November 10, 2020 – 9:30 am – Prof. Max Cameron, “Pandemics and Populism”- ZOOM

Prof. Max Cameron,     Professor of Political Science, UBC

Maxwell A. Cameron (Ph.D., California, Berkeley, 1989) specializes in comparative politics (Latin America), constitutionalism, democracy, and political economy. He is the author or editor of a dozen academic books as well as over fifty peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. His books include: Democracy and Authoritarianism in Peru, The Peruvian Labyrinth, The Political Economy of North American Free Trade, To Walk Without Fear: The Global Movement to Ban Landmines, Latin America’s Left Turns: Politics, Policies and Trajectories of Change, Democracia en la Region Andina, New Institutions for Participatory Democracy in Latin America, The Making of NAFTA, Strong Constitutions, and most recently, Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom.

Cameron has held visiting positions in the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at Notre Dame University (1996) and at Yale University, where he was the Canadian Bicentennial Professor in 2005. In 2006 he served as political advisor to the OAS Electoral Observation Mission in Peru. He founded the “Andean Democracy Research Network” to monitor and report on the state of democracy in the Andean region which received funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Martha Piper Fund, SSHRC, IDRC and the Ford Foundation. He is currently part of a research excellence cluster on the “global challenges to democracy.” Since 2011 he has served as the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions in which capacity he has worked with a team to organize the Summer Institute for Future Legislators every year since 2013. In 2011-12 he was a Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, and in 2013 he was awarded a UBC Killam Teaching Prize. Cameron is a frequent commentator on politics in the media. He enjoys biking, skiing, scuba diving, and playing guitar. He is currently blogging about practical wisdom.


Populism and pandemics do not mix well. Five countries are currently responsible for half of the Covid-19 cases globally, and they all happen to be run by leaders that have been widely labelled as populists.

Populism is a set of ideas that depicts society as divided between the ‘pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite.’ Populism generally emerges out of a sense of grievance and exclusion. With a widening financial gap and an increase in globalization seemingly displacing and altering communities, it is no wonder that the movement is growing. However, during a crisis such as the climate emergency or the Covid-19 pandemic, populism can cause many setbacks. The rejection of elites has resulted in a distrust in scientists and evidence-based policies. Furthermore, suspicion of the perceived elites leads to a resistance to following democratic norms and a rise in conspiracy theories (e.g. a refusal to wear masks in public space).

The US has the highest number of Covid-19 infections out of any other nation in the world. Yet, despite Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic and millions of American lives lost, the president received more votes than in the 2016 election. While he ultimately lost the presidential race, it is clear that populism continues to grow amidst growing inequities in the US, further exacerbated by the pandemic.

But, is populism really the problem? Populism also claims that politics is about respecting popular sovereignty at any cost. The people should have a say in the country’s affairs – an element that is not often evident in the governance of today’s so-called populist leaders. Take the US and Brazil, for example. Interestingly, over the last dozen years, there have been many similarities between the two countries’ political situations. In both cases, the previous president improved conditions for the lower class while keeping conditions for the wealthy fairly consistent. This move left the middle class feeling squeezed out. In a backlash, Trump and Bolsonaro were both elected. Both presidents brought up a sense of nostalgia for the past in their campaigns and entered into office with the intent to minimize the government’s influence. They both continue to use social media heavily, as a method to communicate with the public and engage in the politics of denial around the subjects of climate change, racism, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the sky-high numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths in their respective countries, both leaders currently hold a 40% approval rating. Trump and Bolsonaro have shown mistrust in the government, a low capacity for sacrifice and service, a lack of empathy, and a refusal to accept any evidence or expertise. Corporate interest remains prominent in both cases, there has been no redistribution of wealth, and suspicion towards the government and collective action is on the rise. While all of these elements have been incredibly harmful to the management of Covid-19, they are intrinsically related to populism. By labelling these leaders as populists, blame gets shifted onto the public for being ignorant. This framing suggests that we need to be much more deferential to experts and science for solutions (i.e. a technocracy). However, this populism perspective fails to address the feelings of exclusion and grievance felt by people that led to the current political situation.

Countries with social democracies and high levels of social cohesion, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Scandinavia, Canada, New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, have all been much more successful in responding to the pandemic. These egalitarian states with robust welfare programs and policies have provided greater economic security to their citizens. People are less concerned with losing their jobs because they’ll still have access to healthcare even if they’re unemployed. Furthermore, these countries demonstrate a high level of cooperation between politicians and public health officials. Take BC, for example. The province has a comprehensive, publicly-funded, and relatively centralized health care system that allowed for a rapid and effective response. The public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, was given a platform as a credible leader and quickly became a trusted household name. Cross-partisan consensus and smooth working relationships between all areas of government officials created a cohesive response. Therefore, when public health directives are issued, the majority of the public responds. The public is willing to make sacrifices because the government is displaying honesty and transparency in their decision-making process and, financial assistance from federal sources has been made available for those affected by economic hardships. Compared to Massachusetts, a state with similar demographics to BC, the province only has 17,700 cases compared to their 158,000 cases.

The rise of populism has led to polarization, a lack of flexibility, and the blind acceptance of charismatic leaders. It’s clear though that the best way to combat the current populist movement and control that pandemic isn’t by turning to technocracy, but instead by applying active and egalitarian citizenship. There needs to be trust in institutions and democracies through good, solid communications. In order to manage Covid-19 and avoid future crises in the future, governments must value health care systems and make universal coverage a priority. System precarity needs to be minimized through policies like Universal Basic Income to reduce the anxiety and risk when crises occur. A healthy and successful democracy is based on collaboration and consensus-oriented governance so that knowledge and evidence may guide effective policy. Not everyone needs to agree, but there needs to be a balance and collaborative and comprehensive approach in a judicious way, using knowledge and science.

Q & A session

Question : But now that COVID is much worse here, has anybody blamed Trudeau?

Answer: It is going to be interesting to see what the second wave does in terms of people’s perception of the trustworthiness of governments. There are a lot of European countries that are struggling with this right now. It’s not necessarily that they didn’t have the right policies in place, but people have often been having European vacations and they came back, and brought the contagion. You’ve seen terrible situations in Belgium. I think we’re seeing a number of provinces having trouble coping with it, but what I’m struck by in our context is that we’ve tended to reward governments that have done well, and we cut governments a certain amount of slack. I’d be interested in what others think about Trudeau.

Question : How do you maintain trust in the community when fatigue sets in?

Answer: I think what David says is interesting. Fatigue is a huge issue, So in coming up with a response we need to balance what’s right in terms of public health measures, what’s right in terms of economy, and acknowledge that people are going to get fatigued and it’s going to get harder to actually direct people. This is why Sweden pursued a light touch method, this is why BC has pursued a fairly light touch, and I think it’s worked fairly well.

Question : What are your hopes for the US under the new Biden regime?

Answer: It’s going to be a real challenge. Because you know, you’ve got a chaotic situation, with the refusal to start the transition. From the transition, you’ve got people being fired and in disarray. I think Biden’s going to come into a situation that’s very chaotic and very difficult, but he’s going to have to move very quickly because we’re right in the middle now of a second wave, and it’s just ripping through the country, and I think there’s a real risk that 100,000’s more people will die in this context. What it seems like he’s doing, I haven’t looked closely at the proposal, but there was a nice piece in New York Times comparing what he’s doing to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Comprehensive. Real engagement of a lot of people, testing and contact tracing, and trying to isolate, and all that but will he be able to do it? I mean is he going to be able to move the federal government while being obstructed by the Trump administration? This is why it’s so irresponsible, I think, for Trump to be playing the games that he’s playing.

Question : Science is a moving target and has not been consistent internationally. In BC we have had a sympathetic approach relying on the basics of distancing, masks in confined spaces and hand washing. Lockdowns have been shown to be less effective and prohibiting outdoor activities such as golf are not science based. It is this distrust that is the main problem.

Answer: So, that’s a really interesting point. I think what’s really important to acknowledge is that science can’t tell us what to do. It doesn’t have the answers. We can’t turn to the scientists and say, “okay you guys tell us what to do and we’ll just follow the best practices according to the science.” For one thing, the science in itself is often evolving. So the position on masks has evolved, there’s been controversy about what kind of travel restrictions work, if the efficacy of lockdowns work. And again, there are so many imponderables right now, because if you lock people down, you create other hardships. Do those hardships then erode the willingness of people then to comply with public health measures in the future? You need to think about sustainability. That’s where you need politicians to exercise wise judgments. They are the ones. We need Public Health experts to tell us what we know about the virus and what seems to work most effectively, but we need governments and politicians to decide what kind of mobilization of resources of a popular support is necessary to achieve those objectives. And you know, that’s what we elect politicians to do. It’s to exercise that kind of judgment and discretion. So, it’s a combination of science and evidence with trusted governments exercising wise judgement in action. And if you don’t get either of those things then you’re trouble.

I think one of things about Trump is that he clearly has a capacity to mobilize people. He’s got a tremendous capacity to get people behind him, but he’s chosen not to mobilize them behind attacking the pandemic, he’s chosen to mobilize them behind attacking the system, and the pandemic has run out of control. He has that capacity for mobilization, he doesn’t have the science. Then you’ve got governments like Sweden that basically said, “We’ll follow what the scientists want” and was that the right judgement politically? It’s always going to be hard to say, but I think that those are the balancing acts that politicians are always performing

Question: I’m wondering if you could kind of give us your opinion on what you think is happening down in the US. What I see is an assault on democracy by Trump with his refusal to accept that the votes were there, and calling into question their whole electoral system, and having 70 million people apparently behind him. Is the US democracy really in a permanent decline? 

Answer: You know, I think it is really worrisome. Of course, all of us are kind of fixated on the present moment. We’ve got a president who has lost the election and refuses to concede and is challenging it in the courts on what look like largely spurious grounds. But he has 70 million voters behind him, and many of them believe what he says. And much of what he says gets repeated through the media that are allied or aligned with him. Although, even at Fox News we’re seeing some discrepancies between what people at Fox are saying, and what the President is saying. Nonetheless, I think it’s a very, very worrisome and dangerous moment for US democracy.

A fundamental condition of democracy is the possibility that government is removed and replaced by opposition in the context of free and fair elections, and there is every reason to believe that the election was free and fair, that there were no widespread irregularities or attempted fraud. So, to have a president not follow convention, not follow the norms of this moment, is a both a symptom of the state of democracy and an active ingredient of its further erosion. I think we stand back from the present moment, and just sort of think about how we got here, the problem gets even more worrisome.

I think one of the things that political scientists have begun to acknowledge, and we’ve seen this in the work of prominent scholars now for several years, is that the Republican Party has become an anti-system party. It has become a kind of insurgent party that is really seeking fundamentally to change the US system through a variety of means. These include gerrymandering districts, suppressing the vote, eroding the voter rights act, getting more big money into politics, controlling the courts, controlling not only the Supreme Court, but other levels of the judiciary. It’s very coherent and it’s very radical, but it’s also a very intelligent strategy of ensuring the possibility of minority rule. The whole purpose of that is to put them in a position of protecting the interests of the big donors that support the Republican Party, and to some degree, I would say, what has emerged under Trump, which is a vision of American society which is an ethno-nationalist vision. It’s a vision of a more homogeneous America. One in which immigrants know their place, women know their place, and Trump’s support base, I think, is a reflection of that. There’s been a kind of a continuation of politics of a new Jim Crow. We’ve seen the level of incarceration in the United States and the overrepresentation of Black people and with Hispanics particularly around the deportation camps, and so forth, and that really means to paint a picture of a system that is really fundamentally undemocratic.

So, if that’s the case, then it really is going to be a challenge for the Democratic Party to come up with an alternative vision and to fight back against that vision. I think in this respect, people like AOC and those within the Democratic Party that want to see change are making some valid arguments. Biden, as president, but not controlling the Senate, in a divided Democratic Party. But, that on the one hand, has a wing that is powerfully influenced by the largest social movement we have seen in US history to date which is the Black Lives Matter movement, which really moved the needle in terms of people’s perceptions of the problem of race and violence in the United States. But on the other hand, you’ve got people who are open to the Law & Order appeal that suggests that if that stuff gets out of control, they’re going to be burning down your cities, they could be destroying your businesses, and so forth. So, the Democratic Party is in this really awkward position of representing two constituencies with very different visions on how to move forward. I think that the only way that they can manage that, will be to acknowledge that in the short-term they have to try to work with Republicans in Congress to get things done. But they also have to start being much more smart about a longer-term strategy of their own – of real, meaningful, and deep political reform that involves expanding the court, putting term limits on judges, eliminating the Electoral College, stopping voter suppression, stopping erosion of voter rights at the level of states…

So, they need to have a strategy of winning back the kind of positions of power that would enable them to do that, and that’s a strategy of multiple generations. But at least they need to start talking about it. The reason why Biden’s victory worries me is that I think that he represents a continuation of Obama. He represents a continuation of essentially a technocratic managerial approach to politics. However, maybe he’s appointed Kamala Harris because he sees her as the future of the Democratic Party. And maybe in her appointment, we see a bit of a sense of where the Democratic Party might go in the future in terms of presenting a vision of real change.

Question : My question is two parts. What was the original rationale for the Electoral College and what is its present relevance? I grew up in the States and took political science in University, but I still don’t understand quite exactly why there is an Electoral College. I think it maybe had to do with States’ rights back in the 18th century, but I don’t know that for sure. 

Answer: It serves no useful function and on that note, it is frankly undemocratic. It was put in place to protect the interests of slave-owning states and to guarantee them disproportionate representation as a way of allaying their fears about what being part of the United States would mean. Actually, the formula for calculating representation was in part based on counting slaves as three-fifths of a human so, each slave represented three-fifths of a vote, and that allowed them to boost the numbers of slave-owning states. So, it is abominable in terms of its origin and it has become an impediment to the expression of the democratic will of the people.

You want Populism? Populism would tell you to demolish the Electoral College and I don’t see Trump doing that. It was an impediment to the victory of Gore and of Clinton. It’s the only reason why there’s any conversation whatsoever about whether Trump won the election, which of course he did not, but one of the consequences of having this strange system in presidential elections. The struggle is not to win as many votes as you can from all parts of the country. It becomes a question of can you get Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin? Can you take back Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas? And forget about California, and forget about New York, and forget about all the other states that we know how they’re going to vote because they’re sort of already in the bag. So, this then even starts to drive policies – a lot like the way in which fossil fuel is discussed in terms of well, “how is a carbon tax going to affect ethanol producers in Ohio? Or fracking in Pennsylvania?” So, it gives disproportionate influence to these so-called battleground states. Much as our electoral system here creates swing ridings that become the focus and attention of elections. If you eliminate that, if you go to a system that doesn’t have that winner-take-all system, then you would get a much different kind of campaign, one that would focus on more general interest rather than more specific ones.

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