A surge of populism has swept up global politics, but populism isn’t a new phenomenon. Not even close.

During antiquity, the Greeks worried about it, and the Romans had to deal with populist revolts more than once. So, while the political parties and movements that characterize themselves as « for the people » and « against the elites » are at least as old as antiquity, they are unfamiliar to those who, since the end of the Second World War, have enjoyed liberal democratic life its relative prosperity and freedom, which tends to keep populist movements at bay.

In Canada, the populist movement has taken hold within the Conservative Party as its members prepare to select a new leader this spring. A few candidates are attempting to set themselves apart by employing strategies and tactics used abroad. Most notably, the suite of go-to schemes include some used in the United States by Donald Trump. Trump capitalized on popular zeal for a non-establishment option for the presidency, and he indulged other less savoury popular impulses, including overt displays of anti-immigrant sentiment.

One of the central tactics of populist politicians is to sort the country into two camps: elites and regular folks. In the Canadian context, this approach has been adopted by Conservative contender Kellie Leitch. By pitting elites against regular folks, politicians like Leitch hope to generate or deepen a politics of intransigent and stark division.

Tactics and strategy aside, it is important that we understand what their messaging is.

Part of what makes populism such a powerful phenomenon is that it is an expression of sincere perception. Many of the people who make up the populist rank and file perceive the world in such a way that makes them feel alienated, marginalized, unrepresented, and angry. So whatever one may want to communicate regarding the facts about some issue (for instance, that globalization has improved lives or that the middle class is stable and growing), the audience perceptions may or may not align with the messaging.

And perception matters. A lot.

In some cases, folks have legitimate grievances. For example, the argument that globalization has lowered prices and resulted in a more rational and efficient distribution of goods won’t do much for a family struggling to pay the bills. In other cases, however, their grievances are unrelated to material concerns and instead are rooted in cultural perceptions. Sometimes it’s a mix of legitimate grievances and perception. My focus here is on perceptions. The sort of populism we are living through today is underwritten less and less by fact and more and more by perception.

The sort of populism we are living through today is underwritten less and less by fact and more and more by perception.

Our perception is our reality, and our perceptions can, when we’re motivated enough, « correct » for stark incongruences. So, when Leitch attacks “the elites,” not only is she forgiven for being a physician, a former cabinet minister and a lifelong party activist, she is rewarded for working against type. In the American case, when President-Elect Donald Trump campaigns on a promise to “drain the swamp” but appoints a cabinet of plutocrats, and mixes his family and business with public interests, he too is forgiven by many, because the perception that he is “one of us” remains intact.

Populism can be a powerful and dangerous force — one that is salutary when directed by the right hands and corrosive when directed by the wrong ones. The ability to rouse the populace enables leaders to come from nowhere and garner a broad mandate for sweeping change. This might include undoing critical institutions; in that case, populism is potentially hazardous for the same reason that nitroglycerin is: it’s unstable. In the wrong hands, the ability to capture and direct populist anger, resentment and demand for radical reform is akin to walking around with a jar of the explosive liquid: a misstep could be catastrophic.

If populism is indeed potentially dangerous, and I think it’s plain that it is, then what can we do about it? Part of the answer is to change laws and policies, in line with the genuine concerns expressed by many who subscribe to populism. Nevertheless, that’s not enough. Unless you’re able to change perception, it might not matter what you do to reality.

In December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Guardian that globalization had failed “ordinary people.” His exact line was, “What we’re facing right now – in terms of the rise of populism and divisive and fearful narratives around the world – it’s based around the fact that globalization doesn’t seem to be working for the middle class, for ordinary people.”

He was quickly attacked by many who touted the benefits of globalization and others who claimed that he can’t tout free trade deals while trash-talking free trade, but many of those critics missed the point. Trudeau was deftly linking perceptions of the economy, culture, and other concerns to the expressions of anxiety, fear, and frustration that fuel populist uprisings, regardless of how they intersect with the facts that surround them.

Changing perceptions means changing minds, which isn’t easy to do. Yet while those of us who spend our time reading and writing and thinking about politics are often obsessed with what is, we forget that it’s just as important to pay attention to how we know what is – especially in an era of “post-truth” politics, in which factually accurate information is becoming less important than emotionally satisfying “truthiness.”

When we focus too much on ontology and not enough on epistemology, we get into trouble.

While truth is about what is (its study is known in the humanities and social sciences as ontology), it is dependent on how we know what we know (what we call the study of epistemology). When we focus too much on ontology and not enough on epistemology, we get into trouble. Reality isn’t about faithfully taking the world out there into our heads and putting it back out again; reality is a creation — and that creation is an interpretation.

A narrow focus on truth sets up either/or, black/white, us/them camps and draws thick lines between them. Paying more attention to how we come to know things and agree on things breaks down those barriers. We have to accept that we don’t all agree on what counts as good, fair or just, and that we have different conceptions of what democracy or a market entails and how it should operate.

When those who take part in populist movements feel marginalized, it’s worth trying to unpack and understand where they are coming from by working out careful ways of discussing what matters to them. Some people you’ll never get – the social media trolls, the partisans who are just too far gone, the manipulative puppeteers who pull their strings. But not everyone is in that camp. While social media (I’m looking at you, Twitter and Facebook) might make it seem otherwise, the self-selecting types who take to the Internet to do battle don’t tell anywhere near the whole story.

If we want to bring about a productive and stable politics, we need to take seriously the folks who take part in populist movements. Doing so means addressing their policy concerns, but it also means committing to deeper engagement with how they see the world – an engagement with where they are coming from. This engagement requires that leaders meet with those who feel marginalized, work to ensure that policies and laws reflect (some of) their concerns and, perhaps most important of all, are perceived to reflect their concerns.

Engagement also requires that we find a way to do an end-run around people who, for their own political or personal gain, would cynically manipulate participants in populist movements. Again, this involves reaching out to them directly as much and as often as possible. The task is a staggeringly difficult one, and no leader or government will ever be able to reach each and every person; but it’s nonetheless a task worth pursuing.

Photo: George Sheldon/Shutterstock.com

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David Moscrop
David Moscrop is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa, the author of Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones, a columnist with the Washington Post, and the host of the current affairs podcast Open To Debate. He is also a political commentator and a frequent contributor to print, television, and radio.

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