The Cure for Populism Is Equal Opportunity
Maxime Bernier flopped in Canada because voters still believe everyone has a fair shot.
The People’s Party of Canada (PPC), a cousin of the populist movements springing up in many advanced democracies, got badly trounced in the recent federal election. Maxime Bernier, the self-styled populist leader and founder of the PPC, even lost his seat in Beauce, Quebec, in the process. The PPC polled less than 2 percent of the popular vote, finished sixth among national political parties, and is now expected to close shop.
The PPC’s stark failure stands in contrast to populist success in other Western democracies, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. But there’s a critical difference: the fairness of each country’s economic regime. Our working paper shows that countries with low social mobility, where family origins strongly determine economic outcomes, are at high risk of populist political disruption. Policymakers from abroad have a key lesson to learn in why Canada has achieved high social mobility and shut out populism.
The PPC’s wipeout was not initially expected by many pundits. When the party was launched, there were many forecasts that the PPC would eat away at support for the Conservative Party in the same way the progressive vote is split between the Liberals, the New Democratic Party, and the Greens in Canada.
There were three reasons for this. First, there was support for the PPC from the mainstream right-wing press. This was not so much because of its populist credentials, but due to its free trade, anti-state bias.
Bernier was also a well-established Quebecois politician. He was elected to Parliament four consecutive times, starting in 2006 as a member of the Conservative Party, and even served as minister of foreign affairs under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. After failing to win the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2017, Bernier began a slow exit, ultimately culminating in the formation of the PPC in 2018. Bernier also had a reasonable track record as a modern-day libertarian, running from his opposition to the supply management system, Canada’s centrally planned national agricultural policy, to support for gay rights. For example, he participated in pride parades where the leader of the Conservative Party would not, although he later condemned them as the “radical fringe.”
In part as a reaction to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s vigorous support of cultural and religious diversity, Bernier swiftly embraced much of the core of populist messaging, making use of the platforms that were redefining the political conversation in market democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Bernier used the great populist communication tool, Twitter, to oppose “extreme multiculturalism,” which he called a “cult.” New Canadians were described with words like “tribes” and “ghetto.” He also argued that there is no scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change, and trashed 16-year-old climate advocate Greta Thunberg as “clearly mentally unstable.” These populist talking points on Twitter quickly defined Bernier and the PPC.
Such tactics have been a recipe for success for Marine Le Pen in France, U.S. President Donald Trump in the United States, and Nigel Farage in Britain. But something in Canada’s atmosphere turned Bernier and his allies into shriveled husks in the space of one election cycle as surely as earthly pathogens ripped through H.G. Wells’ Martians in The War of the Worlds. Canada is largely inoculated against populism because, as measured by the Institute of Labor Economics, it has one of the highest levels of social mobility in the world. Most Canadians have a fair chance at moving up the income ladder regardless of what family they were born into. Thus, in Canada, the populist imperative to rebel against an unfair system seems bizarre and unconvincing.
Modern populists win power by leveraging frustration over the unfairness of poor social mobility and blame foreigners and elites for rigging the rules against regular people. When family origins largely decide success, citizens buy into that message. They feel they have too little control over their own outcomes and conclude that regardless of their hard work and talent, society is predisposed to keep them in their place. So when given the chance, they vote for politicians who promise to overturn the system.
In our paper we show this pattern repeating in the United States, the European Union, and internationally, and there’s a good reason why. Humanity’s belief that economic rewards are fair when they are determined by talent and effort—not arbitrary characteristics like parental wealth—is biologically hard-wired. These values have been observed in infants and even capuchin monkeys, a biological relative that humans diverged from millions of years ago.
Trump captured the building sense of unfairness in the United States when he told people he would “drain the swamp” and “make America great again.” Farage and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did the same in the U.K. when they implored people to “take back control.” Those messages resonated because the United States and United Kingdom have some of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world. Bernier, seeing an opportunity, attempted to repeat the trick in Canada. He proclaimed that Canadians were “disenchanted” with traditional politics and made fairness one of four founding principles of his party. But his directive for Canadians to rebel against unfairness ultimately felt out of touch. The lived experience of most Canadians is that his charge is untrue, and that Canada is broadly fair.
The two critical ingredients in Canadian social mobility are equal opportunity and unequal outcomes. Canada provides the public goods needed for widespread opportunity—such as education, health care, and transit—and embraces market competition, which translates that opportunity to tangible rewards.
The importance of these two inputs becomes especially evident if one considers Canada’s cultural relatives that are experiencing widespread support for populism. The United States, for instance, certainly buys into competitive, unequal outcomes. It attracts spades of high-skilled immigrants who find they are amply rewarded for their abilities. But its social mobility is so abominable because it fails on equal opportunity. Average U.S. student debt is among the highest in the world, its health care system ranks near the worst in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and investment in transport infrastructure as a share of gross domestic product is less than half of the European average. It is for reasons like these that a poor U.S. student at the top of his eighth-grade math class is less likely to go to college than a rich student at the bottom of it.
France, on the other hand, generally succeeds at providing the public inputs for equal opportunity. For example, it is considered to have one of the world’s best health care systems. But there is persistent mass unemployment because of an overbearing state that stifles market competition. Rewards for success are taxed away and the labor market is overregulated into morbidity, so that hiring, firing, and changing jobs are incredibly painful. The right connections are generally required for gainful employment, and social mobility remains stagnant. (Of course, French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to fix these problems.)
Canada, then, succeeds by marrying the best elements of French statist and Anglo-Saxon free-market instincts. Its universal health care system and affordable university tuition, for example, support widely shared opportunity. Its regulatory efficiency, market openness, and protection of property rights enable one of the most free economic environments in the world. These complements combine to create a regime of economic fairness and social mobility which shuts out populists like Bernier. Policymakers concerned with the global onslaught of populism should reflect carefully on his downfall and follow Canada in twinning equal opportunity with unequal outcomes. But neither can Canada rest on its laurels—its leaders must constantly pursue greater fairness or, as seen in the United States, risk its demise.
Eric Protzer is a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.