Exclusive: The future is populist in this age of disruption, Stephen Harper says in new book


Harper comprend ce qui se joue entre le camp mondialiste et les patriotes

The rise of populism — on this continent and beyond — has drawn condemnation from across the political spectrum. But as former prime minister Stephen J. Harper argues in this exclusive excerpt from his new book, Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption, the so-called “deplorables” who have voted establishment figures out of office deserve a careful hearing. Their concerns point to deep problems with globalization — and they aren’t going away. 

If you are interested in politics, you will remember where you were on November 8, 2016. I was watching the U.S. presidential vote in my basement living room. My (interim) successor as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, the Hon. Rona Ambrose, was with me. So was the leader of the United Conservative Party of Alberta, the Hon. Jason Kenney. I did not expect Donald J. Trump to be elected president that evening.

But unlike most observers, I did think it was at least possible. It had taken me a long time to even get there. But Trump won the Republican nomination, and now he was win­ning the presidential election. So, I asked myself: What happened? I could have concluded what most commentators concluded. They had predicted Trump could not win — that he could never win — because he is a fool and a bigot. Therefore, they surmised, the voters must be fools and bigots as well. The ones with the foolish and preconceived notions were those who got it so wrong. It is time to re-examine our assumptions.

So here is my re-examination in a nutshell. A large proportion of Americans, including many American conservatives, voted for Trump because they are really not doing very well. In short, the world of globalization is not working for many of our own people. We can pretend that this is a false perception, but it is not. We now have a choice. We can keep trying to convince people that they misunderstand their own lives, or we can try to understand what they are saying. Then we can decide what to do about it.

Trump supporters pray at a rally in Southhaven, Miss., on Oct. 2, 2018. Some dismiss Trump’s clarion call to Make America Great Again as sheer jingoism, but to minimize the visceral embrace of his anti-globalist message is to miss its larger significance, Harper writes. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Conservatives won the Cold War. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and their generation stood against communism abroad and socialism at home. And they were largely successful. Our values — free societies, free markets, free trade, free movement — have spread around the world. The problem is this: globalization has been very successful for many of the world’s people, but not so much for many of our own. A billion people worldwide — mostly in the emerging economies of Asia — have moved out of poverty. Yet, in many Western countries, the incomes of working people have stagnated or even declined over the past quarter-century. This is especially true in the United States. Trump clearly understood this.

Some dismiss President Trump’s clarion call to “Make America Great Again” as sheer jingoism, but to minimize the visceral embrace of his anti-globalist message is to miss its larger significance. It resonated with the core of the party that supported Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and their robust internationalism. His message also had resonance with a considerable body of traditionally Democratic voters, many of whom crossed over to give him the presidency.

To my mind, this is perhaps the most easily understood part of the Trump phenomenon. America has been through a decade and a half of foreign-policy experiences that laid the groundwork for an America First approach.

To start with, there were the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Full disclosure: I supported both initiatives and still support the decision on Afghanistan. Nonetheless, enormous human and financial costs have been incurred through “nation-building,” with very limited success. In the process, the idea of promoting America’s ideals abroad was dealt a terrible blow. Then came a new administration determined to avoid over-extension. However, global security deteriorated further. Thus, the record of the recent past draws a pretty straight line to the orientation of the current U.S. administration. Still, it is only part of the story. It cannot fully explain the gut-level responses, both positive and negative, to the America First bent of the Trump administration.

I confess to being more perplexed by those who fanatically oppose nationalism than by those who vehemently support it. Nationalism, or at least patriotism, seems to me a pretty normal state of human affairs in most places and at most times. And the idea that a country would put its own interests first was, I thought, a kind of fundamental maxim of international relations.

I do not want to reduce these different views of nationalism merely to philosophical shifts within political parties. As with the splits over global markets and international trade, something much deeper is going on. Trump, Brexit, and the European populist movements are exposing a fault line in modern Western societies. The division is between, as David Goodhart describes: those who live “anywhere” and those who live “somewhere.” The rise of globalization in the past quarter-century has transformed an element of the population. Segments of urban and university-educated professionals have become genuinely globally oriented in their careers and personal lives.

Imagine yourself as someone who works for an international consulting firm or in a globally focused academic career. You can wake up in New York, London, or Singapore and feel at home. You may rent or even own regular accommodation in all of these places. Your work is not subjected to import competition or threat of technological dislocation. You may attend (or aspire to attend) the Davos conference. You probably read The Economist and, like Thomas Friedman, believe that the world really is flat. Your spouse or partner has a similar professional background, although he or she is from somewhere else in the world. You are motivated by climate change and suspicious of religion. You are unequivocally pro–free trade and support high levels of immigration. Your values can broadly be described as “cosmopolitan.”

Such cosmopolitans, or “Anywheres,” or just plain “globalists” have an increasingly weak attachment to the nation-state. Their professional, personal, and even familial relationships are increasingly with people like themselves from a range of countries. The examples I give may be rooted in stereotypes, but there are many less extreme cases among people who work, study, or join online communities that cross boundaries.

There are a lot of these people, but there are still many more completely unlike them. Maybe you are a manufacturing or retail worker, or even a small-businessperson. You probably do not live in the central areas of a major business centre. Your work can be, and is being, disrupted by import competition and technological change. You are motivated by steady work and a decent living. You and your spouse grew up in the same community in which you now live and work. Your children attend the local schools and your aging parent lives nearby. Your social life is connected to a local church, service club, restaurant-bar, sports team, or community group. You only leave your region for brief vacations. Your values can broadly be described as “localist.” Such localists or “Somewheres” are far more likely to be nationalists at heart. Social solidarity matters to them because their future hinges on the society in which they live.

An abandoned factory in Camden, New Jersey, U.S. The populist trend will not stop until the issues driving it are being effectively addressed, writes Harper. (Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg)

For Somewheres, nationalism is more than just a strong emotional attachment (although it is usually that); it is critical to their lives. If things go badly, or if policy choices turn out to be wrong, Somewheres cannot just shift their lives to somewhere else. They depend on the nation-state.

Of course, Anywheres also depend on the nation-state, whether they admit it or not. It is, after all, the major nation-states that have made globalization possible. To the extent that there are global markets with rules and stability, it is agreements among nation-states that created them. Without these agreements, international commerce would be little beyond occasional exchanges and one-off transactions. Think about it. Anything more than that requires investments in transportation, communications, and logistics. It depends on enforcement of contracts, provision of information, and prevention of fraud. It needs stable, reliable, and exchangeable currencies. There must be arrangements that bring distributional outcomes into conformity with acceptable political norms.

It is fashionable for Anywheres to blame bad national policies — and especially populism — for the instabilities and uncertainties in the global economy. Sometimes they are indeed to blame, but not that often. The “global community” provides little or nothing in the wide range of institutions and practices that well-governed markets require. The critical functions of laws and regulations, monetary and fiscal stability, conflict management and resolution, and social services and redistribution have so far been provided almost exclusively by nation-states. Left to its own devices, globalization would be an economic world of massive and persistent instability — as it was in late 2008, until the major nation-states stepped in.

Incidentally, it is not self-evident what these institutions and practices would look like if they were pursued on a global basis. The world simply does not agree on how to balance equality against opportunity, economic security against innovation, health and environmental risks against jobs and growth, or economic outcomes against social and cultural mores, let alone how to choose basic governance models.

In other words, the nation-state, with all its flaws, is a concrete reality. The “global community” is little more than a concept. People with something to lose are bound to be more beholden to an important fact than a mere notion.

This is where I part company with the Anywheres. Anywheres seem to believe they can pick from whatever national basket they like. Chinese economic outcomes, American legal protections, European governance, Panamanian taxes, you name it. And if they do not get what they want, they affirm a right to just pick up and leave — on a passport provided by their nation-state.

I do not quarrel with the Anywheres about the real and even greater potential benefits of globalization. My disagreement is more with this globalist mindset. I do not care how much of a globalist you fancy yourself. You have some responsibility as a citizen to Somewhere. And if you do not understand that, then you will behave as if you have no responsibilities at all.

Anywheres may be far from being a majority of the population, but in the era of globalization, they have come to dominate our politics. This is true on both the traditional centre left and the centre right. The Brexit referendum provides some insight into how such fault lines may manifest themselves. Cosmopolitan London voted Remain by a three-to-one margin. It was joined only by Scottish and Irish nationalists, for distinct (and diametrically opposed) reasons. Healthy majorities for Leave in the bulk of English, Welsh, and Irish unionist communities carried the day.

Similar dynamics have been apparent in American politics for some time. The Democrats are now a largely urban, coastal party with few congressional seats or governorships in middle America. The Republicans are increasingly shut out of big, cosmopolitan centres, but they are the clear majority party in most other places.

The New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. Being pro-market does not mean that all regulations should be dismantled or that governments should never intervene, Harper writes. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

I put it like this: there is a widening chasm between the perspec­tives of establishment institutions of all kinds — corporations, banks, bureaucracies, academia, media, entertainment — and those who do not identify with such institutions. It is a split between those whose economic interests are global and those whose interests are local. It is between those whose lives cross borders and those who live within them. It is between those whose identities are international and mul­ticultural and those whose identities are national and traditional. Most importantly, it is increasingly between those who believe they are getting ahead and those who can see that they are not.

This is, of course, not limited to America. The same dynamics — “elites” versus “populists” — were behind the surprise outcome of the Brexit referendum. Something similar is happening in Europe as well, as the space occupied by traditional political parties of both the centre right and centre left is gradually shrinking in the face of insur­gent political movements. I do not know whether Donald Trump’s presidency will succeed or not. But what I do know is that the issues that gave rise to his candidacy are not going away. They are only going to get bigger. And, if they are not faced honestly and addressed correctly, they are going to get worse.

The upshot is that the success of Brexit and Trump points to a possible political realignment of much wider and longer-term significance. If underlying economic and social realities continue to diverge between elites and regular working people, such political patterns will get stronger. Ambitious and enterprising politicians more disciplined than Trump will effectively tap into populist values.

Present-day populism is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There are parts of it that reflect legitimate grievances with the elite consen­sus. There are others that should be opposed. What is happening requires understanding and adaptation, not dogma and condescension. Populists are not ignorant and misguided “deplorables.” They are our family, friends, and neigh­bours. The populists are, by definition, the people.

In a democratic system, the people are our customers. And, according to conser­vative market values, the customer is always right. Part of developing these alternatives involves challenging some preconceived ideas about populism. Populism is not entirely incom­patible with markets, trade, globalization, and immigration. My own political career is proof.

My time as prime minister occurred largely during and after the global financial crisis. Under my government, Canada avoided the worst of the crisis and came out of it all the stronger. For Canadian Conservatives, it was the longest-serving government since 1891. By any measure, we left the country in good shape. No populist insurgency arose on our right, and as a consequence, since we returned to opposition in 2015, we have remained a strong and united party.

Through our numerous successes — and our occasional blunders — Canadian Conservatives were implementing many of the policies and strategies that are necessary to respond to the challenges that Western societies currently face. I call this approach “populist conservatism.” What is populist conservatism? It is about putting conservative values and ideas into the service of working people and their fami­lies. It is about using conservative means for populist ends.

My populism was, I suppose, an outgrowth of a public-school, middle-class background. That experience taught me the importance of making policy relevant to regular working families. Donald Trump’s upset victory and tumultuous first eighteen months in office have produced plenty of predictions about our future poli­tics. Some claim conservatism is “dead.” Others say the same about populism. But none of this changes the forces that put Trump in office. Populism will be with us as long as working men, women, and families continue to face current economic and social pressures, and conventional political parties do not adapt. And if they do not, troubling elements of the populist agenda could prove more potent in the hands of more focused political operators.

Policy-making does not occur within a textbook version of reality. It happens in the real world, with trade-offs, imperfect options, and non-economic consid­erations. There are a lot of obituaries being written, citing the decline of the West in general and of America in particular. These contain some elements of truth. For many of their authors, however, such a decline would clearly be a welcome development.

Supporters attend a pro-Brexit rally in Birmingham, England on Sept. 30, 2018. Trump, Brexit, and the European populist movements are exposing a fault line in modern Western societies, Harper writes. (Paul ELLIS/AFP)

I do not share this perspective. There is no question that the Western world — most notably the United States — is going through a period of tumult and disruption. Nonetheless, democratic capitalist societies have historically shown unparalleled dynamism, resiliency, and adapt­ability. I am confident that, with the right ideas, right choices, and right leadership, we will come out of this era better and stronger.

There are many people who seem to believe that they can wish the events of 2016 away. Influential elements in the United Kingdom — those sarcastically labelled “Remoaners” — look to reverse the Brexit vote or, at a minimum, to get a deal with the European Union that apes the U.K.’s current relationship. In the United States, much of the anti-Trump narrative displays a desire to deny the simple reality that he won because enough people in enough places willingly voted for him. The underlying hope in both cases is that things will “go back” to the way they were.

But that is not the trend. Populist, nationalist, and anti-establish­ment movements are continuing to grow. Just look at Europe. A late 2017 analysis of 22 European countries revealed that support for such parties is at its highest level in at least three decades. Recent votes in the Netherlands, the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, and else­where have seen such options make significant gains at the expense of the traditional centre left and centre right. In some cases, they are close to taking power. Even where they are not, they are often rendering the formation of government coalitions lengthy and laborious.

My diagnosis is simple: the populist trend will not stop until the issues driving it are being effectively addressed. True, these new populist alternatives may ultimately fall short in the eyes of many of their followers. But human nature teaches us that those so disap­pointed are unlikely to “go back.” For the reasons they left in the first place, they will move on to the next new thing.

The more I have looked at these big political surprises, the less I think they should have been surprises. We are living in an age of disruption of unprecedented scale, scope, and pace. Whole industries are coming and going. New technologies are remaking jobs and com­munities. Cultural norms are shifting almost randomly. Seemingly no institution or aspect of traditional life is immune.

It is understandable — even predictable — that ordinary working people would be anxious under such circumstances. On top of that, the data indicates that significant numbers of them are experiencing serious, negative consequences. Thus, broad social disruption is mor­phing into widespread political disruption as night follows day. And this trend will continue if traditional political options, both conserva­tive and liberal, double down on existing approaches.

Therefore, we must build an agenda that, while based on our enduring values, is focused on the issues that working people and their families are facing today. It must especially address populist concerns about market economics, trade, globalization, and immigration.

In addressing these things, conservatives should remain pro-market, pro-trade, pro-globalization, and pro-immigration at heart. Going in a completely opposite direction in any of these areas would be a big mistake with serious ramifications. But being pro-market does not mean that all regulations should be dismantled or that governments should never intervene. Being pro-trade does not imply that any commercial arrangement is a good one. Being pro-globalization should not entail abdicating loyalty or responsibility to our countries. And being pro-immigration should never mean sanctioning the erasure of our borders or ignoring the interests of our citizens.

In short, being pro-something is not an excuse for ideological tan­gents. It is about getting back to pragmatic applications of our values and away from theoretical abstraction in our actions. When it comes to public policy, it is about rolling up our sleeves, knowing the details, and monitoring the impacts on people’s lives. Yes, we have a general orientation, but that does not render all choices obvious or easy.

Attendees gather at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2015. Cosmopolitans, or “Anywheres,” aspire to join communities that cross boundaries, such as this yearly conference in Davos, Harper writes. (Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

One can call this “populist conservatism” or “applied conserva­tism,” but, to my mind, it is really just conservatism. Conservatism is about seeing the world as it is and applying the lessons of experience to new challenges. It is inherently populist in the sense that it is necessarily concerned with people rather than theories.

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer once wrote that “if we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction.” It seems a tad hyperbolic, but bad human relations do have a way of wrecking everything else. Stable and responsive politics is an essential ingredient to a strong, dynamic society. Places where politics fail invariably experience broader economic and social challenges.

Politics is not everything, but it is essential in providing a framework for individuals, families, and communities to succeed. Politics today is exceptionally troubled. That is a great irony. This is an exciting time to be alive. We are in an age of greater wealth for more people than ever before. We are living longer and healthier lives. Technological developments are opening doors to human possibilities

But to seize these opportunities, we need to ensure that we get our politics right. Whether or not you accept my analysis and prescriptions, I hope they will cause you to think about what we can do in this unprecedented age of disruption to get it right — right here, right now.

Excerpted from Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption by Stephen J. Harper. Copyright © 2018 Harper & Associates Consulting, Inc. Published by Signal, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.