The left has yielded lan­guage to the right

The News (New Glasgow) - - OPINION - Thomas Walkom Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based colum­nist cov­er­ing pol­i­tics.

The right has seized the lan­guage of so­cial change. The left has al­lowed this to hap­pen.

Words like pop­ulism, which just a few years ago had neu­tral or even left­ish con­no­ta­tions, are now as­so­ci­ated ex­clu­sively with Don­ald Trump.

Even the no­tion of na­tion­al­ism has been sur­ren­dered to the right. Once Trump de­scribed him­self as a na­tion­al­ist, his crit­ics be­gan to de­mean the word.

“A glob­al­ist is a per­son that wants the globe to do well, frankly not car­ing about our coun­try,” the U.S. pres­i­dent said in Texas re­cently. “And you know what? We can’t have that ... I’m a na­tion­al­ist, OK?”

Writ­ing in Esquire af­ter that speech, jour­nal­ist Jack Holmes noted, cor­rectly, that U.S. and global aims are not nec­es­sar­ily at odds with one an­other.

But then he went on to dis­par­age na­tion­al­ism it­self, say­ing that in Trump’s Amer­ica it rep­re­sented sex­ism, racism and the at­tempt to pre­serve white priv­i­lege.

It was not an un­com­mon re­ac­tion among pro­gres­sives. But it had the prac­ti­cal ef­fect of al­low­ing Trump’s ap­pro­pri­a­tion of “na­tion­al­ism” — a word with gen­er­ally pos­i­tive con­no­ta­tions in the U.S. — to stand.

Right-wingers, such as for­mer Trump ad­viser Steve Ban­non, have also taken over the term “eco­nomic na­tion­al­ism” to de­scribe their ap­proach. In Canada, where eco­nomic na­tion­al­ism has a long and ven­er­a­ble his­tory, this seems par­tic­u­larly odd.

Here, eco­nomic na­tion­al­ism is as­so­ci­ated with the left and lib­eral left. For­mer Lib­eral fi­nance min­is­ter Wal­ter Gor­don was an eco­nomic na­tion­al­ist de­ter­mined to de­crease the power of the U.S. over Canada. Dur­ing the free­trade elec­tion cam­paign of 1988, so was for­mer Lib­eral prime min­is­ter John Turner.

The Cana­dian Auto Work­ers, now Uni­for, cited eco­nomic na­tion­al­ism as one of the key rea­sons for break­ing from its U.S. par­ent union. Un­der the ban­ner of eco­nomic na­tion­al­ism, the New Democrats forced Pierre Trudeau’s mi­nor­ity Lib­eral gov­ern­ment to set up a pub­licly owned Cana­dian oil com­pany.

In those days, eco­nomic na­tion­al­ism was seen as a check on what used to be called Amer­i­can im­pe­ri­al­ism. Now the word has been ap­pro­pri­ated by those who would ex­pand that im­pe­rial reach un­der the slo­gan “Make Amer­ica great again.”

But the big­gest rhetor­i­cal vic­tory of the right has been its cap­ture of the term “pop­ulist.”

His­tor­i­cally in North Amer­ica, pop­ulism has had both left and right vari­ants. Some were anti-im­mi­grant and racist. But the most suc­cess­ful, such as the Peo­ple’s Party of the late 19th cen­tury or the Pro­gres­sives of the early 20th, were left-lean­ing.

In Canada, right-pop­ulist So­cial Credit con­trolled Al­berta’s gov­ern­ment for decades. At about the same time, the left-pop­ulist Co­op­er­a­tive Com­mon­wealth Fed­er­a­tion, now the NDP, dom­i­nated pol­i­tics in Saskatchewan.

In 1919, the agrar­ian pop­ulist United Farm­ers of On­tario won power at Queen’s Park. In the ’20s and ’30s, the left-pop­ulist Pro­gres­sives forced a re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of Cana­dian pol­i­tics fed­er­ally. Later in the cen­tury, a new right-of-cen­tre, na­tional, pop­ulist party called Re­form forced an­other one.

In short, pop­ulism has been no stranger to ei­ther Canada or the U.S. So it seems odd that it has be­come, among left-lib­er­als, a dirty word. Trump may be a pop­ulist. But so was the NDP’s Tommy Dou­glas.

Ban­non may call him­self an eco­nomic na­tion­al­ist. But so does Mel Watkins, the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto econ­o­mist who helped to re­de­fine Cana­dian pol­i­tics in the 1970s and ’80s.

How did his hap­pen? In part, we have for­got­ten our own his­tory. Trump­ism is not new. It is a big-man ver­sion of pol­i­tics that in some ways echoes the time, decades ago, when Huey Long ran Louisiana and Mitch Hep­burn con­trolled On­tario.

But, in part, we are ig­nor­ing the real game. In both Canada and the U.S., the left is find­ing it­self trapped in the dead end of iden­tity pol­i­tics where the key aim is to di­vide the world into as many sub­sets as pos­si­ble, each with its own par­tic­u­lar grievance.

That has left it to the hard right to ex­ploit the big­ger, com­mon griev­ances — of work, and wages and so­cial class.

We have not only sur­ren­dered the field to the Trumpians, we have will­ingly al­lowed them to mo­nop­o­lize its lan­guage.

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