Populism – a familiar political factor: can we let it shape our future?

Presenter: Barrie Webster

December, 2018

What is populism? Populists tend to frame politics as a battle between the virtuous ‘ordinary’ masses and a nefarious or corrupt elite – and insist that the general will of the people must always triumph. Isn’t that what democracy is supposed to engender – the triumph of the general will of the people?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Populism :   “There is no single definition of the term…and has been used to mean various things.  …In political discourse the term is often applied to others pejoratively. Within political science and other social sciences, various different definitions of populism have been used, although some scholars propose rejecting the term altogether.”  -Wikipedia

The classic definition of populism was proposed by political scientist, Cas Mudde. Populism, he says, is often combined with a “host” ideology, which can be either on the political right or political left. Populism is, in fact, as old as democracy itself, so why should this be a problem? Does it come down to simplistic binary thinking? The last 10 years have proven particularly fertile: populist leaders now govern countries with a combined population of almost two billion people, while populist parties are gaining ground in more than a dozen other democracies, many of them in Europe.



Democracy is the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a  system of  government based on this belief, in which power is held either by elected representatives or  directly by the people themselves. Democracy is also a system of government in which the citizens exercise power by voting. No consensus exists, however, on how to define democracy, but legal equality, political freedom and rule of law have been identified as important characteristics.

What is the appeal of populism?


An Italian Town’s experience


Populism has an important past and contemporary presence in Canadian political culture and public life. 

As a multi-faceted and highly malleable political ideology, populism mixes elements of core political ideologies, such as socialism, liberalism, neo-liberalism, and neo-conservatism, opposition to powerful “elites” in public life, and advocacy of more real power for “the people.” This focus on “grass-roots” participation makes populism an important element of political protest movements.


NOTE: Liberalism, neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, and libertarianism were together discussed in a previous Humanist Cafe.

Current Canadian Examples of Populism:

Maxime Bernier (new Canada-wide political party)


Jason Kenny in Alberta and Doug Ford in Ontario (expressions of Conservative Party politics)

Christy Clark and LNG in BC during the 2013 provincial election.

Questions for our discussion:

Isn’t populism the key tool in being elected? And hasn’t that been so for decades; i.e., determine a key issue that can be seen in a binary light and flog it?

Can we counter populism effectively with critical thinking? How does that foster democracy and counter the destructive nature of populism?

Since populism may use emotional reaction to perceived injustices of big government, big oil, and big business, and a general feeling of powerlessness, or the spectacular benefits to be derived from a pet mega-project, how can a society minimize the damage populism can do?