Monday, June 02, 2008

The Triumph of Ideology (not a bad thing)

Last week, we are told, the Conservatives had a bad week. There was the Italian troop fiasco and the Bernier issue and its fallout. Was it really all that bad, however, for the Tories? I suspect not and I suspect not for two reasons: the fact that these are not really, really huge issues (at least with the Canadian public) and the commitment of conservatives to the Conservative Party. Of these two mitigating factors, the last is by far the most important for Canadian Studies because it points to an issue I've mentioned before: ideology matters. Politics is not just about vote getting. Ideas count and principles count. And, not just bland principles with which everyone can agree -- like "good government" and "accountability in spending" -- but ideology in the sense of how one envisions the nation. It is, I think, the vision-think -- this perception of what Canada is and where it should go (that is, how it should develop in the future) -- that ties people to specific political parties and keeps them voting for that party despite scandals and mess-ups of the sort we saw last week. Let me say a quick word about each of these points.

First, the minor point: these scandals really weren't that bad. This is a matter of political punditry. Leaving classified papers around is clearly not a good thing. Bernier is not the first minister to do something like this (or, say, to be overhead on an airplane making comments about classified matters). It should not happen but human beings being what they are, it will happen from time to time. Bernier's jig was likely up anyway. The Conservatives didn't want to see this scandal (who would want a scandal no matter how minor) and they certainly didn't want to lose Bernier from the cabinet. But, he was not doing a good job in Foreign Affairs anyway. He's too much of an ideologue to really function well in that post, which requires diplomacy and pragmatism. He was more suited to a domestic economic role. It is doubtful, then, that he would have survived the next cabinet shuffle in Foreign Affairs anyway. So, the Conservative disappointment can be mitigated by this reality. It can also be mitigated by the fact that while people find the whole scandal interesting, it is interesting in more of a rubber neck kind of way. Unless the Conservatives have other similar problems waiting to pop up (in which we case we would have a system problem with security and not a scandal), I suspect most Canadians won't care very much about the issue in another month's time. And, by election time it won't be a matter of concern at all. Is anyone planning to change the way they vote because of Bernier?

The more important point is the answer to the question I just asked. I suspect not. And, I suspect not because of why people vote Conservative in the first place. It has not a great deal to do with any one individual minister. (Although the Liberal's strong team approach bears watching in this regard as a potential counter example.) Instead, those who vote Conservtive do so because they are committed to specific conservative values. I suspect that if you polled Conservatives you'd find a much stronger commitment to such things as: lower taxes, less social welfare, a closer commitment to the US, opposition to equality for gay people (although some euphemism might be used for this), opposition to "feminism", a desire for lower rates of immigration, and opposition to further secularization in Canadian society. I just made that list up so one or two of the things might be a bit off the mark and I'm not saying that there is not, say, opposition to equality for gay Canadians in other parties. I'm just saying it would be a lot more prominent among Conservative voters.

People who vote for a political party are unlikely to desert it over a single scandal or two or even a lot of scandals. The scandals need to be show to be some sort of systematic failure on the part of that party before people committed to voting on values will shift ground. The same thing could be said for Liberals or NDP types. The Liberals endured the worst political scandal in a heck of a long time and yet 1/3rd of Canadians are still committed to them. The NDP suffered through incompetent leadership, an abboragation of its heritage, and no chance of winning, and yet a core of Canadians (say, about 10%) keep voting for them. There is a smaller core of Green Party activists and a core of Bloquistes.

I might be wrong but the upshot of what I am saying is that ideology counts for more than journalists frequently suggest. There is a lot of "spin" in politics, to be sure, but for the average voter, I don't think "spin" is as important as values. What this mean, then, is that we should stop talking about "spin" and "image" and "bad weeks" and start talking about values and ideas. The future of Canadian politics lies there.

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