Ken Boessenkool: The populists are the problem

Sadly, Martha and Henry have gone a bit nuts.

By: Ken Boessenkool

The populists are the problem.

Back in the 1990s the then-most populist premier in Canada would regularly invoke “Martha and Henry” as “severely normal Albertans” when justifying policy choices. Ralph Klein kept his finger firmly on the pulse of these severely normal Albertans. And it stood him in good stead.

Martha and Henry had what could be called conservative instincts — they favoured individual responsibility, strong families, a helping community and a responsive government that largely stayed out of the way, mostly in that order. So long as they felt the government generally favoured the things they favoured, they gave the government their support. Martha and Henry made up a large populist core of the conservative-voting coalition, and not just in Alberta. Mike Harris tapped into these folks’ “common sense” in Ontario, while Bill Bennet won them over in B.C. by putting “people over glib slogans.”

Sadly, Martha and Henry have gone a bit nuts.

In the first place, they are increasingly known not for what they favour, but for what they oppose. And man (they are increasingly men), can they oppose! They are the frontline warriors in what Arthur Brooks calls the “culture of contempt.” They’re not happy unless they’re mad. And it hardly seems to matter at what.

Instead of personal responsibility, they’ve adopted radical individualism; the only strong families they favour are ones that exactly resemble their own; and they’ve replaced the helping community on their block with a virtual anger gang on their smartphone. And believe you me, @martha79453 and @henry83795 are a force of nature on Twitter (or perhaps now Parler) with their 15 followers each.

@martha79453 and @henry83795 reserve the same heightened of levels of suspicion and outrage for governments that they reserve for all elites and elite institutions in society. Well, except for their preferred elites, whose defining characteristic is railing against other (real!) elites.

Look. It’s not like these folks don’t have plenty of reason to be disappointed. Many books and even movies (Hillbilly Elegy being the most elegant) have recently been written about their plight. They’ve seen stagnant incomes while the rich only seem to get richer. They’ve experienced unresponsive, increasingly intrusive and occasionally corrupt governments. (Real!) elites ignore what they think (at best) or aggressively look down their noses at them (at worst).

And while not all the Marthas and Henrys of yesterday have become @martha79453s and @henry83795s of today, there is a growing army of them and they are, and will, cause much consternation within the conservative coalition.

Take COVID (please!).


Where Martha and Henry would have felt personally responsible to take public-health advice and wear masks, @martha79453 and @henry83795 rail against the affront of (health and government) elites telling them what to do.

Where Martha and Henry would have called grandma twice or thrice a day to ensure she was OK, @martha79453 and @henry83795 demand unmasked entry into the senior citizens residence to see her.

Where Martha and Henry would have curtailed their participation in community events, @martha79453 and @henry83795 attend anti-mask, anti-government protests organized by their virtual anger gang.

And where Martha and Henry would have understood and appreciated generous income-replacement programs for those who can’t work during the pandemic, @martha79453 and @henry83795 can only see waste in their government and grift in their neighbours.

There are two approaches to dealing with modern populists on the right. And sadly perhaps, the burden does fall on conservative leaders to deal with them. The left has its own modern populists — socialists that would replace the productive capacity of our economy with green government planning, but that’s a column for another day, and probably not best written by me.

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The first, and dangerous way, is to foment the anger of these populists. This can be done rhetorically by reinforcing their prejudices or just being overly partisan in day-to-day communications. It can also be done via meaningless or silly policy measures (“buck a beer!”) that reinforce the anger of these populists but do nothing to actually address the underlying issues. Worse, it can be done with grandiose promises (“build a wall!”) that stoke resentments without any intention or ability to fulfil the promise.

There is a large temptation to foment anger as this has proved to be a potential path to electoral victory. That is because it is possible to turn a ripple of anger amongst the few into a wave of angst amongst the many. The problem of course is that fomenting anger without actually improving the lot of the populist crowd can only be temporary. Riding the anger wave in the short term is sure way to get swamped in the longer term.

Another reason why there is a temptation to foment anger is that the alternative is difficult. It requires that conservatives not only search for the causes underlying populist disappointment, but then take the time to find solutions to address these causes. This requires revisiting past assumptions and conclusions. It requires thinking about policy in areas we haven’t thought about much, if at all. It certainly requires conservatives to have more than lower taxes, balanced budgets and free trade in their policy arsenal.

It also requires something in addition to this difficult policy work. It requires that we call out and counter the more dangerous tendencies and attitudes that are sprouting among the @martha79453s and @henry83795s. And, just as only those on the left can tell the populists on the left that markets are necessary, only those on the right can call out these tendencies on the right.

That means, getting back to COVID, that conservatives may need to enact harsher measures than they would like, or harsher than would be needed for Martha and Henry. The tendency of @martha79453 and @henry83795 to believe in odd conspiracies and dangerous declarations means that we can’t expect them to act in traditionally conservative ways.

@martha79453 and @henry83795 are, sadly, the reason why harsher lines — both rhetorically and practically — will ultimately have to be taken to address the second wave of COVID. Sadly, it seems increasingly unlikely that “smarten up, jackasses” will do much good.

And once COVID is behind us, @martha79453 and @henry83795 are an important reason why conservatives need to turn their attention to a new set of issues to address their underlying discontentment.

The other reason? It’s the right thing to do.

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