At my Monday talk at Massey College, my good friend, Abe Rotstein, challenged me to define populism, implying that it was just a useful smear word with too many equivocal meanings, that my account of populism was simply a series of political practices without a central core definition and that Tommy Douglas was a populist.Below, find my answer to Abe. It is NOT a definition, for populism is, as I implied, an equivocal term applied to a number of varieties. But it it can clearly be differentiated from representative responsible democratic government using benchmarks rather than a singular univocal definition backed up by what I previously presented as a series of illustrative practices. I further suggest that Tommy Douglas was NOT a populist.
Benchmarks of Populism (P) versus Responsible Democratic Government (RDG)
(Cf. Howard Adelman (1976) “Authority, Influence and Power,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, December Vol. 6, 335-351.)
P: Political authority is vested in the people
RDG: Political authority is vested in institutions, most basically, but not exclusively, in the legislature in a parliamentary democracy
P: The People are the source of virtue
RDG: Virtue is vested in process; insofar that there exist officers who assess virtue and vice, they are either parliamentary officers – on the federal level, the auditor general, the ombudsman, the parliamentary budget officer – or in standing commissions such as the Public Service Commission, the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Security Intelligence Review Committee
Power – Coercive
P: Power always remains ultimately with the people, including the right to bear arms
RDG: Coercive power is vested in the state and cannot be delegated back to the people; militias are armed units that must be armed and authorized only by the state through its legitimate government
Power as Creative Energy
P: Power in the form of creative energy comes from the people as a collective
RDG: Power in the form of creative energy comes from politicians who are elected to represent political constituencies
Influence – re Thoughts and Ideas
P: The primary influence on representatives’ decision-making resides in and goes back to the people
RDG: Influence comes from those ideas which pass the test of coherence and congruency with reality in terms of evidence-based documentation
Influence as Money
P: Monetary influence, and power wielded through accumulations of wealth, is often perceived as the greatest threat to the predominance of the people
RDG: Monetary interests are but one factor to consider in making policy, but must not be allowed to become the dictating influence
The essential difference between populism and representative democratic government is the emphasis on institutions and rule-based processes of the latter versus the constant reference back to the “will of the people” of the former. Though populists and economic plutocrats were envisioned as being on opposite political poles, they are, in fact, often aligned against other corporate entities – such as the resource and energy-based units of the economy (on the side of the people versus the “environmental” elites) versus the airlines, communication companies and banks in relationship to consumers or the “little guy”. This does not mean that popular movements opposed education or research or evidence-based policy-making and were inherently populist. Cooperatives and credit unions were examples of grass-roots movements to facilitate the development and prosperity of the ordinary individual. To be anti-establishment and in touch with grass roots needs did not make a political party antithetical to responsible representative government. It is no accident that Stanley Knowles of the NDP became master of the rules of parliament.
RDG has historically been associated with progressivism with a strong emphasis on evidence-based research, reasoning and scientific advancement to develop cognitively-based options to formulate solutions to problems. In populism, ideas are said to emerge from the masses and there is a belief that decision-making has to refer back and be congruent with the people’s will.