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Populism in Canada: can we talk?

How do we reach across differences to cut through polarizing politics? It's essential for well-functioning societies.

A building window with a sign that reads, "Polling station."

Trish Hennessy

I love elections —they’re a great opportunity to talk about the policies we need to ensure everyone can reach their full potential. What I don’t love is the polarizing, angry political rhetoric that continues to fill my news feed.

Can’t we all get along?

In his latest Think Upstream Radio Plan B podcast, host Ralph Benmergui examines the polarizing nature of populist politics and how we can learn to talk to each other in ways that won’t leave that grumpy uncle pounding on the supper table.

How can we reach across differences?

Every day, Ralph walks his dog around the block. He passes this truck, where the owner leaves a “Make Canada Great Again” red hat on the dashboard. “I want to talk to him,” Ralph says. “I want to ask him: which Canada was great? … What does he think he’s losing? “Make Canada Great Again” is an offshoot of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again”—a slogan that’s shorthand for polarizing, populist politics that’s exposing huge divides among Americans.

Guest Frank Graves, EKOS president, says Canada is not immune. He’s been tracking Canadian public opinion on populism for decades and he’s noticing a dramatic shift towards what he calls ordered populism. What’s ordered populism? It “feeds on authoritarianism and a moral certainty that appeals to base emotions rather than evidence and logic.”

You see it, for instance, in the hate speech around immigrants and refugees.

On the EKOS website, Frank writes: “The desire to restrict immigration and, in particular, immigration of non-whites, is an expression of this authoritarian reflex which has produced increased hostility to outgroups and a vocal desire to curtail immigration, particularly non-white immigration.”

In conversation with Ralph, Frank says the rise of ordered populism is linked to the “hyper concentration of wealth, a magnified sense of external threats, [and] a cultural backlash.” Ralph wonders: is this about scarcity?

Frank says it’s a factor, but we need to talk about relative deprivation: “Let’s be blunt. We have relatively healthy institutions … people live quite well.”

So what’s at play?

Frank points to research from Lars Osberg’s new book The Age of Increasing Inequality: The Astonishing Rise of Canada’s 1% (Lorimer) which Franks says shows:

“[T]he bottom 90% of Canadians … are making in constant dollars the same wages we did in 1980. As we move up the ladder … that 0% growth turns into 500% growth… The whole idea behind the middle-class dream was exactly the opposite… That’s in collapse.”

That sense (fear?) of decline could be fuelling the toxic discourse that I’m reading on social media (I’m kinda wanting to take an election vacation from it, honestly).

Ralph calls out the inability to hold a conversation in a civil manner, saying: “Most of the things I read on social media … would you have said that if I was in the room?” He also calls out the adversarial nature of partisan politics, where you’re absolutely right or wrong. “If this was a marriage,” Ralph quips, “it would last 15 minutes.” So how do we reach across differences? How can we make the Canadian marriage last?

Ralph brings in conflict resolution expert Rick Russell, who teaches the different levels of listening (not just talking!): Passive listening is where you’re not really listening; you’ve checked out. Then there’s the type of listening where you’re looking for ammunition—ways to get under or around your argument. Then there’s insight listening, where you’re “actually listening to understand what’s motivating you.” Rick quotes Alan Alda: “Real listening is allowing someone the opportunity to change you.”

Rick says: “So few of us are prepared to risk being changed.”

Takeaway: It’s about learning to be genuinely curious; to understand why someone is holding firm to their stance; to seek common ground. Also: kindness. “We need to be kinder,” Rick says.

19 days till the October 21 election!

Trish Hennessy is a senior communications strategist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the director of Think Upstream


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