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One of the world’s leading populism experts says Pierre Poilievre isn’t quite a populist

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The Conservative Party’s leadership race has been conventionally seen as a battle between the moderate establishment candidate Jean Charest and the rowdy populist Pierre Poilievre.

But one academic who studies populism and its cultural causes says Poilievre’s campaign has been fairly traditional, especially when compared to the global populist movement that has swept the Western world in the last decade.

“The populist moment really was about parties moving away from just talking about economics to talking about those tricky cultural issues. It’s happened with the People’s Party, but it’s not happened with Poilievre. I guess I would still see that as pretty much a standard conservatism, more of an establishment conservatism,” said Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism, and the Future of White Majorities.

On a recent episode of the Hub Dialogues, Kaufmann said one clear sign that a candidate is pushing into populist territory is a fixation on immigration and the social justice politics (or “wokeness) embraced by the Left. Instead, Poilievre has trained his rhetorical sights on inflation, the Bank of Canada, the country’s housing shortage, and an all-encompassing opposition to “gatekeepers.

“Poilievre, I think, has shied away largely from those (cultural) issues except in a few places. He’s largely about economics, which in my view is a relatively safe topic. You’re not going to get canceled for it,” said Kaufmann.

Although Poilievre has been the consistent frontrunner in the race to succeed Erin O’Toole as the permanent leader of the Conservative Party, he has been dogged by questions about whether he will be palatable to moderate voters in a federal election.

A recent survey by the Angus Reid Institute seemed to confirm that Poilievre is disliked by previous Liberal and NDP voters, although People’s Party of Canada voters view him favourably. Poilievre may also be shunning the conventional strategy of chasing “swing voters” and, instead, pursuing people who have previously chosen not to vote in federal elections.

In chasing these new voters, Poilievre has doubled down on opposition to COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines mandates, while vocally supporting the cause of Freedom Convoy protesters, to the chagrin of establishment Conservatives.

Kaufmann believes that the populist spasm in response to the pandemic, seen in Canada and other Western countries, will pass quickly and won’t necessarily fuel the larger populist movement.

“I actually don’t think that that is a significant source of populist movements we see across the West now. Even though it has played in Canada, I think that’s a departure from the pattern that we tend to see across the West,” said Kaufmann.

Kaufmann said that conventional populism, which targets immigration and other cultural issues, hasn’t taken root in Canada due to a strong taboo against those topics in the media and other elite institutions.

“I think it’s because of the power of the cultural Left in Canada. Now, of course, the way the power of the cultural Left works is that it works up until the point it doesn’t work. The suppression works to keep ideas such as reducing immigration out of the political debate until that crumbles,” said Kaufmann.

In his book Whiteshift, Kaufmann wrote that attitudes in Canada aren’t very different from other countries, like the United States, that were rocked by a populist candidates.

“What you see in Canada is you do see the People’s Party raising these issues. You do see that Conservative voters, for example, compared to Liberal and NDP voters, are like 50 points apart on immigration. There’s a natural place for the Conservatives to go, but of course, the media environment and the cultural environment in Canada is very strongly dominated by the cultural Left,” he said.

Kaufmann said he views populism as a fundamentally cultural phenomenon, and with the Left currently dominating important institutions like the media and academia, it could mean that our populist moment turns into a populist era. In his research, Kaufmann has tracked the ideological shift in journalism and academia that, over decades, has pushed progressives from a slight majority to utterly dominant in these institutions“If you look at the composition of the professoriate and the composition of journalists in mid-1960s America, you could see that there was a ratio of about one-and-a-half on the Left to one on the Right. Or in the social sciences like sociology, it was maybe three to one. Fast forward to our time and those numbers instead of three to one, it’s 12 to one. For media there’s also been something like a tripling. There’s been a major shift.” Eric Kaufmann on the Hub Dialogues podcast..

“I think there is a kind of in-built dynamic here where we’re going to see populism as long as there is a very strong cultural Left controlling these institutions,” said Kaufmann.

“There’s an awful lot of incentive to rail against the elites in those institutions.”

Meet the anti-woke rising star who has won the hearts of U.K. Tories

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On Tuesday of last week, Kemi Badenoch was eliminated from the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party leadership race after the fourth ballot. While Badenoch may be out of the contest, the signs point to an important future in British politics for the 42-year-old MP

“I have no doubt that Kemi Badenoch will make a fine PM one day,” wrote commentator Daniel Hannan on Twitter. 

Boris Johnson, prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, resigned on July 7 following a scandal-ridden three years of leading the British government, triggering a leadership race. 

Eight candidates, including Badenoch, were officially nominated to replace Johnson as both party leader and prime minister of the world’s fifth-largest economy. Of the eight candidates, four were women, and four were non-white. Kemi Badenoch herself was born Olukemi Olufunto Adegoke in London in 1980, to parents of Nigerian origin. 

Although holding British citizenship at birth, Adegoke spent much of her childhood in Nigeria. She confessed to experiencing the effects of poverty while growing up due to the economic mismanagement of the Nigerian government. She would later spend part of her childhood in the United States before returning to the U.K. at age 16. 

Adegoke would later take the surname Badenoch after marrying her husband.

After graduating from university, Badenoch worked in banking before becoming digital director for The Spectator magazine from 2015 to 2016. 

First elected to the U.K. parliament in the 2017 general election, Badenoch also held a seat in the London Assembly from 2015 to 2017. Badenoch has called her journey to parliament as exemplifying the “British Dream”. 

She said that due to growing up with Nigeria’s “socialist policies” in the 1980s, she joined the Conservatives at age 25, and is considered to be on the party’s right-wing

Badenoch certainly doesn’t espouse the moderate conservatism of former prime minister David Cameron, who led the Conservatives to power in 2010, before stepping down in 2016. 

However, a Financial Times column partially credited the presence of Badenoch and the leadership race’s other non-white contenders to Cameron’s 2005 decision to select more women and non-white candidates to contest parliamentary seats.

“Yet perhaps more important is that they have provided a friendly home for ambitious minority politicians reluctant to present themselves as perpetual victims,” read the column. 

A supporter of Brexit during the 2016 referendum, Badenoch referred to the winning “Yes” vote as, “the greatest ever vote of confidence in the project of the United Kingdom”. 

“The rise of the very talented Kemi Badenoch is truly remarkable,” wrote historian Niall Ferguson on Twitter. “She would be a Tory Obama if she won this. The whole leadership contest is a disaster for the bogus narrative that Brexit was motivated by racism and/or nostalgia for Empire.” 

An outspoken opponent of “wokeness,” Badenoch’s criticisms of Critical Race Theory in 2020 were described by The Guardian as “scathing,” with at-least one government race advisor confessing to having wept after hearing them. 

Promising to be a “fresh face” for the party after entering the 2022 leadership race, Badenoch has a culture warrior’s reputation and lived up to it from her entry until being eliminated. 

Taking out a column in The Times on July 9 after entering the contest, Badenoch called for a “strong, but limited government,” while decrying identity politics as antithetical to British values. 

“We cannot maintain a cohesive nation state with the zero-sum identity politics we see today,” wrote Badenoch. 

In an op-ed published in The Sun on July 11, Badenoch promised to cut funding for “low quality” university degrees if she won the leadership and became PM. 

“Sadly, some universities spend more time indoctrinating social attitudes instead of teaching lifelong skills or how to solve problems,” wrote Badenoch. “Why are we shovelling huge amounts of taxpayer money—currently up to £11 billion a year into student loans—that will never be paid back?”  

The contest revealed just how popular Badenoch is among the party base. Member polls showed Badenoch would win a head-to-head contest against several other candidates among card-carrying members. 

Badenoch lacked enough support among fellow MPs to stay in this particular leadership race, leading to her elimination on July 19. In Conservative leadership elections, only elected MPs can vote for candidates until all but two are eliminated. After that, voting opens up to the party’s general membership to determine the winner. 

Rishi Sunak, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, is one of the two remaining candidates in the race. Born to parents of Indian origin, Sunak would become the first British prime minister from a minority background since Benjamin Disraeli, an ethnic Jew, governed the U.K. as a Conservative from 1874-1880. 

The other remaining candidate is Liz Truss, who would become the U.K.’s third woman to become prime minister after Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, both also hailing from the Conservative Party. 

The diverse race has been heralded as a landmark in British politics, and a challenge for the Opposition Labour Party, who have long portrayed themselves as the champions of ethnic minorities in the U.K. The leadership is expected to conclude by September 5. 

Regardless of who wins, pundits expect Badenoch to be given a cabinet posting when a winner is declared, with some already labelling her as the future leader of the Conservative Party. 

Labour has enjoyed a substantial polling lead over the Conservatives since before last Christmas, with much of the blame placed on the scandal-prone Boris Johnson

How a new leader will improve their fortunes remains to be seen, but it is nearly certain that Badenoch will be a name heard far more often going forward.