Conservative Optimism is Not an Oxymoron

William F. Buckley, the legendary founder of National Review magazine, once famously defined a conservative as someone who “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” It’s a vivid description to be sure, conveying a heroic image of defending age-old principles and eternal truths. Yet it doesn’t really evoke a winning political philosophy, does it? After all, if you habitually resist the onrushing forces of change, odds are you’re going to keep getting knocked down and trampled. What we call “conservatism” has suffered plenty of trampling or, more accurately, been worn down by successive waves of what is deemed progressive modernity.

In the 20th century, North American conservatism traded economic places with “classical liberalism” and more or less identified itself with free markets, self-reliance and smaller government in conjunction with its adherence to traditional virtues such as patriotism, honour and family. It seemed a winning combination, and at times it was. The Roaring 20s, the epic defeat of fascism, the astounding economic growth of Western countries in the 50s and 60s, the even more astounding economic transformation of dozens of Third World countries in the 80s and 90s, the winning of the Cold War and liberation of Eastern Europe, all these were almost unalloyed triumphs of conservatism or conservative values.

And yet between and even during these victories, conservatism lost vast ground to the forces of socialism, radical egalitarianism, moral relativism and the welfare state. This came first in the 1930s as a response to the Depression, and resumed in the late 1950s, with some marked interruptions but overall momentum as the century closed. Conservatism’s victories, though prominent, seemed ephemeral, its defeats permanent. This century, conservatism has faced an onslaught from a more insidious but potentially even more dangerous foe: a rejuvenated and modernized cultural and economic Marxism, its “Long March through the institutions” virtually complete, and now energized by the onward generational advance of progressive, left-wing millennial legions.

Today’s conservatives face an unrelenting – and, at least for North America, virtually unprecedented – assault from this coalition as it works to discredit conservative ideas and its proponents through smears and denigration. The principal defamations involve racism, homophobia, misogyny and crimes against the environment. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken to attacking federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer as a proxy for violent, extremist white nationalism.

This progressive invective is disseminated thousands of times on a daily basis, on thousands of political targets large and small, high and low, via social and mainstream media and political pronouncements. Lives are ruined, people go into virtual hiding, and conservatism is demoralized and silenced, nowhere more so than in institutions of higher learning. The mainstream news media repeat and amplify these smears, tarring virtually all conservatives with the same brush. In Canada the CBC recently ran a column under the headline: “Why is conservative politics such a natural home for white supremacists?”

Combine the long-term general trend of ideological retreat with today’s cultural assault and it’s small wonder that many battle-weary conservatives are infused with fatalistic pessimism tinged, perhaps, with romantic nostalgia. For them, the “good old days” are always in the past, the future gloomy and frightening. To some degree, this is a habit of the conservative mind. In the late 1700s, British MP Edmund Burke, whose eloquent writing and political theories midwifed modern conservatism, waxed melancholy about the French Revolution: “The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.” This was a decade before the start of Europe’s best century ever. But Burke’s happy error hasn’t prevented a further 10 or so generations of conservatives from seeing their glorious values buffeted and sometimes extinguished by modernity. Big governments kept expanding, morality kept loosening, culture kept coarsening, and reversals were partial and fleeting.

Burke bemoans the French Revolution:
Burke bemoans the French Revolution: "The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”

So what’s a postmodern 21st century conservative to do?

It does seem a great many conservatives have surrendered to pessimism. They feel or assume that conservative ideas will forever be unsaleable and uncompetitive in electoral politics. Even the occasional partisan conservative victory at the provincial or federal level offers only short-term joy. The limitations of governing in the current cultural environment breed disillusionment, and victory at the polls is inevitably followed by defeat.

The need to cope psychologically with this bleak state of affairs has moved some conservatives to convince themselves that losing is OK. This might be called the “yelling at history to stop” school. To its adherents, there’s no shame in supporting a noble but lost cause. “Losing nobly” has actually become a political expression in the U.S., where successive Republication presidential candidates adopted this outlook – Mitt Romney being the most recent example. What matters to them is preserving the purity of conservative ideals, values and manners, even if conservative policies are never implemented. This is the camp I used to reside in.

Some other conservatives, meanwhile, just want to be on the winning side, and if conservative principles seem to be hurting their cause, they’ll make the required adjustments. One branch of this wing – variously called “pragmatists”, “Red Tories”, and “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only) – even embraces some left-wing or progressive policies and poses in a vain quest for acceptability and respectability. As a friend of mine once disgustedly put it, “The leftist policies conservatives oppose today are the same leftist policies conservatives will defend five years from now.” This might also be called “pandering” conservatism – although in this case, conservatives are pandering to left-dominated elites more than voters, for their leftward movement often alienates significant segments of the electorate.

While some choose appeasement and accommodation, others have adopted confrontation. Conservatives disgusted with losing have shifted from ideology to tactics, unleashing a raw, emotional and sometimes angry energy that capitalizes on the resentment many feel towards ruling elites. Usually called “right-wing populists”, they’re aggressive and unafraid to scrap with the left. Most famous among them, of course, is Donald Trump. In the words of Republican consultant Larry Weitzner, Trump “matches the energy of his supporters. His fundamental understanding that voters are effectively done with conventional politicians enables him to capture their attention and imagination like few American politicians ever before.” Unfortunately, Trump and other populist politicians are prone to discarding some conservative policies and especially manners, indulging in some of the same destructive rhetoric as the left and thereby further coarsening politics.

It’s easy to see the flaws with all these approaches. The “yelling at history” school risks turning conservatism into a kind of intellectual museum. Stagnation will set in, the movement’s political arteries hardening and its intellectual attic filling with dust, its modern-day relevance soon evaporating. The Red Tories and the pure populists, by contrast, might achieve electoral victory by either appeasing the left or bashing the elites. But what’s the point of winning an election if you’re not implementing conservative ideals? Such a victory is at best a rearguard action against socialism.

To my mind, the only way conservatives can succeed without either jettisoning or entombing their values is to break out of their pessimism. Conservatives need to start believing true conservatism can win without (too much) anger or (significant) appeasement. Despite our checkered record over recent decades, I still think there’s room for optimism. I think it’s possible to link the intellectual, ideas-oriented branch of conservatism to the dynamic energy of populism to forge a winning political coalition (which, in turn, will attract pragmatists and Red Tories) that still remains true to conservative ideals.

This will take two things. First, conservatives themselves need to upgrade and re-energize conservative ideology. We don’t need to water down conservatism, but we do need to make it pertinent to 21st century concerns. Not every problem can be solved with further tax cuts or still more globalization. Conservatism has evolved before, including in remarkable ways, such as its abandonment of protectionism in favour of free markets and free trade, and its embrace of universal human rights (including its rejection of anti-Semitism which, perhaps not coincidentally, is markedly intensifying on the left). Our side has the intellectual heft to figure out what we need to do this time around. Our think-tanks and conservative academics must set their minds to this critical task.

Second, we require political leadership with the fortitude and strength of belief to promote conservatism. We need a leader who combines the optimism and likability of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, the steely courage and rigorous commitment to principle of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and the energizing ability of Trump to rally not only the base but attract “natural” conservatives disaffected by left-wing politics and political correctness.

Could such a leader emerge in Canada? It may not be as improbable as it sounds. Jason Kenney, the newly elected Premier of Alberta, is a widely read, philosophical conservative with a 30-year history in the movement. He clearly understands conservative principles and values, and his record shows he sticks to them more than most. His three-year odyssey that brought together the fragmented conservative tribes in Alberta, convinced them of the need to unite under the United Conservative Party banner, and executed a winning election campaign, demonstrates an almost superhuman energy and determination. In the process, Kenney rallied once demoralized conservatives to sweep the social democrats from power, rendering Rachel Notley’s NDP regime  the first “one and done” government in Alberta’s history.

Finally, Kenney again proved his ability to smile and convey an optimistic, forward-looking confidence even while under relentless political attack. He actually grew the conservative brand. The UCP’s 55 percent share of the popular vote (as of Elections Alberta’s April 19 count) exceeded the combined 52 percent polled by the PC and Wildrose parties in the 2015 election. More than a million Albertans voted for Kenney’s new government, 250,000 more than voted PC-Wildrose four years ago. That result also suggests that in Alberta at least, traditional conservatives, a large proportion of pragmatists or Red Tories, and populists can all come together.

Kenny has never led a government and he faces huge challenges in trying to undo the economic damage done to Alberta. Notley and her progressive proxies show little sign of being humbled by their electoral defeat and are vowing to rage on against conservative “intolerance and extremism.” Whether the Kenney government prospers or falters, I’m convinced conservatism can rejuvenate itself and be democratically competitive if it can find a strong leader with the right mix of traits. So let’s put aside the pessimism, let’s embrace the future, let’s start looking for the right leaders and, in the meantime, let’s dust off the books and modernize the conservative program while continuing to build bridges. Let’s build a brand of conservatism that instead of yelling “Stop” declares, “Bring it on!”

Gerry Nicholls is a communications consultant living in Oakville, Ontario, a regular commentator on public affairs programs and a former vice-president of the National Citizens Coalition.

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