Populist anger is real, and Canada had better wake up

MICHAEL VALPY – Special to The Globe and Mail – Published Monday, Mar. 13, 2017 5:00AM EDT

Michael Valpy is a senior fellow at Massey College and a fellow at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto.

On Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, The New York Times posted a video by its media columnist, Jim Rutenberg, in which he declared that political journalism in America is broken.

“Mainstream journalists who were covering this race and cover politics,” he said, “really didn’t understand the anger and … how many people held that anger toward the status quo – how widespread that was in the country. And it comes after we missed Brexit. It shows that the global media is having troubles keeping up with the changes in the world.”
All of the foibles of Mr. Trump that drew so much media attention, Mr. Rutenberg concluded, “drew us away from the other part of the story, which was how some large percentage of this country thought about the way things are going.”

There is a big warning here for Canadian media commentators and the country’s political elites in general who are currently lecturing Conservative Party leadership candidates about fuelling populist anger and dismissing as ignorant, small and mean the perturbations of their supporters who are expressing fear and resentment over how Canada is being run.

Those supporters are real people – and there are a lot of them. Dismissing them and their concerns, however crudely they may be stated at times – as the U.S. media did with Americans who flocked to Mr. Trump’s standard – is frankly more likely to increase their numbers and more deeply entrench their anger and their (justifiable) sense of being held in contempt by the mainstream media and political establishment.

Frank Graves, the president of EKOS Research Associates and one of Canada’s leading pollsters, talks about the evidence he is uncovering of deepening class conflict in the country.

He finds that, since the beginning of the 21st century, the proportion of Canadians self-identifying as middle class has declined from 67 per cent to 46 per cent. Roughly the same numbers show up in U.S. polling. You have to ask: What would make someone wake up one morning and decide she or he is no longer middle class?

Over the past few years Mr. Graves has found a persistent and deepening pessimism among Canadians about their economic future, with racism, nativism and xenophobia appearing as byproducts of growing economic angst and resentment. He has found that almost 25 per cent of Canadians believe there is a good chance they will lose their jobs in the next couple of years. He has found that 70 per cent believe that almost all the economic growth over the past 20 years has ended up in the hands of the top 1 per cent.

He has found persistently hardening attitudes to immigration and to the increase of visible minorities in the population, supporting the notion that we are closing – not opening – as a society and that our iconic multicultural identity is, to say the least, being questioned. Indeed, another recent poll showed that vetting immigrants for “Canadian values” – seen by critics of Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch as her code language for discouraging non-white immigration – is favoured by 90 per cent of Conservative supporters and almost 60 per cent of Liberal and NDP supporters.

Perhaps of greatest worry, almost 60 per cent of Canadian adults asked by EKOS if they would be surprised to see violent class conflicts in Canada unless inequality is addressed said no, they wouldn’t be surprised (only 25 per cent said they would be).

These angry respondents are not people who are going to be waved off into silence by know-it-all media and political experts. At some point, these people have to be listened to and have to be asked what will address their anger.

I teach a course at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus on systemic biases and prejudices in media. A few weeks ago, I invited Nick Kouvalis, until recently Dr. Leitch’s campaign manager, into my class. He was asked why the media have been so dismissive of Dr. Leitch’s campaign message. He answered: “They’re not talking to the same people I am.” That is so like what transpired in the U.S. election.

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