Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit by Michael Adams

Polling and Populism

Michael Adams

Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit. 

Toronto, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

Review by Mike Coates


When I studied statistics at graduate school many decades ago, there was an old adage that what statistics can show is interesting, but what they don’t show is vital. That pretty much sums up the weakness of Michael Adams thesis in his new book, Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit.

Adams is a respected pollster who, like many of us, has wondered whether the world wide populist trend could bleed into Canada and result in the election of a Trump-like politician. In earlier books, Sex in the Snow and Fire and Ice, Adams has written about how Canadian and American values are increasingly diverging politically and culturally. Not surprisingly, in his latest book he sees this trend as our country’s salvation from Trump-like populism. He bases his arguments on social values surveys of public opinion conducted annually in Canada and in the United States. Over a 20-year period showing that Canadians are evolving to a more global and tolerant outlook—rejecting the politics of Trump, Brexit and Marine LePen.

Adams is of the view that the root of today’s populism is less about labour markets or income inequities and much more about cultural intolerance and xenophobia and just plain old fear of change. This increasingly complex and worrisome world has led many countries to look to authoritarian leaders who can offer simple solutions in return for a more orderly and reassuring world of yesterday.

Indeed, Adams presents compelling data that suggest that Canadians have a healthier attitude towards immigration, cultural diversity, public health, gender and sexual equality. His most interesting finding is that Canadians don’t share other nations attitudes towards patriarchy. Whereas 60 per cent of American men think the father has to be master of his home, only 30 per cent of Canadian men share this view. This more progressive attitude is why we are, according to Adams, more comfortable with a young, feminist PM who is “trim, handsome, courteous, attentive and upbeat” vs the narcissistic brute to the south.

But even if I concede Adams’ interpretation of polling data on Canadian tolerance, there are a number of other factors that drive this observer to a different conclusion on whether Canada could ever elect a Trump like politician. Most importantly, there are limits to a public opinion explanation of how people in Canada vote.

First off, the public doesn’t even elect our political leaders. All our federal leaders are really elected by a small cadre of party activists whose numbers swell to the low hundreds of thousands during a party leadership contest. Influencing the outcome of these elections isn’t difficult if a candidate shares the type of notoriety that Trump had. Kevin O’Leary, whose Conservative leadership campaign I chaired in early 2017, was able to recruit over 35,000 new Conservative members and convince over a third of the existing party that he had what it took to defeat Justin Trudeau. If he hadn’t decided that politics wasn’t for him, we might have a different Conservative leader right now.

The limits of a thesis based on public opinion data become apparent when we recall that majority governments in this country are elected with less than 40 per cent of the vote. Governments are elected on a riding basis that is weighted disproportionately in favour of rural Canada, Quebec and the Atlantic in order to ensure that their voice remains relevant even as their proportion of the population declines. These regions have not experienced the same influx of new Canadians and consequently, attitudes may not be as tolerant to change as Adams would have us believe.

In Canada, just as in the U.S., there is a growing loss of faith in our institutions and in career politicians. In 2017, Edelman found in its annual trust barometer survey that for the first time in the five years of general population tracking on this issue, Canada had entered the category of nations who distrust their institutions. For many in both Canada and the U.S., this phenomenon is partially rooted in the rise of the career politician. There was a time, so the argument goes, when candidates ran for office after establishing a successful career elsewhere, like Pierre Trudeau in academia or Brian Mulroney in business. These politicians proposed major nation-building policies such as the patriation of the Constitution or NAFTA. Big stuff. Now, everything seems to be about incremental change designed to minimize risk to political careers. The cynicism this has bred is a central theme of today’s populist narrative. According to Library of Parliament data, there has been a steady rise in elected MPs whose only job before being elected was as a political aide.

Finally, there is the march of history, which has shown that when populism is on the rise in the U.S., it is in Canada as well. In today’s media environment where the events of U.S. politics are reported breathlessly on every channel of traditional and social media, is it any wonder that the Canadian Press found this past summer that 71 per cent of Canadians thought populism was growing in Canada? Of those surveyed, 62 per cent were either unconcerned or positive about this trend.

After reading Adams’ book I remain unconvinced that electing a Trump couldn’t happen here. There are limitations to Adams’s argument that go beyond the interesting statistics he uses to present his thesis and this is vital to understanding the potential for the populist movement in Canada. I am left with the nagging feeling there is room for another book … only this time it would be called, Donald Trump in Canada? It Could Happen Here.

Mike Coates is a long time Conservative activist who recently ran the Americas Division of Hill and Knowlton in New York. He retired as the firm’s Global Vice Chairman in 2017.