The new Alberta premier is certainly a populist, at least in the sense of having tapped into the anger – dare we say, rage? – that dominates Alberta political discourse these days. In media interviews, however, he has distanced himself from the US president’s abhorrent version of populism. Has he done so in practice?
“I’m trying to avoid the kind of nasty, negative, irresponsible populism I think the Trump phenomenon represents,” he told the Globe and Mail in 2016, adding that he’s tapping the rich vein of Canadian Prairie populism that includes left-wing politicians like Tommy Douglas and right-wing versions like the Reform Party, under whose banner he was first elected to Parliament in 1997.
There’s a good argument to be made that Kenney has not avoided Trump’s nasty variant of populism. The key to making that argument is understanding the role of narrative, the stories we tell each other as Albertans and Canadians to make sense of a complex and confusing political universe.
Narrative is probably Trump’s greatest political weapon. Where Democrats and liberals hear a “word salad” in the American president’s rambling speeches, his political base hears stories with sub-narratives and characters they understand. They regularly fill arenas to cheer wildly for what to reporters – and other “elites” – sounds like incoherent nonsense, but clearly speaks powerfully to his supporters.
“Although his language, both in content and in style, is odd for a political leader, it is familiar to his audience,” writes Professor Susan Hunston of the University of Birmingham.”Trump’s language appears to be designed to align him with non-politicians, to assert his identity as a ‘common man.'”
The common man, “the people,” is an important part of the populist narrative, according to Professor Jorn Precht, who teaches narrative and storytelling at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. The modern populist narrative, however, has borrowed extensively from the toolbox of scriptwriters and novelists, including the idea of telling a story in three acts – the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution.
“I look at storytelling from a film perspective and how those narratives are used by populist politicians,” he told Energi Media in an interview.
In the first act, the people experience – or think they do – some sort of calamity or a great challenge that threatens to overwhelm them. The second act introduces the hero – usually a strong father figure – who understands the travails of the people and promises that only he can lead them to safety. The third act is all about the hero doing battle with the forces of evil.
If this was a movie narrative, the good guy triumphs in the end after experiencing harrowing adventures and narrowly escaping with his life. The people are saved, peace and prosperity return.
Precht illustrates the narrative using Donald Trump.
“He finds out that America isn’t great anymore because it has been betrayed by elites, especially the Democrats who sold out workers and small business owners because of their ‘globalist’ agenda. Only Trump understands the problem and only he can stand up to the nations that have stolen American jobs (China) or flooded the United States (Mexico) with drug dealers and rapists,” said Precht. “Finally, he provides strong leadership that sets America back on the path that will eventually make it great again.”
That is the narrative in its broadest sense, the master narrative if you will. Sub-narratives tell specific stories, like shoddy trade deals or lax immigration policies, that support and reinforce the master-narrative.
Energi Media asked Professor Precht to review Kenney’s April 16 election victory speech to determine if it qualified as a Trump-style populist narrative.
“Yes, this is very typical of populist narratives,” he wrote in an email.
Act 1 – Kenney paints a despairing picture of the province: Albertans are struggling, jobs are so scarce the unemployed have given up, small business owners are barely hanging on, people are homeless and hopeless. Years of economic decline and stagnation lie behind us.
Why? “We cannot get our energy to global markets at a fair price,” said Kenney. “Investor confidence was lost…We have been targeted by a foreign-funded campaign of special interests seeking to landlock Canadian energy.”
“There you go, the foreigners are to blame,” says Precht. “He keeps it simple and stupid – ‘WE’VE BEEN HAD’ – which is an important characteristic of populist narratives.”
Act 2 – “Friends, today Albertans have chosen hope over fear, and unity over division. The silent majority has spoken. Not the loud and angry voices on social media. But average Albertans who simply want their common sense values reflected in their government,” Kenney said in his speech.
“So, they voted for him and a happy ending is in sight, that’s typical of the populist narrative,” Precht wrote. “The good leader and his people share the only valid ‘common sense values.'”
Act 3 – “I wonder what the details of his economic policy will look like in the future?” wondered Precht, who responded to Energi Media before Premier Kenney announced his “energy war room” late Friday afternoon.
“The Energy War Room is part of a larger stand up and fight back strategy that includes a public inquiry into foreign-funded meddling in our economy and politics,” the government said in its press release accompanying the announcement.
Kenney has also promised to boycott banks like HSBC that are perceived to be targeting the oil sands, to fund legal challenges by pro-pipeline indigenous groups, and take a belligerent stance toward other premiers (hello, John Horgan of BC) he thinks are obstructing Alberta pipeline projects.
According to Professor Precht, the Premier’s tactics are typical of Trump-style populism.
“So, what?” a skeptic might ask. “Where is the harm in shining light on a few dark corners? Furthermore, Albertans like Kenney pushing back on their behalf. What’s wrong with that?”
The problem with the populist “war narrative,” says Professor Lianne Lefsrud, is that it is a “zero-sum strategy,” meaning participants are fighting over the biggest slice of the pie instead of working together to make the pie bigger. She uses the example of a cancer diagnosis to explain a better approach.
“Research has found that the most effective narrative is actually is thinking about cancer as a puzzle, by asking, ‘How can we solve this puzzle together?'” the University of Alberta engineering professor said in an interview. “It’s the most effective narrative in terms of getting the teams of healthcare professionals to work together for the most positive patient outcome.”
Another problem with Trump-style populist narratives, according to Trevor Harrison, professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge and a research affiliate of the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy, is that they harden political positions.
“Populism mobilizes people with fear and anger instead of providing leadership to map out a reasonable, positive way to solve the problem,” he said in an interview. “Populism sucks the air out of the room and makes it difficult to hear other voices in the discussion.”
Think of this column as one possible future, where the populist narrative works and Premier Kenney gets all three stalled pipeline projects (Trans Mountain Expansion, Keystone XL, Line 3) completed in a timely fashion, those nefarious “foreign-funded activists” are muted by his $30 million energy war room that will wade into social media battle just as soon as it can get organized, good paying jobs are plentiful again and there is an RV or ATV in every driveway.
But Albertans should also give some thought to other possible futures where the UCP populist narrative horribly backfires, not enough pipelines are built or they aren’t built in a timely fashion, Justin Trudeau remains prime minister and imposes federal climate backstop policies on Alberta, and all Kenney manages to do is alienate Canadians who otherwise would have supported Alberta’s energy ambitions.
Until Alberta acquires a coastline and can build pipelines to tidewater without federal approval and oversight like Texas, the populist narrative may sell well at home, but not down the street where support is desperately needed.