An Invitation to Members to Engage in Discussion on Populism and Democracy

by | Nov 22, 2019

Populism – and particularly its authoritarian variant – has been making increasingly frequent appearances in liberal democracies, and solidifying gains in illiberal ones. In Canada, such a phenomenon can appear a distant threat, it hovers over foes and allies alike, but hasn’t yet taken hold north of the 49th parallel. But with a handful of similar electoral systems still wrestling with populism’s rearranging of the political landscape, we’d be wise to engage in a serious discussion on its proliferation. Consequently, the Canadian International Council has initiated a series of talks and events, all with the intention of familiarizing Canadians with the forces, language, and trajectory of populism – specifically, the ways in which it collides with the norms and practices of democracy.

CIC President Ben Rowswell will set this in motion with a talk in Halifax, on November 23rd. Drawing upon his observations as former Canadian Ambassador to Venezuela, Ben will delve deeper into how populism is manipulated by the state, primarily to consolidate power. Likewise, notions of popular sovereignty – that is, sovereignty residing with the citizenry – have come into conflict with conceptions of sovereignty as absolute, centralized, and ultimately ‘top-down’. Authoritarianism is rarely constrained by borders, and often justified precisely in the name of the electorate. This process includes the demonization of minority groups, political rivals, and other states, and can rapidly become ingrained in political and judicial institutions, as Ben will elaborate upon.

On November 25th, Giuliano Da Empoli will discuss populism with CIC members in Quebec City. Giuliano is a former senior advisor to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. He’ll have the opportunity to share a host of insights, especially relevant at a time when Italian politics is being swept by shifting allegiances, budgetary questions, skepticism about the euro, and a harsh stance on migration. The country’s political fault lines are on full display as Renzi goes toe-to-toe with Matteo Salvini, a popular demagogue recently ejected from power. The two men embody the tension between a politics of liberal incrementalism, and of barnstorming populism.

Shortly after, the CIC will join Massey College and the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy in hosting an event titled ‘Western Populism: The Disruption’. Giuliano da Empoli will join former Federal Managing Director of the Christian Democratic Union, Klaus Schuler, and the British founder of the Global Progress movement, Matt Browne, to extract lessons from electoral struggles with populist parties in Italy, Germany and the UK that might be relevant for

Canada. This will be cast alongside a conversation with Professor Peter Loewen, former Premier of Ontario, Bob Rae, and the former Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Lisa Raitt, as they seek to distill what populism might mean for the future of Canadian politics.

The Victoria branch of the CIC will host a discussion on that controversial gift of populism to the people of Britain, Brexit, in an event on December 9 which will offer an Irish perspective. Finally, Canada’s former ambassador to Spain, Jon Allen, will share his observations on populism with the Hamilton branch of the CIC on December 12, providing a fitting conclusion to a series of timely, thought-provoking assessments of this phenomenon threatening democracies around the world.

In the same time period, the CIC will publish blogs and research papers on various angles of populism and democracy – on both national and international fronts.

CIC Fellow Michael Petrou, a professor at Carleton University, is gearing his research towards examining how Canada could cooperate with like-minded allies to push back against populist authoritarianism. He’s scheduled to release a blog post on December 15th, before presenting a subsequent paper on his findings.

Analyzing populism within the context of the 2019 Canadian federal election, two University of Toronto students are involved in an ongoing project to assess the condition of our political discourse. They have been studying candidates and leaders on Twitter, in interviews, debates, and other fora, applying the theoretical approach outlined in Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s book, How Democracies Die, and attempting to discern whether a ‘democratic backslide’ is on the horizon. Ziblatt and Levitsky, two Harvard political scientists, observed the 2016 American presidential election and plotted the signposts of how, and why, a country may start exhibiting authoritarian tendencies. They believe this process ‘begins at the ballot box’, with a gradual slide towards democratic breakdown rather than a sudden and precipitous event. For Ziblatt and Levitsky, the ‘guardrails of democracy’ are mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. It should be interesting to see how Canadian politicians – in word and deed – have measured up to this standard.

Finally, U of T law professor Sujit Choudhury will provide recommendations for a new Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government that the re-elected Liberal Party promised in their platform.

We also want to hear from you, citizens of Canada, since our democracy belongs to you. If you are in any of the cities listed above, come to the CIC events to question our speakers and add your own perspectives. Read the research we have commissioned, and share your views with us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram.

Over the next four weeks we invite you into a focused, absorbing exploration of some of the most pressing contemporary debates on politics around the world. Here at the CIC we cannot wait to see you engage with thought leaders as we explore the standoff between democracy and populism.