.

But what if the public is more willing now to tolerate outright transgression? In a recent Ipsos poll, 53 per cent of respondents agreed that, "To fix Ontario, we need a strong leader willing to break the rules."

Once broken, a rule or norm can later be reinforced. The danger is that it might be left permanently weakened.


Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.