Could It Hap­pen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit by Michael Adams

Policy - - In This Issue - Re­view by Mike Coates

Michael Adams

Could It Hap­pen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit. Toronto, Si­mon and Schus­ter, 2017.

When I stud­ied statis­tics at grad­u­ate school many decades ago, there was an old adage that what statis­tics can show is in­ter­est­ing, but what they don’t show is vi­tal. That pretty much sums up the weak­ness of Michael Adams th­e­sis in his new book, Could It Hap­pen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit.

Adams is a re­spected poll­ster who, like many of us, has won­dered whether the world wide pop­ulist trend could bleed into Canada and re­sult in the elec­tion of a Trump-like politi­cian. In ear­lier books, Sex in the Snow and Fire and Ice, Adams has writ­ten about how Cana­dian and Amer­i­can val­ues are in­creas­ingly di­verg­ing po­lit­i­cally and cul­tur­ally. Not sur­pris­ingly, in his lat­est book he sees this trend as our coun­try’s sal­va­tion from Trump-like pop­ulism. He bases his ar­gu­ments on so­cial val­ues sur­veys of pub­lic opin­ion con­ducted an­nu­ally in Canada and in the United States. Over a 20year pe­riod show­ing that Cana­di­ans are evolv­ing to a more global and tol­er­ant out­look—re­ject­ing the pol­i­tics of Trump, Brexit and Marine LePen.

Adams is of the view that the root of to­day’s pop­ulism is less about labour mar­kets or in­come in­equities and much more about cul­tural in­tol­er­ance and xeno­pho­bia and just plain old fear of change. This in­creas­ingly com­plex and wor­ri­some world has led many coun­tries to look to au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers who can of­fer sim­ple so­lu­tions in re­turn for a more or­derly and re­as­sur­ing world of yes­ter­day.

In­deed, Adams presents com­pelling data that sug­gest that Cana­di­ans have a health­ier at­ti­tude to­wards im­mi­gra­tion, cul­tural di­ver­sity, pub­lic health, gen­der and sex­ual equal­ity. His most in­ter­est­ing find­ing is that Cana­di­ans don’t share other na­tions at­ti­tudes to­wards pa­tri­archy. Whereas 60 per cent of Amer­i­can men think the fa­ther has to be mas­ter of his home, only 30 per cent of Cana­dian men share this view. This more pro­gres­sive at­ti­tude is why we are, ac­cord­ing to Adams, more com­fort­able with a young, fem­i­nist PM who is “trim, hand­some, cour­te­ous, at­ten­tive and up­beat” vs the nar­cis­sis­tic brute to the south.

But even if I con­cede Adams’ in­ter­pre­ta­tion of polling data on Cana­dian tol­er­ance, there are a num­ber of other fac­tors that drive this ob­server to a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion on whether Canada could ever elect a Trump like politi­cian. Most im­por­tantly, there are lim­its to a pub­lic opin­ion ex­pla­na­tion of how peo­ple in Canada vote.

First off, the pub­lic doesn’t even elect our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers. All our fed­eral lead­ers are re­ally elected by a small cadre of party ac­tivists whose num­bers swell to the low hun­dreds of thou­sands dur­ing a party lead­er­ship con­test. In­flu­enc­ing the out­come of these elec­tions isn’t dif­fi­cult if a can­di­date shares the type of no­to­ri­ety that Trump had. Kevin O’Leary, whose Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship cam­paign I chaired in early 2017, was able to re­cruit over 35,000 new Con­ser­va­tive mem­bers and con­vince over a third of the ex­ist­ing party that he had what it took to de­feat Justin Trudeau. If he hadn’t de­cided that pol­i­tics wasn’t for him, we might have a dif­fer­ent Con­ser­va­tive leader right now. The lim­its of a th­e­sis based on pub­lic opin­ion data be­come ap­par­ent when we re­call that ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ments in this coun­try are elected with less than 40 per cent of the vote. Gov­ern­ments are elected on a rid­ing ba­sis that is weighted dis­pro­por­tion­ately in favour of ru­ral Canada, Que­bec and the At­lantic in order to en­sure that their voice re­mains rel­e­vant even as their pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion de­clines. These re­gions have not ex­pe­ri­enced the same in­flux of new Cana­di­ans and con­se­quently, at­ti­tudes may not be as tol­er­ant to change as Adams would have us be­lieve.

In Canada, just as in the U.S., there is a grow­ing loss of faith in our in­sti­tu­tions and in ca­reer politi­cians. In 2017, Edel­man found in its an­nual trust barom­e­ter sur­vey that for the first time in the five years of gen­eral pop­u­la­tion track­ing on this is­sue, Canada had en­tered the cat­e­gory of na­tions who dis­trust their in­sti­tu­tions. For many in both Canada and the U.S., this phe­nom­e­non

Fi­nally, there is the march of his­tory, which has shown that when pop­ulism is on the rise in the U.S., it is in Canada as well.

is par­tially rooted in the rise of the ca­reer politi­cian. There was a time, so the ar­gu­ment goes, when can­di­dates ran for of­fice af­ter es­tab­lish­ing a suc­cess­ful ca­reer else­where, like Pierre Trudeau in academia or Brian Mul­roney in busi­ness. These politi­cians pro­posed ma­jor na­tion-build­ing poli­cies such as the pa­tri­a­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion or NAFTA. Big stuff. Now, ev­ery­thing seems to be about in­cre­men­tal change de­signed to min­i­mize risk to po­lit­i­cal ca­reers. The cyn­i­cism this has bred is a cen­tral theme of to­day’s pop­ulist nar­ra­tive. Ac­cord­ing to Li­brary of Par­lia­ment data, there has been a steady rise in elected MPs whose only job be­fore be­ing elected was as a po­lit­i­cal aide.

Fi­nally, there is the march of his­tory, which has shown that when pop­ulism is on the rise in the U.S., it is in Canada as well. In to­day’s me­dia en­vi­ron­ment where the events of U.S. pol­i­tics are re­ported breath­lessly on ev­ery chan­nel of tra­di­tional and so­cial me­dia, is it any won­der that the Cana­dian Press found this past sum­mer that 71 per cent of Cana­di­ans thought pop­ulism was grow­ing in Canada? Of those sur­veyed, 62 per cent were ei­ther un­con­cerned or pos­i­tive about this trend.

Af­ter read­ing Adams’ book I re­main un­con­vinced that elect­ing a Trump couldn’t hap­pen here. There are lim­i­ta­tions to Adams’s ar­gu­ment that go be­yond the in­ter­est­ing statis­tics he uses to present his th­e­sis and this is vi­tal to un­der­stand­ing the po­ten­tial for the pop­ulist move­ment in Canada. I am left with the nag­ging feel­ing there is room for another book ... only this time it would be called, Don­ald Trump in Canada? It Could Hap­pen Here.

Mike Coates is a long time Con­ser­va­tive ac­tivist who re­cently ran the Amer­i­cas Divi­sion of Hill and Knowl­ton in New York. He re­tired as the firm’s Global Vice Chair­man in 2017. mike­coates722@gmail.com

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