Populism lives. That is the message from the New Hampshire primaries.
By choosing mavericks Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, voters in this small American state are, in effect, giving the finger to all political elites.
That Trump won in New Hampshire does not mean he will capture the Republican presidential nomination. There will be many more primaries between now and the party’s convention in July.
Similarly, Sanders’ convincing win over Hillary Clinton Tuesday in New Hampshire does not guarantee him victory in the Democratic Party’s contest. Far from it. Clinton has a formidable organization and could certainly become her party’s presidential nominee.
What New Hampshire does indicate is that populism cannot be ignored. It is messy and at times incoherent. On the right it may have echoes of fascism. On the left it can seem old-fashioned.
But it connects with those who feel that the status quo is not serving them.
In New Hampshire, the breadth of support for both Trump and Sanders was staggering.
Exit polls reported in the New York Times show that 74-year-old Sanders outscored Clinton among voters of both sexes and in most age groups.
The only demographic groups supporting Clinton were those over 65.
Trump did even better, outscoring his rivals in all gender and age categories.
To the outside world, real estate mogul Trump may seem a bloviating fool. But that doesn’t matter.
Nor does it matter that Sanders, by declaring himself a socialist and talking policy non-stop, has broken all the rules of American politics.
Both are tapping into something.
It is something that politicians in other countries, including Canada, would be wise to heed.
Populism has never been absent in Canada. In the 20th century, it found voice in both left-wing parties like the old Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (now the NDP) and right-of-centre parties like Social Credit.
Preston Manning’s Reform Party was in large part an expression of populist discontent. Former prime minister Stephen Harper sneered at populism. But he channelled the populist urges of the Conservative base — such as its mistrust of science — to his advantage.
It is no mystery where today’s impetus to populism comes from. Across the world, the combination of technological change and globalization has thrown the lives of formerly solid, middle-class workers into chaos.
The financial meltdown of 2008 and subsequent global recession only intensified this.
Even now, parts of Europe struggle with double-digit unemployment rates. Wages in the U.S. have fallen and are only beginning to recover.
Canada skated through this largely because of a boom in commodities such as oil. Now the boom is over and oil prices have collapsed.
Canadians are left with a commodity sector in crisis and a manufacturing sector that has been hollowed out.
In both Canada and the U.S. the political elites have rhetorically addressed this malaise. Barack Obama was elected U.S. president on a promise to salvage the middle class. Justin Trudeau made the same pledge when running to become prime minister of Canada.
Too often, however, the rhetoric is not backed by action.
The elites justify their inaction by saying you can’t stop progress. Obama uses that excuse to back away from real pension reform. Mayor John Tory uses it in Toronto to explain why he won’t enforce laws against UberX’s unregulated taxi cabs.
On both sides of the border, business people and politicians use this argument to justify increasingly onerous free trade deals.
Populism’s response is that change does not always equal progress. Is Toronto really better off with a taxi free-for-all? Is southern Ontario really better off with no manufacturing?
Is the country really better off when good jobs, including those in information technology, can so easily be sent offshore to low-wage nations?
Sometimes, some mainstream politicians get this. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, for instance, understands that people want to continue living comfortably after they retire — hence her commitment to a provincial pension plan.
When mainstream politics fails, however, populists thrive. They may, like Sanders, be committed to policies that most Canadians would find reasonable — such as universal public health insurance.
Or they may, like Trump, be dangerous charlatans fanning ethnic and religious hatred.
In all cases, they are feeding on real discontent. Mock them at your peril.