Day 6·Democracy Divided

How will populist politics shape Canada's democracy?

Liberal democracy has given way to authoritarian populism in countries around the world. As Canada gears up for a federal election, many voters worry their country is next. Will Canada's democratic process hold up in the face of a growing global trend?

Democracy Divided, a new Day 6 series, explores the challenges facing Canadian democracy

Will Canada's democratic process hold up in the face of a growing global trend toward authoritarian populism? (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Originally published on Sept. 6, 2019.

This story is part of Day 6's Democracy Divided series. Each instalment takes a close look at the health of the democratic system in Canada leading up to the Oct. 21 federal election.

As populism rises on the world stage, is Canada vulnerable to a similar political shift?

With a looming federal election, Canadians face a choice about the direction of their country.

But a recent survey suggests Canadians are divided on the merits of their own system. Close to half of the 3,500 participants in a national survey by Simon Fraser University said they believe voting exerts little influence on how a government is actually run.

Despite nearly 80 per cent of respondents reporting they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who stood up for the "common people" over "the elite," a solid majority said a candidate who attacked the media or promoted anti-government views would lose their support.

Michael Morden, the research director with the Samara Centre for Democracy, argues that Canada is unique in its resistance to the global trend toward authoritarianism. 

"We're our own country, and we're allowed to have our own experience, and I think it is tracking a little bit differently," he told Day 6's Brent Bambury, explaining that while Canada's democracy faces its own set of problems, a "populist boogeyman" isn't one.

But Frank Graves, the president and founder of EKOS Research Associates, sees it differently. Canada, he said, is on a "disturbing" path that echoes that of the U.S. and Britain. 

"It's a specific form of populism we call ordered or authoritarian populism and this type of populism, which has been explored in the past, is uniquely qualified to explain the emergence of things like the Brexit result or the election of Donald Trump," he said.

What does 'authoritarian populism' mean?

Morden makes the case that authoritarian populism, however, is a different beast entirely — one that isn't a threat to Canada.

Populism, often associated with an ideological clash between ordinary citizens and groups identified as the elite, is "what populism in Canada is: it's primarily elite-driven; it's top-down. And yes, it could catch on," he said.

Flyers posted around McGill University in 2016 featured anti-Muslim and anti-homosexual imagery, along with a call to "make Canada great again." (Andrew Potter/Twitter)

"We need some measure of populism in public opinion. I think that's a very healthy thing," he said. "I think elite behaviour is fundamentally the problem here, rather than public opinion."

Graves countered that populism in Canada has taken an authoritarian turn, creating a deep and damaging divide in the country. 

"This authoritarian outlook has been producing a far more polarized political electorate.… Now, we find a situation where there literally is no common ground on the core issues of the day. There's two Canadas."

How is Canada faring compared to other countries?

Resistance to authoritarian populism, Morden said, comes from awareness and democratic involvement.

"Canadians are talking about politics more. They're more likely to reach out to politicians, they express more interest in democracy, and they feel that politics affects their lives. So there has been some evidence of increasing engagement," Morden said.

"We don't have to go look for a populist boogeyman that's emerging to wreck our democracy, because our democracy has tremendous problems, and we know about them. They're just a little bit less sexy to talk about," Morden added, calling fears around authoritarian populism a distraction from the real issues at hand. 

Such fears, Graves said, are completely warranted, citing that the hallmarks of authoritarian populism are polarization on issues like climate change, trust in the media and the role of the state. Canada's current trajectory is echoing that of countries where authoritarian populism ended up winning, he said.

"These enormous cleavages, which have divided Canada now into two Canadas, just as there are two Americas and two United Kingdoms, and it really only becomes clear when you start looking at the evolution of these divisions across partisan lines where we have this very acute separation."

Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right, seven-term congressman, won Brazil's presidential election in the fall of 2018, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) won a re-election this April. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Why have these ideologies become so prevalent in 2019? 

There isn't one clear-cut reason, Graves said, that explains why global politics are leaning toward authoritarian populism. Instead, he cites a combination of several factors, including economic despair, cultural backlash, the erosion of the middle class and a looming sense of external threat.

"Once you put all these factors together, they coalesce and percolate, and then they produce this authoritarian reflex. The factors that produce it are slow and had been developing for decades. But the actual emergence of the force itself is moving at a very rapid pace," he said. 

Pollster Frank Graves explains why he believes authoritarian populism is expanding globally, specifically in Canada, to Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Should Canadians be worried? 

Regardless of his concerns around the state of Canadian democracy, Graves doesn't see Canada as trapped in a trajectory toward becoming a "more closed, ordered, pull-up-the-drawbridge, turn-back-the-clock, let's-make-Canada-great-again" society. 

"I think that there's a good chance that we could avoid that, and I would agree that in some respects Canada might be better poised to avoid this than other places," he said. 

It's a force; it's probably the most important one operating in our democracy right now.- Frank Graves

"But it's here. It's a force; it's probably the most important one operating in our democracy right now. It's poorly understood, and whatever the outcome of this election I think we need to have a better look at this."

Morden agrees that Canadian democracy is not without its flaws, but on the whole is optimistic about the course of the country's politics, citing studies by his organization, which suggest Canadians are becoming more satisfied and trusting in their democracy.

Clockwise from top left: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.

"I think the question is whether or not we'll see that more corrosive, more dangerous form of populism, which becomes attacks on the media, which becomes attacks on the legitimacy of political opponents.… I'm hopeful that the leaders of the major parties will understand their role, which is to reflect political diversity in Canada without trying to inculcate some greater polarization," Morden said. 

"We're actually trending in a slightly incrementally modestly positive direction."

This story is part of Day 6's Democracy Divided series. Each instalment takes a close look at the health of the democratic system in Canada leading up to the Oct. 21 federal election. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

To hear more from the two pollsters on the health of democracy in Canada, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.