This is not an idle question. For good or ill, I suspect that 30%+ of voters will cast their ballots for the Conservative Party this fall. For what are they voting? The fact that I am asking this question might lead some to say "OK, it is pretty clear that this guy is not a Conservative, if he has to ask what Conservatism is all about." And, that would be a fair statement. But, what I want to capture is what I see as a shift, drift, reformation of political ideologies in Canada. In my last two blog entries, I tried to grapple with the state of the independence movement in Quebec today. I tried to argue that the broad social-democratic movement that could see itself as a legitimate heir to the Quiet Revolution (although certainly not the only heir) and that linked independence with modernity and social democracy has fragmented. The PQ tries to discursively maintain this interconnection but it is increasingly at odds with its realities that have, in important ways, sought to make peace with a neoliberal Quebec, Inc., while broadening the popular base of nationalism cum independence in disturbing and prejudiced ways that are disavowed by the leftist Quebec solidaire and other progressive Quebecois thinkers.
Conservatism is linked to this history because it was the failure of the 1980s conservative project a generation ago that helped to fracture a resurgent Canadian conservatism that was already moving rapidly away from its roots to also embrace a neoliberal agenda that dramatically scaled back on the state, embraced continentalism (described as globalization) and looked to connect Canada more directly to the project of American international hegemony under Reagan. In effect, conservatives were interested in demonstrating to the US that Canada was a faithful ally on whom they could count. This project bears strong similarities to Harperite conservatism today but it differs in key respects. The first is that 1980s conservatism in Canada still carried with it enough of an older collectivist tradition that there were principles at stake. While the liberals who had ruled the Canadian roost for much of the twentieth century embraced individualism, conservatives stood back from this idea, continued to talk about public and collective goods, and saw society as some sort of organic composite. Much of the weight of conservative opposition to liberalism, in fact, built, for right or wrong, on this ground. They saw liberal commitments to individualism, the free market, economic growth, as disorienting and potentially destructive of the institutional framework that maintained an organic community wedded to concepts of morality, moral and self-sacrificing leadership, social harmony through elite commitment to public good, the naturalness of nationalism, and other such things.
Brian Mulroney's 1980s conservatism was always a mishmash. It brought together various and sundry political and ideological perspectives that rejected liberalism -- particularly the Trudeauvian liberal project -- but that had little in common with each other. It attempted to embrace but redirect the progressive nationalism of post-Quiet Revolutionary Quebec, neoliberalism (that looked askance at the welfare state), the old "Red Tory" tradition I just detailed, and variants of western populism drawn into the Progressive Conservative party through Diefenbaker and his followers. This mix of perspectives did not work well. The movement both failed to refashion that Canadian constitution to remake Canada in its image, and lack staying power. Parts of its fell by the wayside and in 1993 voters deserted it in large numbers. What was brought back together by Harper and Co. in the early 2000s was something different. It was a coalition but one in which Harperite "Tories", if they can even be called that, were ascendant. There was, at the time, much concern about how well
Western Canadian populists and PC "Red Tories" could coexist again in party in which their only raison d'etre was opposition to liberalism. It turns out, this was the wrong question. The right question was: what shape would Canadian conservatism take.
On the surface, the answer to this question is seems to run something like this: it is not clear because the Conservatives have banded together a bunch of policies that are (a) out of date, (b) prisoners of their own ideology, (c) silly, (d) lack coherence. Few old time Red Tories seem at all operative in today's conservative party and I think it is safe to say that that perspective is dead as a political movement. But, equally importantly, few western populists seem to have any sway. Harper's government has moved painfully slowly, for example, to address key populists concerns about democratization. In fact, one could argue that the country is less democratic now than it was when Harper took power. So, what do today's conservatives stand for? Here is a short list:
- law and order
- demonstrating that we are a faithful ally to the US
- hard power foreign policy
- tax cuts
- opposition to legalized pot
- opposition to environmentalism
- natural resources-based economic development
- "balanced books"