Where is Conservatism Today? Post-U.S. Election and after Harper’s Election Victory?

For the first time in nearly a quarter century, conservatives are at a crossroads. The recent Canadian and American elections, and the dramatic turn of events that preceded and followed both results, have dramatically changed the course of conservatism. And it’s going to be very difficult to create a new ideological transformation that will resonate with both partisans and average voters.

Wait a minute, some of you might be saying. Sure, the Republicans did have a poor showing in the U.S. presidential and House elections this November – but all political parties regularly win and lose power. So, they’ll come back stronger than ever in a few years’ time. Meanwhile, Canada’s Conservatives just won their second straight election, and appear to have survived the political coup d’état caused by the proposed Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition. So, they appear to be in the driver’s seat on the federal scene.

But as the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving.

In reality, the long-term success and/or failure of a conservative political party is often tied to the long-term success and/or failure of a conservative ideology. But whereas conservative intellectuals used to play an important role in helping the political movement achieve great electoral success, today’s conservatism is paying less attention to its intellectual wing. Rather, the fiery, populist wing and the rump centrist base have started to take back control of the political ship. This has caused North American conservatives to re-focus their energies on forming non-ideological political parties which are centrist, pragmatic, and even (dare I say it) maverick in their outlook.

Naturally, conservatism’s evolutionary process has involved degrees of ideological transformation, including: The birth of William F. Buckley’s National Review in 1955; Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s tenure from 1979-1990; Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election victory; the rise of Ralph Klein in Alberta (1992) and Mike Harris in Ontario (1995). But in my opinion, what is currently happening is rather unique. Conservatism is gradually shifting from a position of ideological strength to a position of ideological inconsistency. If this trend continues, conservatism’s future prospects are far from certain.

Hence, it’s important to take a step back and pinpoint the causes for this ideological shift. Sadly, the paper trail is fairly current and rather easy to identify.

Canada’s love/hate affair with centrist conservatism

When Stephen Harper was elected prime minister in January 2006, Canadian conservatives rejoiced. After more than 13 years in the political wilderness, largely due to the split between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform Party/Canadian Alliance, the movement had finally reclaimed the reins of power. At long last, conservatives would be able to run the government, effectively manage the economy, shape public policy, and re-build Canada’s standing on the world stage.

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what has happened. On the positive side, the Conservatives introduced tax credits and the universal childcare benefit plan, cut the GST, and played a strong role in the war in Afghanistan. On the negative side, the Conservatives supported an increased role for government instead of a reduced role, passed targeted tax credits instead of broad-based tax relief, increased government spending rather than enhanced the private sector’s role; and spent more time apologizing for historical grievances instead of promoting political and financial independence for these same groups.

For many conservative activists, this was the equivalent of Brutus stabbing Caesar in the back. But in reality, we probably should have expected this from the prime minister, who has long supported the notion of making incremental steps toward permanent political and economic reform. Mr. Harper may have been a strong conservative outside Ottawa, but he has tried to be a conservative-minded conservative inside Ottawa.

There’s another piece to this puzzle. During the 2008 federal election, the prime minister made some revealing comments to National Post columnist John Ivison:

“I said for a long time, and nobody listened to me for the longest time, that my goal was to make conservatism the natural governing philosophy of the country. At that time we didn’t have a single Conservative party. That’s what I set out to do. Now, two things have to happen — firstly, conservatives had to get our act together, which we did. The second thing that has to happen is we have to engage in a dialogue with Canadians. That means on some things moving the party to the centre. I think we’re doing that.
I also think our party is becoming, I wouldn’t say centrist, maybe more pragmatic. I’ve learned this myself. It’s great to have well-researched and thought-out policy ideas but you have to go out into society, find out what people want, find out what’s going to work and what incremental steps you can take to implement your policies. Grand blueprints that have been done on the blackboard, endorsed by experts with no practical experience in the economy or society, are disastrous. At a time when I shifted my party away from that kind of thinking, the leader of the Opposition has shifted his party toward it. So much the better for us.” [1]

For the record, this was not a one-off statement. Mr. Harper followed up on this theme at a campaign stop the next day in Fredericton,

“I think the Canadian public has become more conservative. At the same time, I don’t want to say the Canadian public is overwhelmingly conservative, or that it is necessarily as conservative as everybody in our party, and that means that our party has to make sure that it continues to govern in the interests of the broad majority of the population. One of the things that’s surprising to me in this election is to see all of the other parties…go basically to a pre-free-trade, Cold-War kind of approach to the economy. That means not only that we want to pull Canadians toward conservatism, but Conservatives also have to move toward Canadians if they want to continue governing the country.”[2]

The ultimate goal of Mr. Harper’s often-discussed 10-year leadership plan had finally been revealed: A pragmatic approach will make Canadians more conservative and more comfortable with the Conservatives, and transform conservatism into Canada’s natural governing philosophy.

On the surface, the strategy makes sense. Many Canadians aren’t very political or ideological, and consider themselves to be in the centre. Voters are naturally attracted to political pragmatism – which is seen as being neither extreme nor risky. Political parties of all stripes have strived to reach the middle ground since Bill Clinton’s first U.S. presidential victory in 1992. As Professor Tom Flanagan wrote, “A party that stations itself away from that midpoint yields more than half the potential votes to the other party and thus will lose the election.”[3] Finally, an incremental approach toward political change is often regarded as the yellow brick road of Canadian politics.

Still, is this really what Conservatives want – and what conservatism needs? There’s obviously nothing wrong with endorsing a centre-right approach to politics as an alternative to centre-left ideas and policies. That being said, it shouldn’t be the political ambition of Canadian conservatives to simply be fence-sitters who represent the “mushy middle,” and reject the growth potential of core principles such as across-the-board tax cuts, limited government intervention, and individual rights and freedoms.

Take it from a former speechwriter for this prime minister: In Mr. Harper’s long-term vision for a conservative Canada, that’s exactly what is going to happen. Conservative principles will always have a place in intellectual forums for small “c” conservative thinkers, but conservative policies will be continually watered down for public consumption by the Conservative Government.

It gets worse. If Canadian conservatives continue to follow this path toward the political centre, it’s going to be very difficult to ever find a way out. It’s no secret that political success eluded conservatives for many years. Now that the Conservative Party has found a winning formula, it’s highly unlikely that either Mr. Harper or his future successors will suddenly walk away. And even if the Harper Conservatives are ever brought down in a non-confidence vote, this will only result in the government’s collapse in the confines of Parliament – not the party’s collapse in terms of popular support.

When it comes to Canadian conservatism, the future looks bleak.

The Republicans’ unwise shift to populism

After the re-election of U.S. President George W. Bush in 2004, it seemed as if the Republicans were about to become the dominant party in U.S. politics. For example, the GOP had maintained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. More than a third of Americans identified themselves as “conservative.” Many independent voters, social conservatives, libertarians and Middle America had moved or voted for the centre-right. All in all, it appeared that a conservative juggernaut was being established.

So much for that theory. The war in Iraq quickly became a huge albatross for the White House. The president may have introduced a $1.35 trillion tax cut in 2001, but his second term bared witness to heaps of wasteful spending (and not all of it related to the Iraqi conflict). As well, the Bush administration’s lackluster handling of the global financial crisis ripped apart the historical conservative principles of small government, fiscal prudence and measured spending. It became so bad that even financial historian Ron Chernow told the New York Times, “We have the irony of a free-market administration doing things that the most liberal Democratic administration would never have been doing in its wildest dreams.”[4]

In time, the Republicans lost control of both Houses and President Bush’s approval rating plummeted. For the GOP faithful, this should have meant that they had to pick an inspirational choice as president who would revive party fortunes and hold off the Democrats. And while the 2008 presidential field was not the finest in recent memory, proven political figures like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani seemed like solid choices at the get go.

Instead, the Republicans chose John McCain. While he brought some impressive credentials to the table, including his status as a war hero, Mr. McCain had been at odds with the GOP since his 2000 presidential bid had failed. He opposed Bush’s 2001 tax cut plan (although he supported later tax-cutting efforts), and blasted the White House’s plan to reform HMOs and gun ownership. He promoted campaign finance reform, and was one of the few Republicans who jumped on the climate change bandwagon. There was briefly some talk of Mr. McCain jumping to the Democrats in 2004 to become John Kerry’s running mate.[5] And even after he patched up his previous quarrels with President Bush, there was concern among the grassroots that he wouldn’t toe the party line.

Hence, Mr. McCain had transformed into a “maverick Republican.” He played this populist role to the hilt throughout the presidential campaign, and the news media ate it up. [On a personal note, I cringe every time I hear the word “maverick” – even if it just refers to the old TV series starring James Garner.] It also appealed to many primary voters, perhaps as a way to counter the powerful campaign of either Hillary Clinton or the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama.

There was some hope that Mr. McCain would at least choose a conventional vice-presidential running mate, such as Romney or Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. But after reportedly coming close to picking his old friend, Joe Lieberman – a pro-choice Independent Senator, former Democrat, and Al Gore’s former running mate, who would have theoretically torn the GOP apart – he settled on another populist maverick Republican, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Ms. Palin was initially seen as an endearing character. She had strong support among social conservatives, and was a fresh, plucky politician as compared to the aging – and rather erratic – Mr. McCain. Yet she sadly suffered from political inexperience and a fundamental lack of knowledge about history, politics, and economics. For every high note that Ms. Palin hit, like her superb speech at the Republican convention, she bombed in far too many interviews, most notably with Katie Couric on CBS. As well, it’s now been revealed that there was growing tension between the McCain and Palin camps during the election. This meant that there were two political mavericks, giving two separate political messages, for one stalled political campaign.

Needless to say, the overt populism contained in the McCain-Palin ticket started to drive some prominent centre-right individuals into the Obama camp.[6] At the same time, many conservatives who bit their tongues and voted for Mr. McCain privately admitted that they had lost faith in their candidate – but couldn’t bear the thought of a liberal in the White House. While President-elect Obama won the electoral vote handily (365-173), the popular vote turned out to be much closer than expected (52.93%-45.67%).

Mark Lilla, a liberal professor and former editor of the now-defunct neoconservative journal The Public Interest, recently lamented the collapse of intellectual conservatism. He declared the “Palin farce is already the stuff of legend,” and that young conservative intellectuals in National Review and The Weekly Standard tried “to find a young, populist leader to whom they might hitch their wagons in the future.”[7] As far as Mr. Lilla was concerned, the conservative intellectual tradition had met an untimely death.

To be fair, it’s a bit too early to say whether intellectual conservatism is truly dead. But there’s little doubt that it has lost a great deal of its influential role in the GOP, however.

The future of conservatism

For conservatives, it’s time to make an important decision. Do we follow the current path toward centrism and populism that Prime Minister Harper and the U.S. Republicans have forged? Or do we make conservatism a truly centre-right philosophy with the potential for broad-based appeal?

My suggestion is obviously the former. Here are some ways to start the ball rolling in the quest to reinvent conservatism:

1) Revive the important role of intellectual conservatism. This can be done by enhancing the importance (and promoting the establishment of) think-tanks and introducing new, thriving political publications of intellectual heft.[8] To be sure, this endeavour will take a great deal of time, effort and money. But the end result will be a thriving conservative community that promotes great ideas and develops young minds. This will help ensure that the next generation of conservatives is on the right track in terms of support for important political, economic and cultural issues.

2) Conservative political parties should veer to the centre-right, and not the centre, track. Focus groups have revealed that core conservative principles on taxes, size of government, individuals, culture, the environment, religion and family resonate with conservative and non-conservative voters. By providing good, responsible government to the needs of average people, they will reward you at the ballot box time and time again. Let liberals and socialists fight each other for the smattering of centre/centre-left votes – there really aren’t as many as we typically think.

3) Ideology matters, so keep it alive. It’s a mistake to believe that a strong ideological position won’t sell to Canadians. It will, but it depends on what the issue is – and how and when it is introduced. For example, while the Harper Conservatives’ ideological proposals to eliminate public financing for political parties and public sector union strikes until 2011 both made sense, they were introduced way too early in the government’s mandate and without warning. Given time, the government could have made a convincing argument to ensure that both measures were in the public’s interest. While it’s too late for these proposals, there are other compelling issues – and better ways – to introduce ideological positions, even in a minority government.

4) Instead of consistently being on defense, get on offense. Both Canada’s Conservatives and the U.S. Republicans have worked hard to flush out controversial policies and people in their ranks. Good. They served no purpose except to harm the growth potential of conservatism. It’s important for voters to understand that there’s no hidden agenda (or even a secret handshake) in conservative-leaning parties. The best way to accomplish this is to stay on message: Establish a series of policy initiatives, work towards accomplishing them, and don’t give people the opportunity to suggest that there’s something else lurking in the background.

5) Ensure that populism only plays a minor role in conservatism. There is an element of populist appeal in conservatism that continues to thrive in parts of the U.S., Western Canada, Ontario and within various ethnic and religious communities. That’s great, and it should be maintained. But it would be a mistake to let populism run amuck and achieve control of conservative thought and ideas. The key in success to politics is to make sure that intellectual priorities always come first, and populism plays a small secondary role to balance out the ticket.

In the past, conservatives fought hard to win the hearts and minds of voters. They were successful due to the promotion of intellectual concepts, ideas and issues that mattered to the general public. They controlled the political debate, and convinced some liberals – and even a few socialists – to reconsider and restructure their political and economic theories.

It is possible for today’s conservatives to regain the fire in their bellies. But to do so, I believe they have to get past their current infatuation with centrism and populism – and get back to the centre-right with the intellectual conservative principles that brought us great electoral success. Here’s hoping for a true conservative revival in North America.

  1. John Ivison, “On gas, gaffes and ‘Mr. Mean,’” National Post, September 13, 2008.
  2. Andrew Mayeda, “Canadians have become more conservative, Harper says,” Canwest News Service, September 14, 2008.
  3. Tom Flanagan, Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power. McGill-Queen’s University Press: 2007, p. 279.
  4. Nelson D. Schwartz, “Abroad, Bailout Is Seen as a Free Market Detour,” New York Times, September 18, 2008.
  5. Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei, “McCain’s Resistance Doesn’t Stop Talk of Kerry Dream Ticket,” Washington Post, June 12, 2004.
  6. See Christopher Buckley, “Sorry, Dad, I’m Voting for Obama,” The Daily Beast, October 10, 2008 and Anne Applebaum, “Why McCain Lost Me,” Washington Post, October 28, 2008. For an interesting Canadian perspective, see Jonathan Kay, “Another Conservative for Obama,” National Post, October 14, 2008.
  7. Mark Lilla, “The Perils of ‘Populist Chic,’” Wall Street Journal, November 8-9, 2008. Also, see Jane Mayer, “The Insiders,” The New Yorker, October 27, 2008 in terms of the controversial suggestion that McCain’s choice was part of a plan by conservative intellectuals.
  8. Tasha Kheiriddin and Adam Daifallah, Rescuing Canada’s Right. John Wiley & Sons: 2005, p, 49. I’m in complete agreement with Kheiriddin and Daifallah that we need to build a multi-faceted conservative network which is similar to successful American and European models.

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