Poilievre has Copied Bernier's Populist Playbook
After the second Conservative leadership debate (and first official one) there seems to be a two-horse race between Poilievre and Charest. In the two previous leadership races, the Conservatives have opted for the “safe” option. Andrew Scheer was the safe and more compromising alternative to Maxime Bernier, and after Scheer failed in 2019, the Conservatives continued their journey towards the center with Erin O'Toole. O’Toole ended up producing a “red-tory” platform that showed considerable compromise in the area of climate change and social spending.
Despite winning the popular vote in the last two elections, the Conservatives actually reduced their seat count in 2021. Conservative party members are given a choice between a populist Poilievre and an establishment politician in Charest. In some ways, Poilievre vs Charest is a repeat of Bernier vs Scheer, except now Poilievre has stolen the populist playbook written by Bernier.
Bernier has re-introduced populism to Canada via the Peoples Party of Canada. A populist is someone who forms a direct relationship with “the people” (defined by themself) in opposition to the “corrupt elites” (also self-defined). This style of politics has been popular across the right-wing in Europe and obviously came to North America in the form of Trump, but was absent from Canadian politics throughout most of the 2000s.
After leaving the Conservative party in 2018, Bernier created a new brand of Canadian populism founded on libertarian economic policy and a pledge to lower immigration. With minimal success in 2019, Bernier was underestimated by political analysts and media members for being an insignificant flash in the pan. This narrative was abruptly halted when Bernier captured 5% of the vote in 2021 (passing the Greens and falling two points shy of the Bloq). The PPC was able to capitalize on anti-lockdown and anti-mandate sentiment fueled by Canada’s comparatively strict restrictions, positioning itself as the freedom party.
Fast Forward to January 2022 and we have Canadian populism explode into a nationwide movement. Spurred by a vaccine mandate on Truckers, the Freedom convoy became the largest anti-lockdown/ anti-vaccine mandate movement in the world garnering international press. A movement Bernier helped cultivate through the 2021 election campaign and fully supported during its occupation of Ottawa.
Thus the Canadian populist identity was born. Centred on freedom, Canadian populism offers a libertarian economic approach, encourages resource and oil extraction, advocates against government overreach, and supports a nebulous form of Canadian patriotism that opposes liberal “wokeism”. In many ways, Canadian populism is a complete rejection of Trudeau’s entire political philosophy.
Bernier normalized this populist style in Canadian politics and Poilievre has swooped in and incorporated it into the Conservative leadership race. There are some differences between Bernier and Poilievre politically, but we have to remember the constraints of running for a “catch-all” party that combines multiple conservative philosophies. Bernier may be more outspoken and radical on certain policy topics, but he is free to speak his mind while captaining his own ship. Poilievre is less libertarian (proven by his support for supply management) and has not called for a lowering of immigration, but he was a resolute supporter of the Trucker Convoy.
During the first informal leadership debate, Poilievre made strong comments about the working class being “demolished” and political “elites” (Charest specifically) showing their corruption through special relationships with Huawei. Poilievre has already begun making the working class and truckers his “people” in opposition to Trudeau’s government as political elites playing fast and loose with Canadian freedoms. This is the exact same messaging Bernier has been espousing from day 1 of Covid restrictions and lockdowns.
Poilievre has jumped on a moving train of political discontent in Canada and has mastered some of the key populist personality tropes. Starting with his speaking style, Poilievre is assertive, boarding on aggressive, with a quick ability to rebut, creating a Ben Shapiro-like demeanour. Poilievre is charismatic in the ways that are important for populists, he comes across with complete conviction and belief in his own ideals.
Like other populists, Poilievre has lapped his competition in the area of media outreach. Utilizing Twitter, Instagram, and Tiktok to reach younger audiences directly and “memeify” his best moments in debates. Poilievre’s understanding of new media is exemplified by his guest appearance on Jordan Peterson’s Podcast (something Bernier did as well) and by opening himself up to the long-form interview format that has become the new standard for how people consume serious content.
It has yet to be seen if Poilievre’s style is electable in a mainstream party like the Conservatives, let alone a general election. Regardless, Poilievre is attempting to capture a populist wave of political discontent in Canada and is using Bernier’s playbook to help him.