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S U P P O R T   U S

Northern Populism: Causes and Consequences of the New Ordered Outlook


Image credit: Todd Korol/Reuters


A joint Policy Paper from The School of Public Policy and the Canadian Global Affairs Institute


by Frank Graves and Jeff Smith


Table of Contents


Canada has not been left untouched by a new authoritarian, or ordered, populism that has seen the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union.

Based on measurements of public opinion and other means developed to assess the phenomenon, this paper finds that populism in Canada is a significant political force, replacing the traditional left-right political spectrum. Not only has northern populism created a heightened partisan polarization in Canada, but it also proved to be a strong predictor of the outcome of the 2019 federal election.

The authors’ research shows that 34 per cent of Canadians maintain a populist outlook. Older, less-educated, working-class Canadians are the most likely to sympathize with ordered populism, and it is more prevalent in Alberta and Saskatchewan. It is also more closely aligned with Canadians whose political sympathies lie with conservative political parties.

A number of factors have contributed to the rise of ordered populism. These include economic stagnation, the growing disparity between the wealthy and the middle and working classes, a sense that society is headed in the wrong direction and a backlash against the loss of traditional core values.

Ordered populism rests on the belief in a corrupt elite, and the idea that power needs to be wrested from this elite and returned to the people. Oriented toward authoritarianism, ordered populism emphasizes obedience, hostility toward outgroups, a desire to turn back the clock to a time of greater order in society, and a search for a strongman type to lead the return to a better time.

Nothing about ordered populism serves the public interest. Instead, its anti-democratic nature makes it incapable of solving the problems that spawned its rise in the first place. Ordered populism is xenophobic, mistrustful of science and journalism, and unsympathetic to equality and gender issues. Arising out of fear and anger, ordered populism is ultimately unhealthy for Western democracies and their societies and economies.

Canada has yet to accord the rise of ordered populism the attention it deserves, although this paper explains why it is a critical force in this country that needs to be addressed. Currently, attitudes toward ordered populism are generally limited to sneering, derisiveness and denial, all of which do nothing to address the problem. Solving it requires understanding its roots. And if its origins lie in the collapse of the middle-class dream, then policy-makers will need to focus on creating a new economics of hope.

Ordered populism is at the heart of stark divisions in Canada, and the 2019 federal election did little, if anything, to mend the rupture. Dissatisfaction with the election’s results could forecast an even worse polarization in the near future, and increase the appeal of authoritarianism, if populism is left unaddressed.


1.0 Introduction

One of the most important forces reshaping Western democracies is the recent resurgence of what some call populism. It is not, however, generic populism that concerns us here. We are focusing on a more specific form of populism which we call “ordered” or “authoritarian” populism. This force has expressed itself vividly in the election of Donald Trump to the south and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. There are other examples in Europe and other parts of the globe (see, for example, Norris and Inglehart 2019). Before presenting the analysis, we will try to clarify what we mean by the terms “populism” and “ordered populism”.

Our goal is to test whether these forces are evident in Canada.

What does the literature say are the real drivers of this form of populism? Why is it occurring now? What are the consequences of these forces? What might be the broad policy responses to this phenomenon, or is there even a need to respond? Is it actually a good or bad thing? Most importantly for this analysis, is this form of populism at work in Canada? If so, how does it mirror its expression in other countries and how is it different? What are the broad policy implications of this?

There is a voluminous literature on the topic of populism in general and authoritarian populism in particular. It has important theoretical and methodological roots. The reappearance of these examples which seem to fit the theory of authoritarian populism in recent years has kindled a resurgence of interest in the topic. Much of this research emanates from the United States and some from Europe and the U.K. However, there is a paucity of research and thinking on this topic as it applies to Canada.

Outside of the public, which clearly acknowledges the existence of these forces, there appears to be a broad sense that we are somehow immune to them in Canada (Coyne 2018; Graves 2019b; Morden and Anderson 2019). We will argue that, despite some ambiguity about whether populism is a positive, indifferent or negative force, ordered populism is almost always a disappointing or extremely negative force. It is therefore important to try to understand how to deal with this broad policy challenge. The purpose of this paper is to try to advance a more informed and reflected debate about the causes, consequences and remedies to the more damaging parts of this societal movement.


1.1 Populism, Authoritarianism and the Ordered Outlook

Interest in populism has risen in inverse proportionality to the decline of interest in globalization. Populism seems to be a popular topic these days, and for good reasons. It is clearly one of the most powerful forces reshaping Western democracies (populism was a critical factor in both the Brexit and Trump victories). It is therefore critical to gain a clearer understanding of the causes and consequences of recent populist movements, particularly in upper North America.

It is notable that we would have found very scant interest in populism at the outset of this century. The corresponding preoccupation as we closed the 20th century was globalization, a term which, according to Google, has seen a steady and profound decline in search requests over the past 18 years. Recall that, at the end of the 20th century, we were told that history had ended and that a now flat world would be floated on a near infinite cloud of prosperity fuelled by globalization and information technology (Friedman 2005). The inversely proportional interest in globalization and populism is no accident. The rise of the newer expressions of populism has been directly connected to a broad conviction that it is progress, particularly middle-class progress, which has ended, not history (Graves 2014).

Our aims here are to locate the emergence of ordered populism in the broader field of shifts in our economy and class structure, a cultural backlash against broad post-material value shifts, a loss of identity, status and security for many, deep values polarization and a magnified sense of external threat. According to the international literature, these forces have led to the development of a more authoritarian or ordered outlook. We will then show how this force may be producing dramatic and new fault lines in Canada and reshaping the democratic contest for the future of Canada. The traditional left-right axis is being replaced with a new open-ordered axis.1

What is populism and what do we mean by 'ordered' populism?

So, let’s take a deeper look at these core concepts, beginning with what we really mean by populism. Despite the intensity of interest in the topic, it really doesn’t have a clear social scientific meaning. Populism is a much broader and vaguer concept than the more specific brand of populism that we are interested in here. Michael Cox (2018) does a good job of showing the common responses to what he calls the global rise of populism. The institutional order’s response to this was twofold: surprise and distaste. Neither of these responses is particularly helpful. In Money Week, John Stepek (2017) notes that most expert opinion falls into two categories: sneering and patronizing. The view tends to be that populism itself is the problem, without an attempt to understand the forces which have led to its recent rise.


Populism is a strategy for gaining power which has two essential ingredients: 1) a belief that there is a corrupt elite, and 2) a belief that power should be restored to “the people”.

A core question is whether or not the rise of populism is a good or bad thing. This becomes a critical point of public policy debate. While most experts agree there is more to be concerned about than not, the pros and cons are not entirely clear.

Some populist movements have had positive outcomes, such as those implemented by presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt in the first half of the 20th century. They produced the dramatic rise of the middle class and an unmatched era of shared prosperity. But this example, which some have labelled quasi-populist, is one of a very short list of historical success stories. On the other hand, the list of populist movements with disastrous culminations is long.

Even though populism often presents itself as a democratic correction, it often hides dangerously anti-democratic impulses which can stray into authoritarianism (Müller 2016).

All of the key experts seem to agree that populism has two main ingredients: 1) The idea that there is a corrupt elite which invokes deep suspicion of the current establishment, and 2) a belief that power should be more properly restored to the people (who, more often than not, become “my people”, not “others”). Some of the experts proposing these two essential elements include Jan-Werner Müller (2016), Cas Mudde (2015), Michael Cox (2018) and Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart (2019).

For Mudde, populism is a kind of zeitgeist where the pure people confront the “corrupt elites”. The zeitgeist notion should be kept in mind as we examine the question of whether this is an expression of the triggering of a specific personality type (the authoritarian) or more a product of broader shifts in the social and cultural field. We lean to the latter view.

Other common features of populism, which some also describe as a strategy for governing or gaining power, are tendencies to nativism, skepticism toward established authorities such as the media and science, an aversion to foreigners, and in David Goodhart’s terminology (2017), an affinity to the local “somewhere” rather than the global “anywhere”.

While some admire populism’s correction for inequities that the elites have inflicted, few see these movements in largely positive terms. Populism tends to be ideologically thin and lacks coherence apart from being a strategy to attain power. Most of these more recent forms of populism seem to be less nationalistic and more international in flavour. They also tend to hold globalization in disdain. Globalization, particularly what Subramanian has called hyper-globalization (Subramanian and Kessler 2013), is increasingly seen not as the path to prosperity and the end of history but rather as a cruel hoax which has produced the end of progress.

What is ordered – or authoritarian – populism?


Ordered (authoritarian) outlook:

  • Emphasizes obedience, order, hostility to outgroups
  • Triggered under certain conditions
  • Produces search for strongman, desire to turn back the clock, pull up the drawbridge

As we turn our attention to ordered populism (see, for example, Rohac, Kennedy and Singh 2018), there is little ambiguity. These movements can be arrayed on a historical continuum from disappointing to disastrous. Many authors have recently talked about authoritarian populism (Hetherington and Weiler 2018; Norris and Inglehart 2019; Stenner 2005).

The original interest in the concept largely began with Theodor Adorno’s 1950 work, The Authoritarian Personality, and it is worth revisiting Adorno in light of recent historical shifts. Peter E. Gordon (2016) connects this back to the rise of Trump which, along with Brexit, explains the resurgence of interest in the notion of authoritarianism. A number of authors noted the very strong connection between authoritarian personality and support for Trump (see, for example, MacWilliams 2016).

Re-reading Adorno is important on the issue of the core causal drivers. Originally, the theory of authoritarianism arose after the Second World War from the New School of Social Research, with some leading German sociologists trying to understand how one of the most civilized societies on Earth had descended into the horror of fascism and the Holocaust. Because Adorno worked closely with social psychologists when he came to America after the Second World War, the work was received as a theory of how certain psychological types, measured by an instrument known as the F-scale, could engage in support of extreme authoritarian regimes.

The F-scale was based on about 12 traits which ranged from strong belief in respect for authority and obedience to a belief that sexual perversion was common in outgroups. “F” stood for fascism and it was explicitly designed to test anti-Semitism and racism. The idea was that this world view sought order in the face of an exaggerated sense of external threat and economic hopelessness. The measuring instrument has been refined substantially in recent years and we use a version of this in our testing here.

Some see authoritarianism as a personality theory. They believe that this personality type’s interaction with certain changes in societal conditions produces its less benign expressions. Personalities can be triggered to behave and feel very differently under these conditions. There is considerable debate about the precise mix of these causal factors (economics, culture and personality). This is important if we see this force as one requiring vigorous policy response, which we do.

What Gordon helpfully notes is that Adorno really didn’t see his original theory as one of psychological type but rather a character or zeitgeist that was societally produced under certain conditions. This means that expressions of it such as in Trump’s case cannot be dismissed “with the pathologizing language of character types”. Instead, it introduces the deeper possibility that the new authoritarian populism may be “an emergent norm of the social order as such”. This leads to the possibility that Trump and Brexit are just incidental to a more disturbing social phenomenon that can only grow more powerful.

Given its connection to Nazism and fascism, we prefer a less charged label than authoritarian. In our view, the search for order is as at least an apt unifying description of this world view as the term “authoritarian”.

The measurement of authoritarian outlook has undergone a number of refinements since Adorno’s original F-scale. Bob Altemeyer (1981) spoke of right-wing authoritarianism and others have spoken of a fixed versus fluid outlook (Hetherington and Weiler 2018).

Note that we tend to lean to the view that it is a broader societal phenomenon rather than an expression of personality type. The psychology of authoritarianism is important but subordinate to broader social and economic forces in our view. This issue becomes important in understanding what are the key causal forces producing this outlook. Understanding the causal sequencing is critical to the broad policy responses that might be available. One important psychological linkage is the strong negative correlation between right-wing authoritarianism and IQ (also very strongly linked to lower educational attainment). This is important for those who believe that a rational discourse model will solve the aggravated racism endemic to this movement.

The latest versions of the test for authoritarianism have improved the measurement model significantly and there is now an expanding literature documenting its expression and causes. This activity has accelerated in the aftermath of Trump and Brexit, which many researchers have noted were uniquely well explained by this theory (Haidt and Lukianoff 2018; Hetherington and Weiler 2019; MacWilliams 2016; Stenner 2005; Taub 2016 and many others).

An interesting example of the power of this factor is found in some of the post-Brexit work which found that knowing where someone lived was a quite modest predictor of voting leave or stay (e.g., downtown London, stayers; burned-out factory regions, leavers). The modest explanatory power of geography was dwarfed by knowing how respondents answered the question: “Do you think criminals should be publicly whipped?” Predictive power leaped from 55 per cent to over 70 per cent with this seemingly unrelated outlook on punishment and criminals (Burton 2016). We believe that this is a vivid indicator of the ordered outlook.

Significant refinement to theory and methods comes from the work of Stanley Feldman (forthcoming), who notes that four simple questions could identify whether one leaned to a fixed (ordered) or fluid (open) outlook. We have adapted some of these in trying to measure the incidence of this outlook in Canada.

Karen Stenner (2005) has argued that authoritarianism is triggered under certain conditions. Normative threat is one of the key conditions. While not subscribing to the triggering theory, Hetherington and Weiler (2018) note that partisan polarization is a critical factor. They show that the fixed-fluid outlook showed little differences across Republicans and Democrats in the 1990s but became progressively deeply polarized over the next two decades.

At the heart of this authoritarian outlook is a search for order, attraction to the status quo, deep suspicion of outsiders and newcomers and a desire for good behaviour. This observation is central to the work of Hetherington and Weiler (2009), as well as Stenner and Haidt (2018), who argued that the authoritarian outlook is a triumph of order over equality. This theme of order as a response to chaos and threat is endemic to the authoritarian outlook.

We believe the same forces — particularly, intense partisan polarization — are also at work in Canada, (albeit with some notable differences). This point is critical, as it can explain the apparent paradox that there is little clear aggregate evidence that either American or Canadian society is becoming more ordered or fixed. Rather, it is the extreme polarization which makes the ordered outlook much more politically influential. This is linked to the deep emotional force it engenders in those expressing this outlook.

Stenner (2005) also offers another important insight — as this polarization has deepened, there has also been a transformation in ideology and values associated with left and right. Traditional status quo conservatism (e.g., free markets, low taxes and minimal government) has been displaced and coexists somewhat uneasily with this new authoritarian outlook, which is very different in character. She notes a shift from lowered tolerance for shifts through time (traditional conservatism) to lower tolerance for differences/changes in space.

We believe this same transformation from a traditional left-right axis of political dispute to an open-ordered axis is occurring in Canada and poorly understood. We will show that the demographics and psychographics underpinning recent Conservative successes in Canada have more to do with this new axis than the traditional and status quo versions of conservatism in Canadian politics. The fundamental contest for the future is no longer left-right but open-ordered.

The work of Norris and Inglehart (2019) also offers a powerful new perspective on the global rise of ordered populism. Using international time series drawn from World Values and elsewhere, they note some common factors which have produced this rise in authoritarian populism.

These include economic and class shifts, a rising sense of external threat, polarization, declining trust and what they call normative threat (and measure using broad confidence in the direction of the country). Critical to their argument is the idea that these broad shifts following the postwar silent revolution (to greater permissiveness, openness and tolerance) have produced a cultural backlash with expressions in disdain for elites, anti-intellectualism, identity politics and a desire to return to a safer, more comfortable era. In our view, these effects are magnified by dramatic shifts in demographics and religiosity over the past several decades.


1.2 Are the Conditions Producing Authoritarian Populism Internationally Present in Canada?

With this conceptual framing, we now examine the question of whether these forces are at work in Canada. We will begin by tracking the changes in class formation and economic outlook which we believe truly triggered this phenomenon. The cultural expressions (e.g., nativism, xenophobia and hostility to outgroups) may have become even more important, but they were not the prime movers. People did not become more economically insecure because they became more racially intolerant. We prefer a causal sequencing which recognizes the antecedent factors. We are also in a position to look at broad shifts in cultural orientation in Canada.

We will argue with empirical evidence that most — if not all — of the key conditions underpinning the rise of authoritarian or ordered populism are on display in Canada. Notably, these forces have been percolating for a long time before they expressed this new outlook, but since then the outlook has been moving rapidly. This long-time brewing but rapid expression may explain why some work suggests that pocketbook shifts were not related to Trump support (Mutz 2018). In our view, it was the long accumulation of stagnation and hyper-concentration of wealth at the top that eventually produced a shift in the societal outlook, which we have called the movement from the apocryphal end of history to the end of progress.

The key conditions include: (1) declining middle class, wage stagnation and hyper-concentration of wealth at the very top of the system; (2) major value shifts which see more progressive values displacing traditional social conservative values which, in concert with (1), produce a cultural backlash by those seeing loss of identity and privilege; (3) a growing sense of external threat expressed in both a sharp long-term rise in the belief that the world has become overwhelmingly more dangerous and rising normative threat which sees the country and its public institutions moving in the wrong direction; and (4) declining trust and ideological polarization.

(i) Declining middle-class progress

Around a decade ago, we began to notice that some of the typical outlook on the economy and one’s place in it was fundamentally different than it had been in the last century. The basic ideas of progress, shared prosperity and subscription to the middle-class dream all appeared to be unravelling (Graves 2016).

Since that time, these patterns have only become clearer and are starkly different from the recent notion that the upper North American economies are doing splendidly well. In both Canada and the United States, there has been a large hollowing of the middle class. As the ranks of the erstwhile middle class deplete, the ranks of the working class have burgeoned. While those at the top are doing very well (DePillis 2017), there is a pervasive sense of stagnation and decline elsewhere. This echoes hard objective data which show the “astonishing rise of the 1% in Canada” (Osberg 2018).

The basic middle-class bargain, which defined the period of shared prosperity in the last half of the 20th century, is in tatters. For many, we have reached the end of progress. Only one in eight thinks they are better off than a year ago. Fears are highest when turned to the future; just 13 per cent think the next generation will enjoy a better life (EKOS 2017). The grey outlook on the present turns almost black as the public ponders the fate of future generations.

At the outset of the 21st century, in both Canada and the U.S., between 60 and 70 per cent of citizens identified as members of the middle class. In both countries, the incidence of self-defined middle-class membership has declined progressively to around 50 per cent. Self-defined middle class is strongly linked to income (0.7), but even more strongly linked to self-rated health (0.8) and quality of life (0.9). Clearly, such a profound hollowing of the middle class has registered dramatic impacts not only on economic outlook, but also on basic health and happiness in upper North America (Graves 2017). Further evidence of the societally corrosive impacts of middle-class decline is the finding that, by a margin of more than two to one, Canadians agree that if present trends with inequality at the top continue, then we are going to see “violent class conflicts” (EKOS 2018).


For those seeking confirmation of the public gloom about the economy and middle-class progress, the recent work of Lars Osberg (2018) vividly underlines the burgeoning inequality and the top of the Canadian economic system. There has been a dramatic shift in the percentage of productivity gains going to wages versus return on capital (from relatively even in the 1970s to about a 70-30 split in favour of return on capital today – see Lang 2019). This trend is mirrored in Canada, but with somewhat less intensity. Given the confluence of both objective and perceptual stagnation, it is noteworthy that for the first time in over a decade, we are beginning to see a tentative recovery in confidence in the future and middle-class membership.

Some have connected the roots of Trumpian populism to Reaganomics and the profound economic shifts that occurred following that period (Kolmos 2019). In response to runaway inflation and huge public fiscal problems, the economies of the United States (and Canada, which largely followed suit) were rewired to shift the emphasis from wages to returns on equity (notably housing). This continued and was re-expressed as neoliberalism under former president Bill Clinton with a similar version in Canada under former prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. Whatever the original intentions, it ushered in an era of accelerating concentration of wealth at the top of the system, tantamount to the gilded age in the first part of the 20th century.


(ii) Major value and demographic shifts

According to Norris and Inglehart, the emergence of authoritarian populism is linked not only to long-term structural changes in living conditions and economic security, but also to a conservative backlash against what they called the silent revolution. This, which Inglehart had earlier described as the rhythms of post-materialism, saw a decline in deference (questioning authority) and a profound shift to new permissive and progressive values.

Of particular interest in the chart below is the shift in the two values which declined most precipitously in Canada — respect for authority and traditional family values. These are very much critical ordered or authoritarian values. Along with economic stagnation and the fall from middle-class membership, these threatening value declines may have left the segment of society which continued to place high emphasis on them feeling angry and fearful about their loss (hence the appeal of making things “great” again or taking back control).


This coalesces with dramatic demographic changes. At our centennial, our median age was 25 (Statistics Canada 2009); it is now 41 (Statistics Canada 2017). Visible minorities were a tiny fraction of the population; they are now 22 per cent (Statistics Canada 2017). Religiosity has declined steeply in Canada and, particularly in Quebec, Canada has de-Christianized during this same time period. These changes have all coalesced to produce this cultural backlash and authoritarian reflex.

(iii) The role of threat

An equally prominent pre-condition for the emergence of ordered populism is the role of threat. We look at two indicators of threat, one focusing on a magnified sense of external threat and another which measures what Norris and Inglehart called “normative threat” (a sense that the country is moving in a fundamentally wrong direction).

First, let’s look at the sense of external threat. In Canada and the United States, there has been a greatly magnified sense that the world has become more dangerous since Sept. 11, 2001. There is no evidence that this is dissipating and our tracking below shows it is actually a stronger force in recent years.

While most experts will say that the world is actually safer than it was 10 years ago, only three per cent agree with that assessment. The security ethic, which gripped upper North America in the aftermath of Sept. 11, has not relaxed its hold and continues to exert a corrosive influence on public confidence.


(iv) Declining trust and magnified ideological polarization

Some theorists associate declining trust in government and institutions as part of the cultural backlash evident in the rise of post-materialism. The long-term decline in trust is one of the factors underpinning the emergence of ordered outlook. Trust in government, institutions, scientific authority and elites is much lower among those with an ordered outlook. And as we can see in both Canada and the United States, trust in government has declined profoundly over the past 40 years.


Equally important is the idea that deepening polarization is one of the expressions of authoritarianism and populism. Hetherington and Weiler (2018) note a dramatic polarization across fluid and fixed (which is our open and ordered) in Democrats versus Republicans. In the 1990s, these two groups were not dramatically different across fluid-fixed; since then, we have seen a progressively dramatic polarization of these outlooks within Democrats (fluid) and Republicans (fixed). We will see evidence of similar polarization in Canada on selected indicators, particularly the outlook on immigration (which is also a major focus of Hetherington and Weiler’s theory of polarization).

More fundamentally, the incidence of those subscribing to small-l versus small-c ideological positions has also shown dramatic polarization in Canada over the past couple of decades. Most notably, since the early 2000s, the incidence of those saying they have neither outlook has plummeted.


Despite oscillations, the critical finding is that the huge tilt toward the country moving in the right direction at the beginning of the 21st century (70-30) has completely reversed and we now have people believing the country is moving in the wrong direction by a margin of 60-40. This elevated sense of normative threat is particularly acute among those with an ordered outlook.



1.3 Direct Evidence of Ordered Populism in Canada

Using all of these historical time series, we have demonstrated that most of the factors identified as the key drivers of ordered populism have in fact been occurring in Canada (often in surprising lockstep with the same trend lines in the United States). However, the presence of many of the key triggering mechanisms is not enough to make the case that ordered populism is at work in Canada. We will now show more direct evidence of ordered populism in Canada.

The views on populism which are nearly universally negative among supporters of the institutional status quo are not nearly so negative in the general public. Most Canadians remain open to whether this is a good or bad thing and those who see it in positive terms are more likely to fall into the ordered camp.

If populism is rooted in a desire to refocus attention on the people, we might want to consider what the people, measured scientifically in polling, tell us about this. The public leans to the view that populism is at work in Canada and progressing.



The index

The open-ordered index reflects some of the measurement strategies drawn from the literature discussed in the preceding section. It was created using the indicators laid out below. These terms are a distilled and updated version of some of the work that went into measuring what Adorno called authoritarianism. While preferring the label “ordered”, this index is highly predictive of subscription to ordered populism and a key predictor of voter mobility over the last three years.


Applying a version of the open-ordered (fluid-fixed) index in April 2019, we found a significant portion of Canadian society fell into the ordered category (34 per cent, which according to Stenner and Haidt (2018), may compare to 44 per cent in the United States).

Intense polarization — not aggregate growth — in ordered outlook

The shift from traditional status quo conservatism to this newer ordered outlook is quite clear in a comparison of partisan constituencies over the past several years. This is evident in both demographic and psychographic differences.



We test the reliability of the index using Cronbach’s alpha (.68) and we then conduct predictive validity testing to see if it links to other related indicators in a theoretically plausible fashion. For example, a more ordered outlook should strongly link to opposition to immigration, particularly non-white immigration.

Even though it is not clear if ordered populism is rising in aggregate in Canada, it is reshaping partisanship and political outcomes in a profound manner. The gaps across Liberal and Conservative voters on some of these issues have widened dramatically over the past decade. Trust in news, attitudes to racial tolerance and open society, positions on climate change and energy/pocketbook issues have never been more divided into incommensurable camps on either side of the open-ordered divide.

The extent of the widening gap is remarkable and mirrors similar polarization on other critical issues. In 2015, the gap between conservatives and liberals on climate change was 12 points (21 per cent versus nine per cent). This has burgeoned to 36 points (43 per cent versus seven per cent). We will also see a similar dramatic polarization across liberals and conservatives on the issue of immigration.



1.4 Expressions of Ordered Populism in Canada

This ordered outlook is connected with a higher sense of threat perception and higher levels of mistrust in news and journalism. These things are not in the index, but are connected in a theoretically predictable manner.

The Conservative base is over-represented in the self-identified working class and hugely over-represented in the non-university and male segments of the population. These differences have been progressively unfolding since 2013. The rising incidence of the working class in the conservative constituency (25 per cent to 31 per cent to 38 per cent) mirrors changes in the Republican base in the United States and also mirrors a similar pattern of polarization on issues. A similar dramatic widening of differences on university-educated versus non-university-educated has also occurred in this period. This reflects the tendency for ordered populism to be more attractive to those in the less educated portions of society, who put less emphasis on reason and evidence and more emphasis on moral certainty and order.




The Conservative base is dramatically more polarized on gender than it was in 2015. A five-point Liberal advantage with men in the 2015 election has turned into a 20-point disadvantage for a net 25-point shift of the male vote.

As we saw earlier, the population has become dramatically less comfortable with the direction of the country than it was at the beginning of the century. This broad measure of normative threat (according to Norris and Inglehart 2019) is also strongly polarized across conservatives and non-conservatives. More so than in the past, the current Conservative base is deeply mistrustful of the direction of the country and federal government. For those who say this is simply a reflection of unhappiness with one’s own party not being in power, we note that this relative gap is dramatically bigger than it was for Liberal party supporters during Conservative party rule under Stephen Harper.


Trust in news and journalists has risen generally, but has fallen sharply with conservatives who were far less skeptical of journalism and news a few years ago. This reflects the emergent fake news convictions so evident in supporters of Trumpian populism.


Attitudes toward visible minority immigration are a good proxy for a broader authoritarian populism outlook. While aversion to visible minority immigration has been stable in most of Canada over the past several years, it has risen dramatically among the new Conservative base. This is strongly linked to an ordered outlook. Once again, we see the familiar pattern of widening polarization on a key indicator of ordered populism over the past several years. The Conservative base is now far more different (and polarized) on this issue than it was in recent years.


Immigration attitudes, and ordered outlook in general, are critical sorting variables explaining movements to the Conservative party since the last election. Comparing the incidence of ordered authoritarian outlook, we find that Liberal supporters who scored higher on ordered outlook have moved to the Conservatives (as have those 2015 Liberal supporters who were more opposed to visible minority immigration).


1.5 A Note on the Peculiar Lag between the Causal Forces and the Ultimate Manifestation of Ordered Populism

Before delving into the broader policy implications of the rise of ordered populism, we would like to comment on the apparent historical gap between the expressions of ordered populism in Canada — which have occurred rather recently — and the underlying causes, which have been expressing themselves for much longer. In particular, the rising concentration of wealth at the top and the end of progress has really been unfolding since the 1980s. Other factors, such as the cultural backlash thesis, can be documented to have occurred over the past couple of decades. This is why it is hard to disentangle the relative causal primacy of the cultural and economic factors. Our position is that the economic factors were the initial trigger but that there are complex, mutually reinforcing effects across these two broad areas.

The idea that they coalesced or percolated for a long time and then have moved rapidly is a reasoned conjecture. We do note that the international literature favours the argument that authoritarian populism rose after a series of factors which pre-date its expression by decades (e.g., Norris and Inglehart 2019).

The American literature suggests that the extreme sorting on world view began earlier in the U.S. than in Canada (Hetherington and Weiler 2009). This would also suggest that the more recent and local explanations such as Trump, the political rise of brothers Doug and Rob Ford in Ontario, and Brexit, may have been expressions of these deeper forces, but they may have reinforced them as well.

Another possible explanation is that some of these American forces, which expressed themselves in Canada more recently, reflect contagion effects because of the strong flow of media and social media emanating from the U.S. It is also unclear whether the recently noted campaigns of disinformation (e.g., Cambridge Analytica and Russian and Chinese disinformation) may have been a contributing factor (Rankin 2020).


1.6 A Note on Broad Policy Implications

We will conclude with a brief analysis of the broad policy implications of all of this, which cannot be divorced from the political arena where they are playing out in powerful new ways. In this new world of apparently irreconcilable differences, there is a surprising, emerging area of policy consensus that bridges these two solitudes. That area is a shared consensus in Canada and the U.S. that the overwhelming culprit behind these forces is the dramatic escalation of wealth concentration at the top and a newfound desire to directly target that problem, which is embraced by majorities on either side of the otherwise incommensurable open-ordered divide.



Importantly, in thinking about policy implications, the traditional left-right spectrum has morphed more into a debate about open-ordered. While there are some continuities in the open-ordered and left-right axes, there are also some profound differences, as evident in the simplified table below.

The following table gives a stylized summary of what we think are some of the key differences between the traditional left-right axis and the newer open-ordered axis. The exact lineage and evolution of left-right and open-ordered is unclear and demands further research. For example, are people who now express an ordered outlook basically the same people who expressed traditional status quo conservatism in the past (Stenner 2005)? Or are ordered populists different people who are now being attracted to conservatism for reasons other than status quo conservatism?


We will see in our multivariate analysis and time series that it is a bit of both, but there are definitely new supporters of conservative parties who are both demographically and psychographically different from traditional conservative supporters. This point is consistent with the “sorting hypothesis” of Hetherington and Weiler (2018), as well as Stenner’s (2005) work.

In Canada, however, the evolution is not entirely clear. It may well explain the discomfort that traditional status quo conservatives/progressive conservatives feel with our analysis of the rise of open populism in the Conservative party.

As you can see, the dominant values of the left-right axis are quite different and, in some cases, contradictory to the new open-ordered axis. The exact linkages are an important topic for future research.


1.7 A Retrospective Analysis of the 2019 Federal Election using the Open-Ordered Index

The recent federal election gave us an opportunity to formally test the hypothesis that ordered populism was strongly related to voting intention. The power of this test is that the hypothesis was formulated in a critically falsifiable fashion before the election occurred. This avoids the fallacy of affirming the consequence.

Recall that the index that we have been using has no explicit signal of political ideology or vote intention. It simply summarized answers to questions on preferences for child-rearing. The results of the simple hypothesis test show an extremely strong positive correlation between the propensity to vote Conservative and the score on the index. The index is also strongly associated with switching behaviour, both from 2015 and during the election itself. The analysis was bolstered with multivariate analysis using logistic regression. As we will show, the index is the most powerful predictor of Conservative voting and a powerful predictor of switching behaviour.

The index was calculated using four indicators asking respondents to choose between different forced choices in emphasis on what should be most important when raising children. For example: creativity or obedience, respect or questioning authority, evidence or morality, open or ordered?


In a sample of over 2,000 voters conducted in the week after the election, it is clear how strongly the open-ordered index score is associated with voting Liberal (red), Conservative (blue), NDP (orange), Green (green), Bloc Québécois (light blue) and People’s Party (dark blue).

The propensity to vote Liberal, NDP or Green rises significantly and progressively with higher scores on the open side of the index. But the most powerful linkage by far is between Conservative vote and ordered outlook. This result is significant at any convention testing level (p<0.001).

Only 14 per cent of the most open voters selected the Conservative party; this rises progressively to 69 per cent for the most ordered. This ordered — or authoritarian — outlook was the most powerful predictor of a Conservative vote. The same measures predict Trump (and Brexit) support.

Here’s another way of explaining this. If ordered — or authoritarian — populism weren’t linked to the Conservative vote, all the blue bars would be the same size, 34 per cent. The fact that they range from 14 most open to 66 most ordered means it was the most important factor underlying the Conservative vote.

In order to create a more powerful predictive model and to control for the simultaneous influence of other factors, we created a series of multiple regression models. Because our dependent variable is dichotomous, we used logistic regressions.

In the chosen logistic regression, the impact of an index based on child-rearing preferences was by far the strongest predictor of voting Conservative. Other models showed it also explained shifts across progressive and Conservative voters. Relatively fewer ordered Conservative voters from 2015 went Liberal; relatively more ordered Liberal 2015 voters went Conservative.


One of the most striking findings is that the effects of being in Alberta and Saskatchewan became less significant in a logistic regression predicting a Conservative vote once the open-ordered index was entered into the model. These findings suggest that the current tensions between Alberta and Saskatchewan and federalism are not simply western alienation, but also an expression of an ordered populist outlook. The same index predicted Conservative votes in other regions and regional effects became insignificant when it was in entered in the model.

The research suggests that this poorly understood force may be at the heart of much of the heightened polarization we see in Canada today and this mimics patterns evident in the United States and elsewhere (Graves 2019a, b).


1.8 Conclusions

The traditional left-right axis is being displaced by a new open-ordered axis which is profoundly different. Most notably, what Stenner (2005) calls “status quo conservatism” is being transformed into an authoritarian outlook.

The rise of ordered populism is seen as a serious challenge to public policy in advanced Western democracies. It tends to be ultimately anti-democratic and typically does not solve the problems that appear to motivate it. It tends to be xenophobic, nativist and mistrustful of science and institutions. It is also not sympathetic to equality and gender issues and much more likely to see news and journalism as suspect (fake news).

There are virtually no examples of this form of authoritarian, or what we prefer to call ordered, populism which ultimately serve the public interest. While we must sympathetically understand the sources of the fear and anger which engender this force, the expressions are not healthy for democracies, economies or societies (Rohac et al. 2018). Unfortunately, the level of awareness and recognition of this force in Canada is very low. The level of understanding of what truly causes it, let alone how to approach it from a public policy perspective, is lower still.

While a policy program for dealing with such an acute and rising threat is beyond the capacity of this paper, we do make the following observations. Ignoring the problem or sneering at it as deplorable and wrong-headed is ineffectual. This approach merely strengthens the emotional engagement of those drawn to this force, and denies the empirical reality that they have experienced failure in this new economy. Most of those drawn to this outlook are the losers in the new economic bargain of globalization, automation and the withering of the middle-class dream of shared prosperity. Any effective response to this problem requires not only a recognition of its existence, but a clearer understanding of the causal nexus which has produced it.

In this paper, we have reviewed the international literature and found relative consensus that the main forces are economic stagnation and growing hyper-concentration of wealth at the apex of the social pyramid. We also see a cultural backlash, linked to value shifts and demographic shifts, which has left those attracted to this force feeling a sense of identity loss and normative threat that challenges their notions of the best values to guide society. Finally, profound polarization, a rise in the societal sense of external threat and an erosion of trust have all contributed to this phenomenon, which may well be reinforced by the pervasive role of social media and the internet.

We have shown that all the forces noted above are clearly on display in Canada. Our time series and its segmentation have provided empirical documentation that the same forces underpinning the global rise of authoritarian populism are at play in Canada. We have also shown that, unlike members of the elite or institutional status quo, the public itself thinks this force is occurring and has not really come to a clear judgment as to whether it is a good or bad thing.

More importantly, we directly measured this phenomenon using a reliable and valid index that shows over one in three adults (34 per cent) are expressing this outlook (although this is smaller than the 44 per cent that Stenner and Haidt (2018) estimate in the U.S.).

We have also shown that it is clearly linked to independent measures such as mistrust, deep dissatisfaction with the current societal direction, a heightened sense of external threat, and dramatically higher resistance to immigration in general and visible minority immigration in particular. Those expressing this outlook are more willing to accept increased police powers over civil liberty, much less trusting of news and journalism, and are dramatically less sympathetic to pursuing gender equality. This same widening polarization is also evident in other key issues such as climate change (with ordered voters dramatically less supportive of initiatives to deal with climate change).

One important point is that there is no clear evidence that Canada as a whole is opting for ordered populism. Despite this aggregate finding, the intensity of polarization is really underpinning the force of this movement. We see burgeoning fault lines expressing themselves across gender and socioeconomic status. Ordered outlook is much more pronounced in those less educated (who are having a much more difficult time in the new economy) and those who identify as working class. It also rises with age. There are also important geographical connections, with Alberta and Saskatchewan being the most ordered and those in the coastal provinces being the least so.

By far, the strongest connections, however, are to partisanship and the ordered outlook factor is now a critical sorting variable for vote intention. It is only when we look at these connections and the shifting characteristics of political constituencies that we see the full force of these effects. The current political home for those expressing this outlook is the Conservative party (and People’s party). The constituency has become very different in the last several years. We find the current Conservative base is far more economically pessimistic and much less content with national direction than it was in the past and much more unhappy than non-Conservative voters were at the end of the Harper regime. We also show that there has been a clear, steady rise in the incidence of conservatives identifying as working class since 2013.

The modest differences across Conservative and Liberal supporters on issues about visible minority immigration have become massive differences. Similarly, both immigration attitudes and ordered outlook have been shown to be prime predictors of voter shifts since the last couple of elections in ways that were not present in the past. Much of this mirrors the transformation of the political landscape in the United States (Hetherington and Weiler 2009). Although our northern populism captures a somewhat smaller share of the voters and is not bounded by race, the key ingredients are common. Since the larger, open cohort is diffused over three centre-left choices, and has lower levels of emotional engagement than those expressing the ordered outlook, the latter are seeing serial successes in recent provincial elections and are poised to win in the next federal election.

We now have two irreconcilable Canadas where there is virtually no common ground on the most important issue of the day. Yet there is one area of emerging consensus that may merit more serious public policy attention. While we adamantly disagree about equality issues, climate change and immigration, there is a new consensus that the chief cause of the deep problems we are experiencing is the product of income stagnation and hyper-concentration of wealth at the top of the system. Moreover, in both Canada and the United States this emerging consensus sees direct policies to level the playing field and restore shared prosperity as enjoying huge support.

The problems of ordered populism are deep and require much more careful understanding. If, however, the collapse of the middle-class dream originally set these forces in motion, then perhaps this is where policy-makers need to focus on creating a

new economics of hope. The problem is much more complex than this, but that would be the most promising start to rebottling the authoritarian genie.

The problem of ordered or authoritarian populism may be the key policy challenge of this era. There is no path to solving the critical challenges such as climate change in a world irreconcilably riven into two incommensurable views of the future. That is why thought leaders in the U.S. — from both the left and right — are combining forces to confront this challenge (Rohac et al. 2018). In Canada, we have not even acknowledged the problem’s existence, much less tried to develop policy solutions.

Solving this challenge requires acknowledging its existence and understanding the causal sequencing that produced it. Cultural backlash, nativism and xenophobia are perhaps even more daunting challenges than the economic forces that set this in motion. If these aggravated expressions were initiated by the end of progress and shared prosperity, then we need to fix our attention on that challenge.

The conclusions have been revised to reflect the testing done for the recent Canadian federal election. The working hypothesis was that ordered populist outlook would predict the election outcome, particularly the new Conservative base (which we hypothesized had changed in ways resembling the shift in the Republican base in the United States recently). The index was a powerful prediction of Conservative vote, stronger than any other variables we tested.

The evidence is very clear. Ordered populism is a critical and poorly understood force in Canada. It has produced a much more starkly divided Canada and the recent election did little if anything to mend this new rupture. If anything, the deep dissatisfaction with the results may be a harbinger of even deeper polarization in the near future. The most obvious fault lines — social class, region, gender and education — may be less important than the ordered outlook which cuts across those divisions.

In other countries, vigorous programs of careful research and policy analysis are being conducted across partisan lines. Canada needs to rapidly increase its understanding of how this force is evolving here and what the policy response to this might be. The current range of sneering and denial among the institutional elites is almost certainly going to make things worse, not better.



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End Notes

1 This discussion is based on an exhaustive set of both bivariate tests of association and statistical significance, as well as selected multivariate statistical treatments; for example, the testing of a composite linear index of open-ordered outlook using Cronbach’s alpha.


About The Authors

Frank Graves is one of Canada’s leading public opinion, social policy, and public policy experts, as well as one of its leading applied social researchers. In 1980, he founded EKOS Research Associates Inc., an applied social and economic research firm. Under his leadership, EKOS has earned a reputation for creative and rigorous research in the areas of public policy, social policy, and program evaluation and as a leader in innovative survey techniques and methodology. During his career, he has directed hundreds of large scale studies of Canadian attitudes to a vast array of issues. His analysis and advice has been sought by senior decision makers in both the private and public sectors. Mr. Graves is a Fellow of the Canadian Research Insights Council (CRIC) as well as an Honorary Fellow with the Calgary School of Public Policy and sits on the Advisory Board at the Sprott School of Business. Mr Graves has earned an Honours BA in Social Anthropology, a MA in sociology and an ABD (completed course work and comprehensive exams towards a PhD in sociology).

Jeff Smith has worked at EKOS for more than ten years. His educational and professional experience has provided him with a comprehensive knowledge of both qualitative and quantitative research methodologies and he has expertise in all aspects of public opinion research, from design through to complex multivariate analysis.


School of Public Policy

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