Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Power of Ideology or ... What Actually Are Conservatives These Days?

As I was driving home on Monday from a meeting in Fredericton, a friend and I spent a great deal of time talking about contemporary Canadian politics and its problems. We spent a bit of time thinking about each of the major federal parties and were, in some ways, stumped by the Conservatives. A recent CBC story about the increased possibility of an NDP federal government (which you can find here) echoes some of our thinking. What struck both of us about the Conservatives was how hard it was to place them, ideologically, within a tradition of Canadian conservatism. In short, neither of us felt that the Conservative Party of Canada, despite its name, was actually particularly conservative. They were right wing, but what that meant, to us at least, was not all that clear. It meant a general opposition to some things but this general opposition was also tempered by the need to conform to more moderate strains in Canadian political culture and by a complicated semi-worshiping relationship with American Republicanism.  So ... as we head into a federal election this fall ... what are Canadian Conservatives in this day and age?

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"

There are no doubts that some of these policy objectives strike at the heart of what a significant section of the Canadian population thinks, but nor are they particularly controversial in many instances and there is nothing inherently conservative in them. For instance, I don't know any leftist or centrist or environmentalist or feminist who thinks we should not have a justice system. And, I know all kinds of people who think one needs to balance economic and environmental issues. Heck, even the Green Party thinks this. And ... on down the line. What makes these conservative policies, it seems to me, is not the policy in-and-of-itself but the way in which they are presented, the chain of logic that accompanies them, and the extremism of  the degree to which Conservatives will go to maintain them. In other words, when we look at the way conservatives think about particular issues we can begin to isolate the central characteristics of contemporary Canadian conservatism. 

For instance, I know many people who think we should get tough on crime. The problem with this perspective, I keep telling them, is that the Conservatives have been in power for a long time and have been tough on crime. The crime rate, of course, was falling long long before the tough on crime approach, but if further toughness was needed ... why did the Tories not introduce it ages ago when they first came into power? As for, say, hard power ... how is that working? Is the world safer today than it was, say, ten years ago now that Canada is standing up and demonstrating to people that we are tough and willing to bomb others? 

I don't want to refute CPC policies, I want to point something out. They seem to function without recourse to what is actually going on. They involve things that people think "should" work. Getting tough on crime should lower the crime rate. Is that true? ... my point is that it does not matter because people think it "should". Likewise, getting tough with the rest of the world is supposed to make the world safer. What evidence do we have that that is the case? Pot is a plague that will destroy society. Hmmm ... I don't doubt the sincerity of different people's beliefs. What I am saying is that Conservatism operates through what we could call a politics of confirmation. Rather than proposing new ideas, it works with ideas that people have and confirms these and, in this way, serves to reaffirm itself to its supporters. 

It is possible that all political movements do this is in some way, but I am not so sure.  In fact, Conservative efforts to get "tough on crime," for example, seem to suggest that somewhere, deep down, Conservatives know that there is something wrong with what they are saying. They have, for instance, and as I just said, been getting tough on crime for a long time. Yet, the fact that they still feel that they have to get tough on crime suggests that, for them at least, their original get tough policies have not worked. Yet, they seem to avoid the logic of their own perspectives. For example, most people, at some point, might pause. They might say to themselves "gee, I said X. I did X but it did not improve things. Perhaps I should rethink whether or not X is actually a good thing to do." Instead, the Conservatives have done this: "I said X. Things have not improved, so what we need is XX." This is an odd perspective because it assumes that the original proposition is right in the absence of evidence. Tougher sanctions will get rid of crime. If we introduce tougher legal sanctions and crime still exists ... what this means is that we need to get even tougher. 

There is, too, a point at which toughness comes to be seen as a virtue in and of itself. There is an odd sort of masculinist politics to contemporary Conservatives that worships toughness in and of itself. We need to stand up and be tough in our defense of industry (come what may), we need to be tough in international affairs, we need to be tough against crime. What this perspective lacks -- and I think Conservatives see this as a virtue -- is sympathy. 

Consider an alternative to toughness. "Gee, I said let's get tough on crime. That has not eliminated crime and the longer term trends with regard to crime were going down anyway. I wonder if we might think about why people commit crimes in the first place and find out if that is a way to lower the crime rate?" Friends of mine dismiss this idea as weakness. You need to be tough. People will take advantage of you. You need to think about the victim and don't treat the criminal as if they were the victim. In fact, or so this argument runs, we should have no sympathy for the criminal at all. 

There is in this perspective a politics of othering in which criminals are cast as irredeemably other and also a case study that speaks to how conservatives conceptualize relationships. Othering:  the logic runs something like this: criminals are, once and forever, once they have been identified as criminals, something very different. How else can one reasonably explain the Conservatives efforts to keep Khadr behind bars. How else can one explain the degree to which the Canadian government pursued an individual who was a brainwashed teenager who found himself at 15 in a war zone and did things, as a result, that he clearly deeply regrets? How else can one explain the way in which the Canadian government called Khadr a terrorist over and over and over again. Consider an analogy. If, when you were 15, you once got drunk ... should you be considered a drunk (with all that that entails) for the rest of your life? 

Relationships is the other point that comes out of this example and it is something about which we don't think often or discuss often in our society. The question is this: how should we relate to each other. Different political movements have different answers. Separatists in Quebec, for instance, were fond of saying over and over and over again "you do not understand us; you will never understand us" when they spoke to Anglo Canadians. They saw culture as a barrier that did not simply impede relationships but, in fact, made them impossible. Conservatives have a particular take on relationships as well that is difficult to specify. They see the world as tough, relationships as fraught, tough masculinist self assertion as a good and necessary thing that allows you to accomplish your goals in the face of people who will take advantage of you ... if you let them. Culture, too, is an odd thing to conservatives that impedes bonds of common allegiance or even self respect. How else, for instance, can one explain conservative efforts to refashion citizenship tests and prevent Mexicans and Romi from coming to Canada? 

In this regard, and perhaps only in this regard, are Canadian conservatives really conservatives. Their answers are behind the times. The policies that they offer -- natural-resource based economic development, opposition to the medical use of pot, a lack of sympathy, othering and the sense that reform is not possible (people don't change) -- are underscored by a worldview that seems out of place today. When they first came to power, the Conservatives promised many things, democratic reform and accountability are the two big examples. They have not delivered on either count but I doubt that matters to their core voters because their core voters are not about accountability or democracy. They are about a masculinist worldview that sees toughness as an answer,  that sees human character as fixed, that sees sympathy as a problem, and that confirms its own perspectives  (and, hence, does not change ... at least easily). There is little place for democratic reform or government accountability in this worldview. In fact, it is irrelevant to it. 
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