Friday, January 15, 2010

Polls and Conservatism

I spend a great deal of time speculating about Canadian liberalism. This is not out of any love of it, but out of an acknowledgment of its importance to Canada, particularly Canadian historical development. I spend less time speculating about conservatism because ... well, while conservatism is there, it has simply been less influential over the last century or so. There is no doubt that conservatism was vital to Confederation and the first generation of the Dominion of Canada and some of its legacies live on, say in the unelected Senate. My general take in scattered blogs is that Canadian conservatives are not really very conservative. They are fractured, divided group, some of whom are liberals who don't like specific elements of liberalism, some are honest-to-God conservatives (we might call these "red Tories"), others are populists who drifted into the Conservative party, others are refugees from old third parties (Reform, Social Credit) or connected to new ones (Wild Rose). Others hold strong religious views and still others -- a decided minority I think -- are bigots of various sorts (whom Conservative politicians try periodically to drive out of their party).

The latest polls are getting a lot of press because they show a free fall for the Conservative party. Various pundits have been quick to lay the blame at the feet of Stephen Harper with his odd penchant for proroguing Parliament; the dug and run, shoot the messenger on horrific news from Afghanistan, and the slower than hoped for recovery of the Canadian economy. Harper clearly deserves some of this blame. I personally think his government should be criticized for other reasons as well. But, we might ask: does this decline in the polls suggest that these events are having an effect on Canadian voting intentions? And, what does it matter?

One strategy to defeat a party in power is build up a bunch of different criticisms of it. This has been the strategy that the Liberals (and BQ and NDP) have taken with the CPC. We might call it the "death by a thousand cuts" approach to political transition. Go after everything, hold hearings to try to find more bad stuff lurking in closets, and grab every piece of potentially bad news in order to build up a long list of problems. The idea here seems to be that one of two things will happen. An increasing number of Canadians will conclude that this government is no good because it has done so many things wrong and vote for one of the opposition parties. Or, an increasing number of Canadians will conclude that this government is no good because one issue or another will appeal to them. It need not be the same issue for different people. If you can get some people upset at the treatment of POWs in Afghanistan and some people upset at economic management, and some people upset at anti-democratic practices then, together, you have a whole bunch of people upset.

Public commentators -- pundits -- often miss this strategy because they are so myopic. They focus on one issue at a time, rather than their cumulative effect. What is important to note here, however, is that for opposition parties, this is a long-run strategy, at least in terms of the way politics is practiced today. The goal is not to slam dunk over Harper's head, but  take a lot of shots from the perimeter and play to win the game rather than get one highlight-of-the-night basket.

These same commentators, because they miss the point of this oppositional political strategy, also misinterpret polls. They suggest that CPC problems relate to immediate issues. In part they do but not in completely. The problems with the declining popularity of the Conservative government relates, in a large measure, to the fact that Canadians are not a particularly conservative people (prudent and believing in tradition are not the same as conservative. I like to think of myself as a prudent individual, for example. I try to budget carefully, check my kids homework, etc. I also like tradition. I my workplace and at my church I often argue to keep certain practices because they are traditions, even if those practices are not particularly useful). And, those Canadians who are conservative and fractured and divided. One can be a fiscal conservative, for instance (Paul Martin was as Finance Minister!) and reject social or cultural conservativism. This makes the CPC inherently unstable and its voting base has a lack of solidity. The election of the Harper government, I'd argue, did not represent an ideological or philosophical turn on the part of Canadians. Indeed, you'll recall that Harper expressly campaigned against this idea. He quieted social and cultural conservatives in his party and argued that the election was about "good government" not "ideology."

There are conservatives voting for the CPC and they will continue to do so. But, if Harper's election owes more to the implosion of the Liberal Party and to Canadians believing his good government message, then these recent polls need to be interpreted with care. They suggest that the issue for Canadians will continue to be good government and whether or not Harper can convince Canadians that he is the person to provide it, as opposed to whether or not this or that policy will shock or win the approval of Canadians. In other words, what the recent polls indicate is that to continue to government, Harper will have to continue to behave like a moderate and not a conservative. He'll need to avoid controversial issues, stall democratic fora, appeal to Canadians pocket books (even if that might not be the right policy decision), and keep his cabinet looking young and fresh. He'll also, I imagine, continue to sanction Karl Rovesque tactics in terms of attacking other parties.

From this longer run, perspective, then, there is nothing in the polls -- and this is the point I really want to make -- that spells danger for the Harper government. Parliament is prorogued, Canadians are not convinced that he cannot provide good government, and none of the opposition parties has much in the way of traction. There is nothing to be excited about, either, however, because they indicate that the factors that might spell longer run conservative dominance of Canada -- a return to the immediately post-Confederation era? -- are not in place. The conservatives have abandoned conservative ideology and become a collection of different groups opposing liberalism from the right.
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