Healthy Politics

2019 will be an important year for the state of our democracy

Ordered populism. It sounds like a contradiction in terms for anyone affected by the sudden, disruptive decisions of Ontario Premier Doug Ford or President Donald Trump, well-known populist leaders. The language appeals to Calvinists who value “good order” in life and enshrined in the “peace, order and good government” at the heart of Canada’s constitution. The gap between language and reality, however, in my view, provides more caution than comfort for what we can expect in 2019 and how we should respond as Christians. 

Ordered populism, as described by pollster Frank Graves and scholar Michael Valpy in a recent Globe and Mail article, is characterized by “a sense of economic pessimism; anger at elites; deep mistrust of mainstream media, science and professionals; [and] allergy to globalization, trade and especially immigration” (Dec. 15, 2018). The agenda includes a backlash against progress made by women and rejection of climate change. The “order” refers to a preference for authoritarian rule, justified as “for the people.” It does not refer to doing things in an orderly way and it justifies using unjust means to achieve goals that may sound good on the surface. 

Alarm bells
It is this authoritarian element, disguised as “good order” and “for the people,” that raises an alarm for me. I am puzzled to see that it is attractive to fellow Christians whom I respect. Is it the appeal of easy answers and simple solutions to complex issues that make us throw up our hands?  Is it the promise of greater certainty in times of anxiety? Is it nostalgia for a past when we were better-off economically than we think our future prospects are? Is it fear that Christianity is losing ground and needs a “strong man” to regain a foothold in society? 

I can relate to those concerns. But when I see what happens after people cast their lot for an “ordered populist” leader, and recall lessons from history, alarms bells start ringing in my ears. It’s the decisions that are not headlines that cause me to say “be careful” of what sounds like a way to give voice to all my angst about the direction of our society. As just one example, because of my work with children I know the impacts for vulnerable kids of Ford’s brash repeal of the Office of the Children’s Advocate. Important checks and balances on the exercise of power are removed by populists precisely because they limit power and protect minorities. 

If we call it dictatorship, our guards would go up. If we ask which people benefit and which do not, it may not be so attractive. Using language and charisma to whitewash dismantling basic tools that ensure good order and healthy democracy leaves me more afraid. The best antidote is well-informed citizens who resist emotional appeals and easy slogans and insist on robust, thoughtful public dialogue about the important challenges we face. 

Commentators on all sides agree that 2019 will be an important year for the state of our democracy. I hope Christians in Canada will reach across differences on specific issues to stand together against erosion of our political culture and stand up for a public order that serves the least powerful. 

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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