For a guy who routinely accuses the prime minister of being divisive, Pierre Poilievre sure does an awful lot of dividing himself. Take his most recent attempt to portray experts as some sort of enemy of the people, a view he deliberately highlighted in a tweet over the weekend. “Liberals say common people should shut up and do what the ‘experts’ tell them,” he said. “Here’s the thing: the common people are the experts.”
This is a pretty obvious nod at the more conspiratorial elements in his coalition, who would love nothing more than to re-litigate the science around the COVID-19 pandemic and commiserate about the evils of the World Economic Forum. It’s also self-evident nonsense, given that experts are by definition uncommon, at least in their specific area of expertise. Then there’s the reality that, by and large, we probably should do what the experts tell us. I mean, yes, you could fix that plumbing or electrical problem in your house yourself, and I suppose you could try performing the surgery you need if you’re really feeling brave. But there, as with most things, it’s probably best to just let the experts handle it.
Poilievre’s personal animus towards experts is somewhat understandable, given how often they clap back at his policies and proposals. His attacks on the Bank of Canada and deliberate misrepresentation of the carbon tax’s role in driving inflation have been criticized by any number of economists and academics, while his poorly timed promotion of cryptocurrency remains a popular source of mockery for people who actually understand financial markets. His ongoing campaign against safe injection sites has been rejected by any number of actual experts in the field, including Benjamin Perrin, the former justice and public safety adviser to Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.
But as the leader of the official Opposition and the person most likely to become Canada’s next prime minister, his disdain for experts — and let’s be clear: he means the highly educated ones — is a problem. It’s the same anti-intellectual pablum that populists around the world, from Donald Trump (“I love the poorly educated”) to Boris Johnson, have been feeding their supporters for years. Indeed, as American historian (and former adviser to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush) Bruce Bartlett wrote back in 2020, it’s been getting served up by conservative politicians for decades now. “Since time immemorial, pseudo-populist demagogues and right-wingers have pandered to the uneducated and least sophisticated members of society. They know that a quality education will tend to make people dismiss the wrong-headedness and excessive simplicity of the conservative worldview, because education encourages critical thinking, open-mindedness, and truth-seeking.”
If we want to know where this might lead, we need only look across the Atlantic to Great Britain. In an interview a few weeks before the fateful Brexit vote in 2016, then-secretary of state for justice and lord chancellor Michael Gove told Sky News: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organizations with acronyms saying they know what is best.” And in some respects, he was right. The British people narrowly voted in favour of leaving the European Union, a decision cheered on by Canadian conservatives like Poilievre, former Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer and former Alberta premier Jason Kenney.
But now, more than six years after that vote and more than three years after the U.K. formally left the EU, it’s become clear to all but the most blinkered Brexiteer that this was a ruinous own goal. The British economy is falling well behind its peers in Europe, with new analysis showing the decision to leave is costing the country £100 billion annually in lost economic activity. The British pound flirted with parity with the U.S. dollar last year, the first time it’s come close to that level in nearly four decades. And as if to add insult to injury, supermarkets have even had to ration fresh fruit and vegetables in recent weeks as a result of supply shortages, while European cheeses and other popular imported foods are suddenly much harder to find. Maybe the British should have listened to their experts after all.
There’s a lesson here that Canadian conservatives like Poilievre could stand to learn. No, experts aren’t infallible, and nobody is actually suggesting they should be listened to uncritically. But the world we live in is underwritten by expertise and experts, now more than ever before. From the people who design and deliver our internet services to the medical innovations that have both extended our lifespans and increased their quality, we depend (and are dependent) on expertise in ways even our recent ancestors couldn’t have imagined.
To pretend otherwise, as Poilievre and his fellow populists seem determined to do, isn’t just foolish or naive. It’s corrosive to the shared project we call society. But, then, maybe that’s part of his plan. Conservatives have never been big on the idea of a society, much less one that’s defined by things like common purpose and shared ideals rather than freedom and liberty. And experts, with their stubborn belief in things like evidence and data, are a natural antagonist to anyone trading in populist sloganeering. It’s no wonder Poilievre seems to find them so threatening — and so dangerous.