The media vs. the populists.

In June I published a long essay inspired by the memoirs of John Diefenbaker, Canada’s prime minister from 1957-63.

It’s kind of rambling and haphazard and I wouldn’t say it has a thesis, exactly. But to my mind its various digressions share a common theme, which is how in many ways Diefenbaker presaged modern populist conservatives like Trump, FarageLe Pen, Salvini, Orban, etc. – not in his policies, which were particular to mid-century Canada, nor in his rhetoric, which was pompous and long-winded by modern standards, but in the intense allergic reaction he provoked in the establishment, especially the media.

For those unfamiliar with Diefenbaker’s career (and not quite up to tackling my 6,000-word essay): in 1957 his Progressive Conservatives edged out a Liberal government that had been in power seemingly forever; the following year he won what was up to then Canada’s largest ever parliamentary majority; and in 1963, fatally wounded by a mutinous cabinet, a hostile media, and an opposition Liberal Party openly in cahoots with the U.S. administration of John F. Kennedy, he was defeated.

He made many unforced errors during his six years in office, and his bristly, paranoid personality alienated many allies. But the specific issue that led to his downfall was his resistance to accepting American nuclear warheads for the Bomarc missile system his government had over-hastily purchased a few years earlier to contribute to continental defence against Soviet bombers.

Diefenbaker seems initially to have been happy to take the nukes, subject to negotiations to ensure that Ottawa would have a meaningful say if it ever came to launching them. He dragged his feet for a few years, attempting to reconcile his cabinet’s hawks and doves, but was finally won over to his foreign minister’s position: that there was no formula for hosting U.S. nukes that would preserve Canada’s military sovereignty, that a nuclear-armed Canada would lose the moral authority to argue for disarmament, and that the Bomarcs were pretty much useless anyway, with or without nukes.

I’m neutral on the nuclear issue. I can see how Diefenbaker might have accepted the need to sacrifice a degree of sovereignty in order to preserve a strong NATO front against the Soviets. I can also see how nuking up might have seemed to him a provocation more likely to lead to war than to deter it.

But as a Generation Xer who has spent his whole life steeped in a media culture that portrayed the arms race as little better than a case of collective hysteria, and the pro-nuclear side as a mob of sinister psychopaths and spittle-spraying buffoons, I was surprised by the consistently negative spin mid-’60s journalists put on Diefenbaker’s anti-nuke stance. They called it incoherent, divisive, anti-American, and most of all, the word that shows up again and again in nearly every account of the Diefenbaker years, indecisive.

(Then they praised Liberal leader and secular saint Lester B. Pearson for, uh…decisively repudiating his previously held position, and announcing that he would take the nukes Dief had refused.)

It’s not searchable on Google Books and I’m too lazy to confirm by re-reading the whole thing, but I’d guess that the words indecision and indecisive appear on every fifth or sixth page of Peter C. Newman’s bestselling critical account of the Diefenbaker years, Renegade in Power; and that if I threw in synonyms and near-synonyms like hesitate, prevaricate, waffle, etc., I’d find a reference to Diefenbaker’s indecisiveness on every other page.

Indecision was to the Diefenbaker years what chaos has been to the Trump years – the lens through which journalists observe their subject, bringing certain events and narratives into focus while reducing others to an irrelevant background blur.

Take this editorial by John Ivison in the National Post back in June, in which President Trump’s reluctance to blame the Iranian leadership for an attack on oil shipping in the Persian Gulf was cast as an instance of Trumpian chaos:

Trump had his own theory about what might have happened. “I may be wrong but I may be right and I’m right a lot,” he said, positing that someone down the chain of command had ordered the strike. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional.”

It was a classic example of Trump’s political improv – a stream of consciousness, informed by his own narrow experience, based on evidence that conforms to his own prejudices and rejects evidence that contradicts them. War and peace; life and death, all governed by the chaos theory that permanent destabilization works to America’s advantage.

While there are any number of U.S. actions in recent years to which the description “permanent destabilization” might reasonably apply, surely declining to launch missiles at Iran isn’t one of them. But when evaluating Trump, Ivison’s instruments of punditry are permanently set to “chaos”, so that’s all he’s capable of seeing.

***

Speaking of Ivison, I chuckled at his quixotic attempt a couple weeks ago to paint Canada’s relentlessly progressive prime minister as a populist:

[T]here are few more capable exponents of populist techniques than Justin Trudeau. He is clearly not an authoritarian right-wing demagogue, playing on the insecurities created by cultural competition that have left many voters feeling estranged from the predominant values in their own country.

But even if his causes are more cosmopolitan – globalism, diversity, women’s empowerment – they are similarly tribal and, at times, equally disdainful of divergence from their orthodoxy.

Trudeau and his team have been adept at using polarizing rhetoric, symbolism and identity issues, even while accusing his opponents of adopting “the politics of division.”

What is a populist, anyway? In his memoirs Diefenbaker recalled challenging a Conservative Party bigwig who’d dismissed him as a “western populist” to explain what he meant by the phrase:

He thought it was some kind of erratic radicalism. When pressed further, he wasn’t certain what his new term encompassed, except that it did encompass those things he disapproved of.

Diefenbaker’s “western populist” government relaxed immigration rules, expanded social welfare programs, made liberal reforms to the criminal justice system, and took modest steps to make government more accessible to linguistic and ethnic minorities. But none of that mattered. What mattered was that Diefenbaker refused to go along with the agenda of a glamorous Democratic president who was beloved by the media. Therefore he could be dismissed as an uncultured bigmouth from the sticks.

(I suspect that if Diefenbaker had stayed in office long enough to quarrel with the unloved Lyndon Johnson, he’d have a much better reputation today.)

Nowadays, the populist agenda includes restricting immigration, using targeted tariffs to protect blue-collar jobs, and bringing the troops back home. These are currently associated with Donald Trump and the American right, but until a few years ago the latter two causes were largely the province of the left.

(Through the Bill Clinton era, the left also harboured a significant anti-immigration constituency; Bernie Sanders was playing to this vanished audience as recently as 2015.)

In 2016 Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump; her agenda was, arguably, more popular than his. And yet it was Trump, and not Clinton, who was labelled a populist. Clearly this had less to do with Trump’s popularity than with his unpopularity among those with the power to label him.

As Diefenbaker put it, populism encompasses all those things the influential people disapprove of. Or to be more precise, it’s whatever is currently popular among ordinary folks and unpopular among the elite.

***

At the local level, populism often entails citizens rebelling against plans imposed by a remote and unresponsive city hall – plans like paving over beloved green spaces, plunking social housing in sleepy suburbs, and rezoning low-density neighbourhoods to permit apartment blocks. Such rebellions also tend to jumble left-right ideological alignments.

Think of the writer Jane Jacobs, who rose to local fame organizing the opposition to a planned Lower Manhattan Expressway. As described by Alex Mazer in The Walrus,

Backed by her own lack of formal training (she left Columbia University after two years of undergraduate study) and her grandmotherly demeanour, she cast herself as an underdog in a world of credentialed experts – be they economists, traffic engineers, civil servants, or professors – and her attacks on them could be unrelenting. Like a populist politician, she cast her opponents as out of touch with reality, ignorant of plain facts, and dismissive of regular folks.

The urban model Jacobs advocated – bustling, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use streets like those of her beloved (1960s-era) Greenwich Village – is now generally associated with the progressive left, and opposed by the kind of populists who rail against bike lanes and gas taxes. And yet her most famous book, 1960’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a paean to small businesses and bottom-up organization.

Nowadays she’s as likely to be lauded in right-wing publications like The American Conservative and City Journal as in left-wing ones like Salon and Slate; if anything, she gets rougher handling on the left, where the woke vanguard kvetches that she was white and out-of-touch.

Death and Life lambastes the practices of her era’s urban planners, under whose guidance cities were diligently bulldozing poor but functioning “slums” and replacing them with brand-new public housing projects that quickly became cesspits of crime and decay.

They pursued these ruinous policies in the name of an academic fad Jacobs mocks as “radiant garden cities”, combining aspects of Le Corbusier’s Ville radieuse and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-Morrow into a glossy vision of urban life with all its noise and disorder banished to the margins.

The trouble was that in the real world, banishing noise and disorder also entailed banishing street life and economic diversity, creating at best well-manicured dead zones, and at worst unfenced reservations for street punks to roam.

While some of Jacobs’ modern fans would like to believe that her foes were villains “oozing arrogance and reptilian cunning”, she’s clear in Death and Life that the “radiant garden city” vision was pursued by intelligent men with a sincere desire to improve the lives of the people whose neighbourhoods they were wrecking. Jacobs compares them to an earlier movement of self-confident blunderers:

And to put it bluntly, they are all in the same stage of elaborately learned superstition as medical science was early in the last century, when physicians put their faith in bloodletting, to draw out the evil humors which were believed to cause disease. With bloodletting, it took years of learning to know precisely which veins, by which rituals, were to be opened for what symptoms. A superstructure of technical complication was erected in such deadpan detail that the literature still sounds almost plausible.

However, Jacobs goes on, the practice of bloodletting was “tempered with a certain amount of common sense”, until in the United States it was pushed to new levels of recklessness by the brilliant and revered Dr. Benjamin Rush, under whose instruction the technique was applied “in cases where prudence or mercy had heretofore restrained its use”:

He and his students drained the blood of very young children, of consumptives, of the greatly aged, of almost anyone unfortunate enough to be sick in his realms of influence. His extreme practices aroused the alarm and horror of European bloodletting physicians.

And yet, as late as 1851, a committee appointed by the State Legislature of New York solemnly defended the thoroughgoing use of bloodletting. It scathingly ridiculed and censured a physician, William Turner, who had the temerity to write a pamphlet criticizing Dr. Rush’s doctrines and calling “the practice of taking blood in diseases contrary to common sense, to general experience, to enlightened reason and to the manifest laws of the divine Providence.” Sick people needed fortifying, not draining, said Dr. Turner, and he was squelched.

Jacobs doesn’t mention that Dr. Turner’s opposition to bloodletting derived from his adherence to a then-trendy form of alternative medicine known as the “chrono-thermal system”, brainchild of the Scottish doctor Samuel Dickson.

Dr. Turner wrote the introduction to the American edition of Dickson’s jeremiad The Principles of the Chrono-thermal System of Medicine, which had been ridiculed in the British and Foreign Medical Review:

The plain truth is, as every one must see, the whole book is a farrago of nonsense; a hash of a few old truths and many fantastic speculations, made piquant by the most amusing self-laudation on the part of its author, and the most extravagant abuse of his professional brethren and imagined rivals.

I’m no doctor, but from what I can glean of his system, Dickson was indeed some kind of crank. However, if you submitted to his treatment, the worst that was likely to happen was he failed to cure you; whereas a doctor who stuck to the conventional wisdom as represented by the British and Foreign Medical Review might very well open your vein and kill you.

The 1960s urban planning consensus has held out a little better than the 1850s medical consensus. While doctors rarely bleed their patients these days, planners continue to blight cities with roads that hinder the movement of pedestrians while doing little to improve the movement of cars. Still, Jacobs’ critique has been so successful that it no longer qualifies as populist: it has been absorbed into the establishment against whom the anti-density, pro-freeway rabble hoist their pitchforks.

I won’t make a fool of myself by attempting to predict which wacky idea currently disdained by the academy, the media, and most of the people reading this essay will in a half-century be seen as so obvious that only fools and villains could ever have opposed it. Today’s populism will become tomorrow’s establishment, and a new populism will burble up to be snickered at and hand-wrung over.

M.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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