Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield: Bigotry and Conservatism

As the CPC and its intellectual allies grapple with their defeat, they have a number of options, two of which I have already highlighted. It appears that the Parliamentary caucus is ambiguously settling on a Tea Party like opposition mode, which is  both their right and their job ... in some ways. I'd advice them against it because even though it will play well with their base, I'm skeptical that it will play well with the rest of the country. I'm sure, of course, that this is not their only plan. I'm sure they have already worked out the details of a multi-pronged oppositional strategy that includes their own efforts to re-brand progressive policies in a negative way that casts them as political manipulation or corruption, in the same way that Republicans in the US seem to have convinced a large section of the US population that health care is actually not good for you and the US Government is evil for providing it.

Where the Conservatives run into problems, however, is in the loose mishmash that makes up their party. All political parties have core supporters. One becomes concerned about a party and its future only when -- or, well, seriously concerned -- you start to lose your core supporters. That is: the people who have hung in there, voted for you, put signs on their lawns, donated, come to meetings (or, perhaps protests), encouraged friends and family to turn out, etc. This core group is what carries a party through opposition or a minority position in Parliament or the legislature. One's core group is, by definition, not amenable to much change (hence, the term "core").  They are not easily swayed by the shifting winds of politics. They may or may not be a party members (my grandfather, for instance, was an on-again-off-again member of the PCs here in NB but whether or not he was officially a member, he always voted Tory) but that is less important than their votes and support.

When there is a shift in core supporters, that signals a wide change in what political scientists call "the party system." For instance, the demise of Social Credit in Alberta and the rise of the PC dynasty was such a shift ... of sorts. Likewise, the collapse of the Conservatives and, for a while, Liberals in BC (replaced by SoCred and CCF-NDP) is another example. And, a third might be the demise of the old PC party federally which, for a while, left the Liberals without any serious challenger as a national political party. Instead, the Liberals fought a series of regionalized battles against other parties (NDP and PC in the Atlantic, BQ in QC, Reform and then CA in the west).  Reform and the Bloc sucked away core PC supporters in their regions of the country, forcing the demise of the PCs as a viable political alternative.

Viability, as you can tell, is a key issue. Parties and independents periodically win local elections for a variety of reasons that can include the popularity of local candidates, the temporary demise of another political party (say, CoR's brief foray into NB politics), or isolated and localized support among a relatively small core group (Quebec solidaire in QC and the Greens in PEI, NB, and BC might be examples). But, viability means something other than winning a seat or a few seats. Joe Clark and Jean Charest no doubt helped win a few seats here and their for the old PCs as they struggled on after the 1993 debacle. But, that did not make the party viable as a national alternative to the Liberals because they had lost core support in QC and the west. To be a viable political party, you need to have people who you can count on to turn out and vote for you, sign your petitions, donate money, come to events, etc., time after time after time. This is what differentiates parties that have a brief moment in the sun (Bloc populaire, Cape Breton Labour, PANB ... well, almost) from even smaller parties with a core group of supporters.  Without this group, the party will disappear.

What does this have to do with the Conservatives and with bigotry? Or, even with my oblique Star Trek reference in the title of this blog? Bigotry is a dilemma for the conservatives and highlights, in fact, the problems of that party (all parties, of course, have problems). The CPC wants and needs the support of people who call themselves "social conservatives," or "traditionalists" or even "real Canadians." If it is going to win, it needs those votes. It needs the votes of people who want to ban the niquab, who want to restrict immigration, who would -- if they could -- turn back the clock on gay and lesbian equality, who want to find ways to limit women's control of their bodies, and who want to ignore environmental problems because deep down they don't really believe that there are environmental problems (its all exaggerated, etc.). Now, I hasten to add that I am not accusing anyone in the CPC or its Parliamentary caucus of holding such views. Truth is, I've not looked up all these people and likely will not since its not on point to the point I am making (and, would be incredibly time consuming).  What is on point is that these people (a) don't vote Liberal or NDP or Green and (b) have found a home over the years in various conservatives parties. The old Reform Party, you will remember, had a serious problem with bigotry when it started out (Preston Manning used the metaphor of finding bugs when you  turn over rocks to explain this away). They find their home there because (a) the conservatives recognize that they need these votes, (b) seem to share *some* of these views (Harper, as well know, encouraged Islamophobia through his bizarre campaign against the niquab, or at least what The Globe found bizarre -- see previous blog), and (c) other parties clearly will not have them (racists, I am guessing, would be quickly forced out of the NDP and Green Parties and I assume would be told to go away in the Liberal Party as well).

The problem with this group of people and their views is not that they have them or that they vote Conservative but that having them and having them in the CPC creates problems for other voters. More exactly, it creates problems attracting other voters. I met Reformers -- and CoR members! -- who just could not understand why their anti-Francophone rhetoric stopped French Canadians from voting for them. Just another sign, I recall one person say, of the problems with French Canadians. But, more astute conservative politicians understand the problem right away. I'll go out on a limb and state this bluntly: most Canadians don't agree with bigotry, most believe in equality, and most think that the state should not tell individuals what to do with their bodies (that is, that the regulation of the body should be as limited as possible). Most, it appears, want to help Syrian refugees; most believe that climate change is a problem, and most embrace diversity. What "most" means is fluid, but you get my drift. By themselves, the core group of CPC voters is a minority (larger than we might like but smaller than that core believes), not large enough to win elections -- except in unusual circumstances -- and the views of their core supporters drive away other potential voters who just cannot accept the views of core Tories.

One lesson of the 2015 election for Tories (whether they want to learn it or not) is precisely the above: core voters can stand behind you and be energized by your campaign, say the anti-niquab, but ... well ... its not a winning formula. In fact, its a recipe for defeat.

Over the years, conservative parties have tried a range of approaches to address this problem. The old Red Tories, for instance, in Canada simply exiled the bigots (this was Stanfield's approach, at least): you might have support but you are no longer welcome in our party. This is a principled and ethical stand. Others have simply accepted the fact of their eventual demise (CoR), perhaps railing against it but not really contesting elections. Some have accepted their place on the fringe (say, Christian Heritage), because they believe a bigger principle is at stake. The approach of Reform, the CA, and then CPC, however, was different. It tried to keep these votes but silence the voters.

Now, I've overstated that point. I don't think -- to give him his due -- Preston Manning  tried to silence anyone and Stockwell Day was incapable of silencing dissidents in his own party. The issue was not censorship but an effort to keep people who hold particular views quiet while disavowing their statements or chocking it up to internal debate, free speech, a "lone wolf," etc. Harper, for instance, did not impede discussion of anti-abortion laws but he simply said that the CPC under his watch would not bring forward such legislation (even if members of his party might support a private members bill ... that was their business).

Another strategy has been to try to recast particular views as good and noble and consistent with the best conceptions of freedom and democracy. Thus, Harper avoided actually talking about the fact that his campaign against the niquab was an instance of him -- as PM -- telling women what they could and could not wear. In this way, a policy aimed at limiting the rights of an incredibly small minority group was transformed into a campaign for women's freedom, an anti-Islamic stance was made to sound like "freedom of religion." Harper said that no women should be made to cover her face but the irony -- that he was involved in precisely the same activity (telling women how they should dress and threatening to make it a matter of law) -- seemed to be lost in the shuffle. Likewise, the opponents of gay marriage went to incredibly length to explain that they were not bigoted but merely "defending the family" (even though equality was not a threat and that there other important concerns -- say, daycare -- that should have been addressed if one really was concerned about the family).

The final strategy is trans-formative as well, but in a different way. It involves arguing that the issue that is being discussed is not actually the issue that is important. For example, conservative apologists tell us that they are not defending bigotry which, they assure us, they themselves oppose. But, they also reject "censorship" because it is a greater problem and so must, reluctantly they assure us, support the "rights" of bigots to campaign publicly to subvert the very rights they claim to uphold. (In fact, a few years ago we saw an odd group called "Journalists for Free Speech," or something like that, argue that if they were not allowed to stage offensive and racist public lectures on someone else's private property -- that is, on the property of a private institution, meaning that they were arguing that even private institutions should be forced to accept racist lectures; they have no free choice or ability to control themselves -- censorship was occurring!) It is an odd circular reasoning, to be sure, but the key problem is that it creates a stalking horse. It makes it seem like free speech is somehow under threat in Canada when the only threat that has really reared its head in recent years is the Conservative federal government itself.

There is a real problem, of course, with this reconstruction of bigoted views as somehow about democracy, freedom, etc. Well, likely more than one but one on which I will comment right now: what happens is that bigotry is given the veneer of respectability. Indeed, the CPC helps to create arguments that seem to make some level of intellectual sense (see my blog on the idea of a referendum) or which seem to be about higher principles, as opposed to the crass views they dress up. In this way, the CPC, may, in fact, be helping to perpetuate views that otherwise would be consigned to the margins as inconsistent with freedom and democracy. For instance, if the government came out and said "we are prejudiced against Mexicans and so are going to introduce new rules that make their entry into the country more difficult" ... well ... most Canadians would have pause. But, if we dress this up as "illegal immigration" or a "security threat" ... well, we have something else (because we all know that there is no way a Mexican got to Canada, legally, right?). After Harper began his anti-niquab campaign I heard more people who had never given a fig about women's rights -- and, to the best of my knowledge still don't -- talk as if they were defending women's rights. Ideally, of course, women's rights could be best defended by keeping "them" (aka niquab-wearing women) out, too.

To say this in different words: the CPC tries to walk a thin line. It does not want to lose votes it know it needs but it does not want the views of those voters to dominate party policy or scare off other potential voters that it also needs. This is the dilemma and the electoral implications of it. To avoid this dilemma, the party adopts a number of strategies that includes asking party members to stay silent (with, one presumes, the promise that something will be done in the future), transforming the issue from what it is into a point of principles (this is not about Islam, its about ... women's rights!), or distracting attention from the matter at hand by claiming that a greater issue is at stake (I'm not a bigot but I won't stand for censorship). The effect is twofold. First, the CPC has to deal with views that, sooner or later, come home to roost. Sooner or later, someone in the party will make manifest what it has been trying to keep silent, as Harper himself did in the last federal election. Second, the CPC becomes complicit in the perpetuation of bigotry. Its dilemma, in this way, feeds into and becomes another dilemma, but for all of Canada, and not just it.
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