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by Stephen J. Harper, Oct. 6, 2018

In his new book, Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption, former prime minister Stephen Harper argues that we ignore the issues driving populism at our peril.

If you are interested in politics, you will remember where you were on November 8, 2016. I was watching the U.S. presidential vote in my basement living room. My (interim) successor as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, the Hon. Rona Ambrose, was with me. So was the leader of the United Conservative Party of Alberta, the Hon. Jason Kenney. I did not expect Donald J. Trump to be elected president that evening.

But unlike most observers, I did think it was at least possible. It had taken me a long time to even get there. But Trump won the Republican nomination, and now he was winning the presidential election. So, I asked myself: What happened? I could have concluded what most commentators concluded. They had predicted Trump could not win — that he could never win — because he is a fool and a bigot. Therefore, they surmised, the voters must be fools and bigots as well. The ones with the foolish and preconceived notions were those who got it so wrong. It is time to reexamine our assumptions.

So here is my re-examination in a nutshell. A large proportion of Americans, including many American conservatives, voted for Trump because they are really not doing very well. In short, the world of globalization is not working for many of our own people. We can pretend that this is a false perception, but it is not. We now have a choice. We can keep trying to convince people that they misunderstand their own lives, or we can try to understand what they are saying. Then we can decide what to do about it.

Conservatives won the Cold War. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and their generation stood against communism abroad and socialism at home. And they were largely successful. Our values — free societies, free markets, free trade, free movement — have spread around the world. The problem is this: globalization has been very successful for many of the world’s people, but not so much for many of our own. A billion people worldwide — mostly in the emerging economies of Asia — have moved out of poverty. Yet, in many Western countries, the incomes of working people have stagnated or even declined over the past quarter-century. This is especially true in the United States. Trump clearly understood this.

Some dismiss President Trump’s clarion call to “Make America Great Again” as sheer jingoism, but to minimize the visceral embrace of his anti-globalist message is to miss its larger significance.

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