Don't Blame "The People": The Rise of Elite-Led Populism in Canada

May 7, 2019
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Don't Blame "The People": The Rise of Elite-Led Populism in Canada
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This report uses new data to help answer the question: is Canada having a populist moment? And if so, why is that a problem?

Every two years, the Samara Centre releases our Democracy 360 report card on the health of Canadian democracy, based on the attitudes and perceptions of Canadians. This year we added a short set of questions that measure some aspects of populist thought, like political discontent at politicians and a preference for decision-making by ordinary citizens.

We found that Canada isn’t having a uniquely populist moment. However, we did learn that:

  1. Canadians are alienated from their political leadership.
  2. Significant minorities of Canadians hold populist views.
  3. Across a range of indicators we repeatedly measure, we found that attitudes toward politics have broadly stayed the same or improved from 2014-2019.
  4. Populism in Canada may be more about what elites say than what The People think.

Citizens take cues from politicians about how to behave in politics. If politicians keep insisting that politicians can’t be trusted and institutions are crooked, what reason do citizens have to trust or participate? Politicians in Canada may not be responding to latent populism in the public, but they can play a role in popularizing populism.

This all comes at a time when economic anxiety is on the rise, technological disruption is raising fears about the future of work, and aggressive authoritarian powers are specifically trying to instill populism and division in order to undermine liberal democracies like our own. Resilient democracies need to stand strong and self-confident against the easy temptation to split into various configurations of Us and Them.

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