Friday, January 01, 2016

Through the Mirror Darkly: Counterfactual History and Conservative Election Victories (Part I)

Among my favourite Star Trek episodes are those that focus on the Mirror Universe, a dark alternative reality where history has played out differently. First introduced on the Original Series, the mirror universe was picked up on DS 9 and then used again on Enterprise.  Rather than developing a peaceful democratic and humane (!) federation of planets, humans created an evil empire that subjugated other races, practiced slavery and torture, used assassination for career advancement, condoned corruption and graft, etc. Eventually, the human empire is overthrown and humans themselves are subjected to slavery. The point being, of course, a take on "what comes around goes around": the empire built on oppression and corruption and hedonism collapses only to enslave its former masters; the democratic and ideal-driven society committed to the public good survives.

I mention this because some conservative commentators seem to live in this mirror universe. They live a world where the Tories won the 2015 election ... or, rather, should have ... were it not for some simple twists of fate or mistakes on the part of the CPC. An example of this kind of reasoning can be found in this Globe editorial.  It is, in my view, interesting because it illustrates a different type of counter-Liberal discourse than that articulated by Rex Murphy and on which I commented in a recent blog. Instead, in this discourse, the Liberals did not so much win the election as the Conservatives lost it by failing to play to their strengths. Instead of fighting the election on economic grounds -- a supposed sure winner for the Tories -- they elected to fight it on cultural issues, guaranteeing their own loss. The upshot, if you've missed it, is this: Canadians did not really elect a progressive alternative to the Tories, marginalizing them with something like 30% of the popular vote. Indeed, Canadians, in this mirror universe, are still committed to conservative economic ideas and would have kept the conservatives in power *if* the conservatives had just not made a mistake or two.

Like Rex Murphy's extremist anti-Liberalism on which I commented in a previous blog (in which the Liberal Party is preemptively accused of subverting democracy and individual rights and promoting government sanctioned theft ... they haven't yet but just in case they do, best to get that accusation out of the way in advance and, if they don't, well heck, they surely will do something nefarious anyway so why not slag them with this?), The Globe's post-hoc rationalization of the Liberal victory serves to construct a pro-Conservative discourse, albeit in different ways. It is those different ways that interest me and that is what I am addressing in this series of blogs.

Before I do so, however, I should explain what I am trying to do. I am trying to understand, assess, analyse, how conservatives are responding to 2015 and what their project of nation -- their vision of Canada -- entails. How do they approach the issue of constructing an alternative government (one job of an opposition party)? What discourses do they enable that will enhance their position in the public sphere? How do conservatively-minded Canadians respond to progressive Canadians? What do they think is wrong with the country and with public life? In other words, my aim is to do something I might not be good at but this is a blog, after all: assess the discourses of Canadian conservatism using its response to the 2015 election defeat as a case study. In this blog I will back up and look a bit at the nature of conservatism in Canada today before shifting ground in the next blog to look more directly at the Mirror Universe of Conservatism.

Proviso: I am not trying to apologize for anything that the Liberal Party has or might do. I've offered, elsewhere, a critique of Canadian liberalism and I might offer more in the future. What I am interested in is how conservative Canadians -- supporters of the CPC, partisans, contrarians, anti-Liberals, traditionalists, neo-liberals, etc., are responding to the Liberal victory, and responding to something that looks a lot like a victory for a "progressive" vision of Canada. This is important, of course, because it is not just a Liberal victory to which The Globe and Murphy are responding. It was the overwhelming rejection of conservatism ... an ideology that has long had shaky foundations in Canadian public life and which fashioned a government out of the sponsorship scandal, twists of fate, moderated policies, and a particular cultural context.  Canadian conservatism, as I've also noted elsewhere in this blog, has become an odd duck.  At one point in time, it carried forward a fairly solid and cohesive ideology epitomized by the work of George Grant, among others.

This is not really the case anymore. Instead, the party and its supporters are an odd informal coalition of sorts that is guided by a mishmash of ideas that make for something much less than ideological cohesion. Part of this mishmash is the simple fact that even Tories recognize that they will never win election with a straight forward conservative platform. They cannot, for instance, oppose equality for gays and lesbians, consign women to the kitchen, and reverse immigration flows in a Quixotic effort to whiten Canada. They can't really limit women's control over their own bodies (at least they can't in much of the country) and they can't turn back the clock on a range of other reforms -- limiting prayer in schools, for instance -- that they might like. Thus, their policies lack cohesion, on one level, because they can't really speak their policies out loud. Every once in a while a so-called "social conservative" will express disappointment with the CPC and suggest that grave things might happen if the Tories don't respond to conservative evangelical demands, but most of the time even these people realize that they are on the losing side of history (a generous perspective, and one that I'd be inclined to take, might use a different language here and refer to the inherent difficult of fashioning ideologically consistent policies in brokerage parties. Thus, Reform, the old post-1993 PCs, and then the Canadian Alliance might have been more ideologically consistent but ... they had no chance of winning. A 'big tent" politics necessarily means some inconsistency as a party strives to unite disparate electoral communities into a winning party.)

But, another reason that this CPC lacks ideological cohesion is that ... well ... it simply lacks ideological cohesion. The people it attracts often have little in common with each other, a point made by people more in the know than I (I think here of Michael Beheils' review essay in the American Review of Canadian Studies published a number of years ago). The social conservatives who rail against changes in Canadian demographics or gender relations don't have a lot in common with the neoliberal anti-welfare state resource capitalist looking to get Keystone XL up and running. Small town Maritime traditionalists (of which there are fewer than one might think) don't have a great deal in common with free market advocates in the Fraser Institute or Quebec "soft nationalists" concerned about Islam (a minority position in Quebec, I hasten to add!).

What unites these different groups of people is that they all self-identity with a particular part of the political spectrum (the right) and all reject another part of the political spectrum, which they associate with the left, but which actually includes most of the centrist civic nationalism that formed the field of force in Canadian politics from the 1960s through the early years of the 2000s. Exactly what they dislike about it varies. Some don't like its commitment to individualism (which they see as introducing a wimpy "rights talk" and subverting the old fashion "stand on your own two feet" approach to life or which is associated with equality for gays and women and minorities). Some feel that the welfare state makes for bad economics. Some dislike the supposed secularization of Canadian society and what they see as the abrogation of tradition. What these different groups share, then, is not an affinity with each other but an antipathy to liberalism and the Liberal Party.

I'll give you an example: many evangelical social conservatives -- no matter what they might say -- actually have little problem with state involvement in society and the economy. As we've seen, for instance, evangelical universities in Canada (of which there are a few) can make just as much use of state money (not in volume but in the fact that they get it) as secular institutions. Evangelicals, in fact, often call *for* state intervention to limit access to abortion, as one example. Other  conservatives support such matters as income splitting, using the state to lobby foreign governments to import Canadian oil, aggressive foreign policy that includes the use of the military, restrictions on immigration, building new prisons (despite a lowering crime rate), and other like matters. In other words, the issue is *not* opposition to the state, but opposition to what they believe the state does. If it does different things, its OK. But, and this is my point, economic conservatives (neoliberals) might look at some of these things in a very different way and oppose the state on principle. I recall listening to an friend of mine (an economics prof) respond to a business person at a conference we host years ago. The business person was complaining about the limited market in the Maritimes and suggested the government needed to do something about this. My friend said "its not the government's job to find you customers." That is opposition to the state.

The other thing that these groups share is a belief not simply that they are right but that they represent "the people." What do I mean by this? Well, think about it this way: as I noted in my previous blog on Rex Murphy, Murphy distorts Canadian constitutional law, ignores the election act, seems oblivious to history, and seems unaware of how Responsible Government functions let alone Parliament but he does all this in the name defending "the people." The idea that the current government could somehow represent "the people" is rejected by Murphy out of hand. I don't have space to engage Murphy's odd argument but what is interesting is that in his calculus, everyone who did not vote Liberal somehow becomes an opponent of progressive policies, that is: a conservative. (Remember, the issue Murphy is opposing is making the Canadian political system more responsive to the electorate ... that was what he was taking his stand *against* and suggesting that it is a particularly nefarious theft of popular rights.)  It does not matter if you voted Green, NDP, BQ, or Conservative, a vote for any of these parties makes one, ipso facto, on the Conservative side of the ledger, thus Murphy can claim that 60% of Canadians do not support progressive changes designed to enhance democracy.

This is a very odd math, but it makes sense if someone thinks that their own personal views are broadly representative of majority views. (I will confess, as a Green Party supporter, I have never been able to harbour this particular illusion). I've told this story before but I'll give you a personal example. I once found myself at a party in a small Maritime town where I was the only person who believed in gun control. The 20 or so other people at the party (who were all nice enough) found it impossible to believe that a majority of Canadians favoured gun control because everyone they knew did not. They thus ascribed gun control to some soft of elitist lefty plot to rid ordinary folks of their cherished guns. You might have heard similar things from opponents of Syrian refugee ("no one wants them"), of opponents of women's control over their bodies ("no one believes in this"), of equality for gay and lesbian equality, etc.

Such ideological positions are difficult to disentangle, I will confess, and sometimes there is, in fact, a recognition that the views being held are not majority positions. But, at that point, the discourse shifts. I'll simplify to illustrate a point: real Canadians think X. This discourse is disturbing because it draws the type of cultural distinction that made many of us distrust the more radical separatists in Quebec. It seems to work through a discourse that creates perpetual marginalization for some people and rationalizes inequality. There are those of us who are *real* Canadians whose voices should count more than those people who are *not* real Canadians. These unreal Canadians could be ethno-cultural minorities, people of particular political stripe (feminists, for instance), people who speak a particular language other than English at home. The point, of course, is political. This discourse recognizes that conservative views are a minority perspective but explains this away by demoting other views and making them not count.

Why is this important? Am I involved in something other than a rant? I'll answer yes to both questions, I hope. It is important because, for conservative people, it creates a problem. If *real* Canadians are those that share particular views -- say who see refugees as a threat and want to exclude them or who feel women should be the primary cooks in a family or who oppose celebrations of holidays other than Christian -- then the 2015 election creates a particular problem, doesn't it? The vote did not go the way it was supposed to go. There is no way to disguise the fact that only about 30% of  Canadians voted  the way they should. That means that real Canadians are outnumbered 2:1 by unreal Canadians or ... it mean something else.

Likewise, economic conservatives -- people at The Globe, for example (neoliberals) -- need to explain why their ideas did not carry the day. I won't go through this thought exercise again because the point is obvious, but you can see where I would go. The punchline: if all good and real Canadians (perhaps those knowledgeable about the economy) support a neoliberal economic order ... how do we explain 2015?

The Mirror Universe -- to which I will turn more fully in my next blog -- is one answer.
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