Saturday, May 30, 2009

Canadian Conservativism

A friend from High School took an online quiz, and was surprised to find the political leader she most identified with was Ronald Reagan. She is not someone who would vote for a conservative political candidate and yet, if the quiz is accurate, is more conservative than she realizes. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and would like to put this in the context of Canadian politics.

Conservatives come in many genres. There are philosophical conservatives, theological conservatives, social conservatives and fiscal conservatives. But my friend doesn’t necessarily fall into any of these categories. So where does that place her? I would like to argue that there is a fifth type of conservativism which is often ignored, which I will term the “hearth and home conservative”.

A philosophical conservative is one who has immersed himself in conservative political theory. He has read the major authors on conservative theory, and is comfortable debating the ideas of major philosophers throughout the last couple millennia. Unlike fiscal conservatives (and to a lesser degree, social conservatives) he sees political ideas more in terms of right and wrong than in terms of effective or ineffective. For example, it doesn’t matter to him whether the country can afford to spend $60+ billion in economic stimulus; for the philosophical conservative it’s still wrong due to the long term affect on people’s attitudes.

Philosophical conservatives will tend to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) for want of a better option. Better options would include various “fringe parties”. Philosophical conservatives are relatively rare and so deliver a smaller number of votes and manpower to assist in elections. The amount of money that they would deliver to a campaign would be smaller still due to the wide range of conservative causes to support, and due to an attitude of “I’ll give my vote for a lack of a better option, but I’m not happy and I won’t give my money.” Pragmatically speaking, there is little point in the CPC courting philosophical conservatives; they are too few in number and adopting their program would alienate huge numbers of voters in the center. Still, every party should have a philosophical foundation.

Theological conservatives are largely represented by self-identified Christians (including evangelical Christians and observant Roman Catholics), though devout Muslims, Jews and Hindus could someday be considered part of this category. Theological conservatives have a philosophical basis for their conservativism, which would be referred to as “special revelation”. Special revelation refers to a divinely given revelation, typically codified in a book. Theological conservatives have several significant differences from philosophical conservatives. First, their conservativism is based on the acceptance of their book, rather than on a philosophical consideration of major schools of thought. Theological conservatives also make up one of the larger voting blocks in the country. For example, a Macleans poll on religion suggested that 7% of Canadians are “born again Christians”. While this represents about half the percentage of born again Christians as the United States, it is still a large potential block of support.

One can argue that the CPC has been effective in mobilizing theological conservatives. Within evangelical churches, a surprising number of members have become CPC members. They may not talk about politics, but they have become more politically active in recent years and are providing their votes, their money and their time to the CPC. The challenge for the CPC will be to make sure that these supporters do not walk away. Theological conservatives in Canada are surprising politically mature. They do not expect an unimpeded march towards theocracy, and indeed the vast majority of them do not want theocracy. They believe in a division between church and state, but as Richard John Neuhaus once said, they “do not believe in mutual ignorance.” Theological conservatives believe they have ideas which will benefit their society as a whole. I would argue that if the theological conservatives go away, the CPC will not be able to win elections. The bad news is theological conservatives feel the CPC has not delivered much on their agenda. The good news is that this situation could be easily turned around. And even better news is that devout Jews (who have historically voted Liberal), Muslims, and Hindus could be added to the ranks of CPC supporters.

Social conservatives fall into a different category than theological conservatives. Though many of their ideas overlap, they must be considered separately. Social conservatives have conservative ideas about how society should be structured, but have less of a philosophical basis than others. They are more concerned with what works effectively, rather than philosophical right and wrong. While they may pronounce on matters of moral right and wrong, there is no overall foundational basis for their beliefs. One result is that each issue must be decided on a case by case basis, though in practice social conservatives can adopt a block of issues that they and their friends support.

Because social conservatives decide issues on a case by case basis, the CPC runs less chance to losing all of them (or gaining all of them) dramatically. For theological conservatives, it is much easier to make an all or nothing decision to back the CPC or ignore politics altogether. For social conservatives there is a wider range of opinion.

Fiscal conservatives form the backbone of most conservative movements. This is because it is easier to subscribe to fiscal conservativism rather than the others I have mentioned. Likewise, fiscal conservativism is an easier sell than the others. In practice this means that a pragmatic political party will often act in a fiscally conservative and socially liberal manner, so as to obtain more votes from the center. The other types of conservatives are left consoling themselves that things will get better, but feeling like they are ignored and used.

Fiscal conservatives can also be a shifting base of support for the CPC, because it is well known that the Liberal Party of Canada tends to campaign from the left and rule to the right. Essentially this means that the fiscal conservatives and social liberals tend to get along well in Liberal circles. It also means that fiscal conservatives who are left learning on social issues (a.k.a. Red Tories) can feel comfortable swinging their vote to the Liberals.

So that is an analysis of the traditional types of conservatives. But now we come to a type of conservative which has been historically ignored. This is the “hearth and home conservative”. The H&H conservative does not self-identify with any of the previous categories, and indeed may vote for any of the major political parties. But in their personal decisions, the H&H conservative aligns their life with the traditional types of conservativism. While distaining any attempt to suggest a course of action for others, the H&H conservative chooses to make very conservative decisions on a personal basis.

How is this lived out in a practical way? The H&H conservative may not respond well to a traditional “law and order” platform, but personally be very supportive of having additional police patrolling the neighbourhood. Likewise, H&H conservatives may reject doctrinaire defenses of “traditional families” but will respond well to specific policies which they can see as being family friendly. So the key to reaching this audience in a campaign is to avoid making doctrinaire statements, but to propose a series of practical policies that ring true in their gut. The good news is that there are a lot of H&H conservatives out there. Even better, most of them are swing voters, whose support the CPC could pick up. And many are women, in a demographic that the CPC has had a hard time winning over in a sustainable way. It should be noted however that the H&H conservatives will provide votes, but will be unlikely to provide money or manpower to help in a campaign.


Anonymous Ed said...

One key description of conservatism in your article that keeps coming out is pragmatism. If anything, pragmatism is the leading ideology in Canadian politics today. It is the dominating "mushy middle" that has no clearly defined philosophy. The problem with the mushy middle is that it has no foundation from which to formulate or evaluate political, social or economic policy. It all comes out of what works (and only what works in the short term vice the long term) and what feels right. Life is ruled by the gut and rarely from the head.

The mushy middle is a volatile bunch that may believe X today but then reject X in favour of Y tomorrow depending on how issues are presented in the media (style) while never considering the truth of the matter (substance). Because of that volatility, it is difficult for any political party to successfully court this group and win them over for a long period of time. When the cultural winds shift, and they sometimes do on a dime, the mushy middle will abandon their party or its leader in a heart beat.

In my view, conservatism in Canada is very diffused and lacks a philosophical and moral centre that can win the day in Canadian politics. The strong attachment to pragmatism, the second child of postmodernism, makes this difficult if not impossible.

I don't think the H&H form of conservatism, if one can call it conservatism, can be won over by any political party for any significant period of time. Their focus on pragmatism and personalism makes holding on them the equivalent to holding on to Jell-O when squeezing it hard.

To win pragmatists over, a party has to be pragmatic. But to be pragmatic means to abandon principle.

12:06 p.m.  

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