In North America populism is all the rage. In the United States, activists under the banner of the “Tea Party” are storming the Republican Party. Rabid right-wing TV ranter Glenn Beck poses as the tribune of the people.

Canadian politicians and commentators are less inclined to act as hysterical drama queens, but we are not immune to the appeal of populism. This is especially the case in British Columbia, where populist frenzies can suddenly flare like the forest fires that consumed parts of the B.C. interior in the summer of 2010. Just as the fires were fuelled by the prior infestation of the pine beetle that has turned forests into kindling, populist rage feeds on a political system already hollowed out by undemocratic politicians.

Like American populism, the B.C. variety is a taxpayer revolt, in this case opposition to the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). Economists have been virtually unanimous in arguing that the HST makes economic sense. They could have saved their breath. The public was in no mood to listen to academics. Nobody likes a tax increase, but anti-HST feelings soon went beyond the usual grumbling: they now threaten to overturn not only the HST but also the Liberal government that brought in the HST. They have already claimed the career of three-term Premier Gordon Campbell.

Driving the populist wave was anger at the antidemocratic attitude of the Liberal government, which had campaigned for reelection in 2009 without a hint of an impending HST decision, and then dropped the bombshell in the immediate aftermath of winning another majority. Arrogantly assuming that voters’ attention span fell short of the next election in 2013, they thought they could get away with it. Bad plan.

The HST saga is a tale of two provinces. Ontario made the decision first. There has been taxpayer grumbling in Ontario, but little more. Ontario anger will have to be saved for the next provincial election.

B.C. is a different story. In keeping with its populist political culture, B.C. has a unique Recall and Initiative Act, NDP legislation from the 1990s. An initiative petition to stop the HST was launched by the discredited former Social Credit Premier Bill Vander Zalm and other right-wing antitax crusaders, joined hand in hand by NDP leader Carole James and pro-NDP journalist Bill Tieleman.

Despite, or perhaps because of, such strange bedfellows, the petition easily amassed sufficient names in every constituency. As a result, a provincewide referendum on Vander Zalm’s proposed “HST Extinguishment Act” will be held in September 2011. Premier Campbell quickly announced that his government would accept a simple majority of votes cast as the trigger to dump the tax, thereby hoping to avoid the other, nuclear, option threatened by the anti-HST campaigners: “total recall” of the entire Liberal government (Total Recall is the title of a 1990 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, who 13 years later became Governor of California in a campaign recalling a recently elected governor). B.C. legislation permits petitions to recall sitting members of the legislature, and while no recall attempt has yet succeeded, there is no precedent for the heat of the present populist backlash.

The prospect of an impending vote on the HST represents a public policy disaster for the province. Uncertainty over the fate of a key tax for business can only harm the economic climate, and if, as is likely, the HST is dumped, the ramifications will be worse. Reversing the HST, which is a joint federal-provincial program, would involve negotiations with Ottawa, and B.C. would have to return $1.6 billion the federal government kicked in as a sweetener. It would also have to restore its provincial sales tax and reconstitute the bureaucracy to administer it (which was absorbed into Revenue Canada when the HST replaced the PST). It would be a major-league mess. Campbell desperately announced a 15 per cent cut in provincial income tax, but when that failed to improve his dismal approval ratings (9 per cent!) he abruptly resigned and called for a leadership convention.

Whatever happens, B.C. has shown eagerness to go down the road of California, where public policy may be determined by referenda and initiatives, and elected officials can be recalled by an aroused electorate. The prospect of the “Californication” of B.C. is one that should chill not just British Columbians but all Canadians. It is universally acknowledged that California is a failed state with collapsed finances, disintegrating educational and health institutions and dysfunctional politics.

There is a direct link between California’s dire straits and its extreme populism. Proposition 13, an initiative passed by California voters in 1978 and now embodied in the state constitution, not only lowered property taxes but severely restrained state and local governments from raising taxes in the future. This taxpayer revolt has paralyzed funding for public institutions for more than two decades.

Populism does not, as its proponents like to think, make democracy more democratic. It just makes it more dysfunctional – and therefore less democratic. Populism is incapable of mustering a positive program for reform because the emotions that drive it are fundamentally negative: distrust and resentment of privileged “elites” and the large, complex organizations “they” have turned against “us.” Underlying populist rhetoric is an enduring democratic fallacy: the “will of the people” is perpetually thwarted by self-serving elites.

But what is this “people” that possesses a unified “will”? Margaret Thatcher once infamously said, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” One might with greater accuracy say that there is no such thing as the people. There are individuals and groups, and there are interests. The problem with populism is that it constructs a mythical “people” to provide a false legitimacy to the loudest voices of the moment. But the people are always divided among themselves, with sharply differing interests in conflict. This is why populism is almost always negative. You can unite a large number of people against something – especially a tax – but it is much more difficult to unite people for something. In federal politics, populist backlash vetoed both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional accords, but populism has offered no constructive alternatives.

Ex-Socreds, miscellaneous right-wingers and NDPers can all be mobilized against the HST, although there is not a chance they could act together for anything. Hitching itself to a populist wave is a dangerous strategy for the NDP, whatever its immediate electoral appeal. Populism in the 21st century has a distinct right-wing complexion – as witness the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, funded by far-right billionaires like Rupert Murdoch. The people elect the politicians, but they do not elect the capitalists. Politicians are accountable; the capitalists are not. Corporate wealth and power escape populist rage, by and large, while the state, which alone can rein in unrestrained corporate power, bears the brunt and sees its fiscal capacity and its regulatory power weakened: as a result, the people lose. Think of it as populism’s built-in self-destruct mechanism.

The NDP first fought B.C.’s environmentally progressive carbon tax in the provincial election, and now fights the HST. Does a purportedly social democratic party with an agenda for expanding public programs really want to come to office on the back of a tax revolt? Yet the federal NDP has joined its provincial party in vociferously opposing both the carbon tax and the HST. Such is the siren song of populism.

How ironic it is that British Columbia, the worst-case scenario for dysfunctional populism, has also offered a remarkable innovation in democratic governance. In 2003 a B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was created (composed of 160 men and women in equal numbers randomly selected from each of B.C.’s electoral districts) to advise on the best voting system for the province. Unlike plebiscitary populism that gives only the power of “no” to a faceless majority, the Citizens’ Assembly was an exercise in deliberative democracy: ordinary people learned about and thoughtfully debated an issue with which the political parties could not be trusted for partisan reasons, and then made a positive recommendation submitted to a provincewide referendum in 2005.

The Citizens’ Assembly plan, for a Single Transferable Vote system (STV), “failed” after gaining 59 per cent in a referendum (the province set the bar at 60 per cent). It was again put to the voters in 2009, but was defeated soundly by a majority of No votes. Ironically, this time it fell victim to populist distrust (fed by political parties which dislike a voting system that undermines their privileges). Prominent among the anti-STV campaigners was Bill Tieleman, the same NDP advocate who has helped spearhead the anti-HST campaign. Call it the populist audacity of nope.

The point is not whether STV is preferable to the existing voting system. The point is that the Citizens’ Assembly offers a procedural model of deliberative democracy that is preferable to populist negativism. British Columbia thus offers the rest of the country the best and the worst faces of political reform.