canadian and usa flags

Shout it. Tweet it. Write it. Political branding is harming democracy and, ultimately, the economy – on both sides of the 49th parallel.

Before we blame populism for the Canada/U.S. trade war, the current nastiness of federal/provincial relations and rising tribalism among voters, let’s look at how we got into this current mess.

There’s nothing new, of course, about populism. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics defines populism’s origin in the U.S. of the 1870s as an expression of disillusionment and grievances of mostly western farmers who felt cheated by broken promises of cheap land and railway rates.

For most of the 20th century, populism has been equated with left-leaning or progressive politics, with some exceptions.

What’s new is how populism is being weaponized by the right in the 21st century to attract conservative voters who feel left behind.

We see examples of right-wing populism such as the Trump administration in the U.S. and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has been borrowing heavily from the Nazis. And we see less extreme examples, such as former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government and the new regime of Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

All have shown elements of a common playbook, such as designation and subsequent demonizing of a public threat or “enemy of the people” or “elites,” and tight message control. And, of course, facts don’t matter much.

As in all forms of political branding, maintenance of a support base among voters is essential. But with contemporary populism, maintaining the base is all the more difficult because supporters were angry and disillusioned in the first place.

This is why populists constantly throw red meat to the base with combative rhetoric and drama against designated foes, such as union bosses, welfare cheats, refugees or everybody’s favourite enemy, Bay Street.

An example would be the Ford government rushing to unilaterally cancel contracts for wind farms – lawsuits be damned.

Or chopping Toronto’s city council in half during a municipal election campaign, democracy be damned.

Or, in the case of the Trump administration, starting a global trade war to keep the base motivated enough to show up for this November’s midterm elections, common sense be damned.

Populism is all about keeping things moving, like the script of a reality-TV show, to keep the voter base interested in a sort of hybrid between governing and entertaining, just as the Romans relied on bread and circuses to keep people happy. Call it “governtainment.”

Of course, should facts not jibe with the message, no worry. The base won’t be bothered. Accepting a good story if it resonates with our own biases is human nature. This is known as “narrative fidelity” among social scientists.

A strong support base is a key part of what political strategists call “narrowcasting”: concentrating your messaging to a highly defined market segment that will be motivated enough to stay with you.

In all, governtainment is a reckless form of governing that puts political survival over outcomes. Abruptly cancelling a wind farm big enough to power 3,000 homes may appease the base. But it could very well cost $100 million and send a signal to the rest of the world that Ontario is actually closed to certain kinds of business.

In the U.S., protecting softwood lumber with tariffs may appease a lot of people. But it will also hurt the U.S. homebuilding industry.

The scramble to government for the few rather than for the many is probably why populism is continuing to morph into a retro version of mercantilism of the 18th century, in which government, not the private sector, was the driver of prosperity, and wealth was built at another country’s expense.

Like mercantilism, right-wing populism will be remembered as something that worked until it didn’t. At some point, the right-wing populists will run out of fresh meat to throw to their base, as happened with the Harper government in 2015.

Or, when voters’ view of the world shifts, populist “alternative facts” begin to look like BS.

But until that happens, risk assessment will be all the more important. And the global economic and geopolitical systems developed in the post-Second World War period are in for some extreme turbulence, regardless of whether Donald Trump avoids impeachment.