Notes on movement conservatism and MNC 2016

The largest annual gathering of the Canadian conservative movement has come to a close and, for the second time in three years, I had the pleasure of joining in.

Here are a few thoughts hastily written as I ride the train back to Toronto.

State of the movement

This year’s conference was the first to take place in a political context without the Conservative Party in government.

While delegates certainly didn’t give off an aura of defeat or surrender, attendance appeared to be much smaller than the last time I visited (in 2014). If their recent electoral defeat has wrought any particular change among Canadian conservatives, it’s something besides an ideological one: Participants at all of the panels and sessions I attended seemed to have full confidence in the rectitude of their ideas and philosophy and, with only a few exceptions, intra ideological debate was visibly less than at the last incarnation of the conference I attended.

Instead, the conservative movement appears preoccupied with aesthetic and logistical issues. Over and over again during panels and their accompanying Q and As I heard variations of the following: “How do we communicate better?”, “How can we articulate a conservative message to people who don’t identify as conservatives?”, “How do we relate better to young people/journalists?”. There was an overwhelming sense that the Conservative Party fought the election on the basis of more or less the correct ideas, but failed to communicate them adequately.

Though the ghost of Stephen Harper – who remains the first and only leader of the united Conservative Party – looms over the movement, both his legacy and the challenges that follow from his defeat were repeatedly discussed in cloaked and evasive terms. His name was very rarely mentioned (often substituted for “our government”).

While no one ascribed blame to Harper for it, there appeared to be an overriding sense that the true motivations and aspirations of conservatism had been buried; that the party had overwhelmed the movement, become insular, and excluded potential members and activists.

All the familiar themes were present – “Personal responsibility”, related emphases on security and order; the entrepreneurial narrative and its accompanying condemnations of the state as an economic oppressor, etc. – but they emerged in a less guarded fashion than they might have during a meeting of the now deceased Harper cabinet.

Having said this, the conference’s preoccupation with the cosmetics of conservatism (rather than the ideology or philosophy of conservatism) seems to me a symptom of confusion and atrophy rather than renewal.

The path to the conservative utopia does not run through more effective use of Facebook or Twitter, or a more effective application of modern campaign techniques. An interest in value-neutral political technology may be necessary for the success of any ideological project. But, when it starts to override intellectual and spiritual introspection and debate, the movement clearly has a problem.

The view from stage left

As a left wing observer at the conference, it was a real treat to listen to my ideological opposites reflecting on their politics and the state of their movement. The right’s frustration with the status quo and its desire to produce transformative change are qualities I admire, at least in the abstract. The maintenance and nourishment of a movement takes considerable labour, as does the pursuit of ideas which run contrary to apolitical wasteland of late capitalism.

But neither my admiration or agreement survive beyond this abstract terrain. The conservative movement’s historical sense is anemic and its political-economic analysis even worse.

Its continued sense of victimization and marginalization is unwarranted, given that we’re currently living in the world the new right of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s created: conservatism may need to retain this psychological outlook to remain viable, but it lacks historical perspective and fails to take into account the near-ubiquitous triumph of neoliberalism as the ideological spirit of the times.

Movement conservatism also misinterprets and misunderstands its political opponents. “The left” and “liberalism” are repeatedly conflated (sometimes under the nonspecific umbrella term “progressive”). There seems virtually zero awareness of the difference between liberalism and social democracy, let alone anything to the left of the latter. The bogeymen du jour are messieur Trudeau and madame Wynne (Tony Clement referred to Ontario under the Liberals as “the People’s Republic of…”), who are taken to be great champions of “activist Big Government” that seek to “tax and spend” (both mortal insults in conservative circles).

Again, a little perspective here might be warranted. The Wynne administration, which certainly postured around the motif of “activist government” during the 2014 provincial election, just commenced the privatization of Hydro One, having spent its last several mandates repeatedly slashing the corporate tax rate. It may pursue social initiatives like sex ed that offend the sensibilities of the social conservative fringe, but its claims to even lean slightly to the left are shoddy at best.

Ditto for Canada’s new prime minister. His proposition, outside of a deceptively shallow emphasis on “tone”, is essentially to restore some of the programs cut under the previous Conservative government. There is nothing remotely radical about his tax plan, which has already cut taxes for most of the richest 10% of earners (it raised them slightly for the very richest, with a net loss in revenue for the federal government) and does nothing to reverse the repeated cuts to corporate taxes which took place under Stephen Harper (during the campaign, Trudeau even derided the NDP plan to raise the CIT as anti-business). His program for deficit spending is nowhere near the one undertaken by the Conservatives themselves in scale and is quite explicitly branded as an economically-necessary one-off rather than an attempt to increase structural program spending. Finally, his social policy embraces the neoliberal mould of means-testing. During the campaign, Trudeau attacked proposals to create new universal social programs and committed to addressing Canada’s childcare challenges using the same underlying logic as the Conservatives (only with more generous benefits and with the means-testing performed in advance rather than retroactively through the tax system).

That the political centre represented by the Liberals now exists on this terrain is something the right should celebrate as a sign of its ongoing victory. In caricaturing mainstream liberals like Trudeau and Wynne as harbingers of a renewed offensive by “activist government”, movement conservatives are shadow boxing with a chimera of their own creation.

As for the problems with the ideological outlook I observed this weekend, where do we even begin?

Despite retaining the classical conservative emphases on tradition and institutions of social cohesion (the family, nationalism, etc.), the conservative movement born of the 70s new right is overwhelmingly guided by a romantic obsession with the capitalist marketplace. In many important respects, it views this as the single most crucial foundation for both individual and social life – an essentially neutral sphere in which individuals can pursue their personally-crafted life goals without external interference.

If there are imperfections, it is assumed these are the products of meddling or rigging by the state rather than defects inherent by design. There is virtually no problem – poverty, homelessness, unemployment, social anomie – for which the movement conservative does not have a market solution (accompanied by a diagnosis which places blame on an overly activist state). That the market is a structure of power like any other – with intrinsic hierarchies and imbalances that only harden over time and render the ethical goal of meritocracy an impossible one – is simply not accounted for or acknowledged. It is conceived of as a natural equilibrium: as politically and axiologically neutral as evolutionary biology or the force of gravity – not a human construction that is the product of specific historical and economic circumstances, and certainly not an amalgam of institutions that should be subject to democratic change, adjustment, or wholesale replacement when signs of failure appear.

The very notion that there might be valuable moral principles outside of individual economic calculus that should govern our political, economic, and social lives is pure anathema.

Party and movement: Looking ahead

Among the most interesting features of the conference were two related panels showcasing prospective candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party. Here are a few thoughts on each of them:

Michael Chong: Chong’s speech was heavy on personal narrative and short on ideology. As many conservatives like to do, he emphasized his family’s own struggle against adversity (as immigrants from Hong Kong in the mid 20th century). Also invoking family experience, Chong spoke of Canadian heroism in the Pacific during the Second World War (his dad was in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion) as a jumping off point to a familiar and Harperesque story about the need for decisiveness in a dangerous world. Not without a certain rhetorical appeal, but overly polished and personal for a politician regarded to have intellectual substance.

Kevin O’Leary: Whether O’Leary’s musings about running for the CPC leadership represent empty posturing, performance art, or genuine testing of the waters I do not know. His abrasive, bloviating speech was big on pro-business and energy (that is, oil) rhetoric of the kind favoured by the crowed and was well-received enough, but mostly hard to take seriously.

Maxime Bernier: By far the best of the five speeches, Bernier’s was heavy on ideology as well as rhetorical flourish. His attack on government subsidies to corporations got raucous applause and, in the subsequent Q and A, he answered Preston Manning’s policy questions with notable specificity. When Bernier runs, his apparently insurgent candidacy will be interesting to watch.

Tony Clement: Clement’s Instagram follower count probably dwarfs the crowd that heard his speech. Though he chose not to fixate on his personal story as some other candidates did, it was hard to extract a thesis from his remarks. A call for the privatization of the CBC and some mild criticism of the way the party conducted the 2015 election were the only real highlights of the speech.

Lisa Raitt: The only woman to speak (Kellie Leitch had been scheduled but cancelled last minute) Raitt focused on her youth on Cape Breton Island and, like Chong, her family’s various struggles. Beyond a few notes of traditional Toryism, it is unclear what exactly her campaign will be.

In the Q and A that followed each speech, Preston Manning asked each candidate the same question about how to make conservatism appeal to youth. Revealingly, each gave a variation of the same answer: The key to attracting the next generation is for conservatism to be more obviously and outwardly conservative: In his answer, for example, Tony Clement suggested that young people, like conservatives, are “lovers of freedom”.

This apparently banal comment may reveal more than initially meets the eye.

It occurs to me that each and every one of the prospective candidates for the leadership of the CPC came politically of age at around the same time in the 1980s or early 1990s, i.e. during the ascendency of movement conservatism. Then, its calls for “self-sufficiency”, “personal responsibility”, and “individual liberty” over and against the state had an emotional and spiritual resonance that often transcended lines of gender, race, and class. But the lived experience of today’s young people is quite different from those who consider themselves children of the Reagan revolution.

In an economic context characterized by precarious work, low wages, poor financial security, and the widespread exploitation of young labour by employers (who are often from a different generation) across the workforce, solutions that emphasize personal grist and the imperative of an improved work ethic are unlikely to be well-received.

Looking south, it is quite the opposite: Young people appear drawn in much greater measure to Bernie Sanders’ message, and its various attacks on oppressive economic structures, than to movement conservatism’s pickled ethos of “individual liberty” or its various ideological stepchildren (including the Clintonite variant).

Movement conservatism may have dominated the past three decades. But everything I’ve observed this weekend suggests the possibility that something very different may come to dominate the near future.



A few thoughts on Andrew Coyne and the Manning Centre Conference

Andrew Coyne’s latest column is about this year’s Manning Centre conference. I attended last year’s gathering, here are a few thoughts:

-I was impressed, even as a lefty, by the sheer dynamism of last year’s conference. Everything was positively dripping in ideology, as it should be at something like this. So I think his complaints about it being taken over by “party conservatives” are a little exaggerated.

-One thing that I repeatedly observed last year was a widespread belief that right wing governments have retreated from “true conservatism”. This attitude is reflected in Coyne’s column, as he actually attaches the words “planned economy” to BC Premier Christy Clark with only minimal hyperbole. The view that the Party in Power™ has abandoned the True Path™ is one found in most populist or revolutionary movements which succeed politically. In holding this view of the Harper or BC government, movement conservatives are rather amusingly in sync with the Trotskyists who held the Soviet Union to represent a deformation of workers internationalism.

-Something else I repeatedly observed last year was an almost complete ignorance about the left among movement conservatives. Most would not be able to recognize, and would probably be unwilling to acknowledge, the difference between liberals and social democrats and/or democratic socialists even though these two poles are invariably represented by different political parties and have very disparate historical origins. I know this column isn’t about the left, but Coyne too shows little interest in even trying to understand the ideological foundations upon which his opposites rest. This is a problem not limited to the right, mind you.

-I share Coyne’s irritation with how conferences like this one have become totally saturated with “activist training” sessions, concerned with the effective use of social media and the like. The Manning Centre has doubtless trained plenty of effective activists and this is an important part of its mandate. But the gathering of a movement should be about ideological debate and contestation, not Facebook or Twitter. I hope the Broadbent Institute’s Progress Summit, which I’ll be attending later this month, achieves a better balance between seminars/debates and training. Movements need to be effective at communicating and organizing, but they become hollow without ideology. Activists need to be more than effective Twitter warriors or campaign staffers. They need something to believe in.

-It’s both amusing and instructive that the “good guy” of Coyne’s column is British politician Iain Duncan Smith, one of the most hamfisted and least effective leaders the British Tory Party has ever had and the frontman for its campaign to degrade and demonize the extremely poor. Inept, mean-spirited, and fundamentally concerned with the overt defence of aristocracy and class privilege: This, apparently, is what “true conservatism” looks like.

-The tensions between a party and a movement are real. Overlooking or ignoring them serves nobody, and Coyne is right to privilege latter over the former in this context. I had some thoughts on this after last year’s conference, which you can read here: (*I’d like to scream from the rooftops that the phrase “host of ideological shards” wasn’t of my creation. It’s been a year since I’ve revisited this piece, but you still can’t have a “host of shards”. Mixed metaphors don’t serve movements either.


Has Stephen Harper made Canada more conservative?

That we’re now discussing the character of Stephen Harper’s legacy is probably cause for optimism among those of us who aren’t his fans (legacies debated preemptively are rather like obituaries-in-waiting). Whatever one’s view of Stephen Harper, it has become fashionable to imagine his departure in a manner which goes beyond the abstract and to similarly reflect on his political career and its achievements.

A recent intervention on that score comes from the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson, who writes, unsurprisingly, that Stephen Harper has successfully made Canada a more conservative country. As evidence, Ibbitson cites six policy areas in which the Conservatives have made recognizable changes: spending, crime, immigration, security, democracy and federalism. Writing in reply for National Newswatch, Don Lenihan offers something of a contrary view: that the tenure of Stephen Harper, far from being an era of deepening conservatism, is more one of increasing centralization and authoritarianism.

It’s hard, probably impossible, to disagree with this part of Lenihan’s analysis or its staggeringly bleak observation that such centralization risks calling the very legitimacy of our democratic institutions into question. But on the question of whether Stephen Harper has made Canada more conservative, I would offer an alternative interpretation.

The notion that the past nine years have represented, in part or in whole, a deviation from true conservatism is one shared by many observers on the left and the right. When I attended the annual Manning Centre conference last year, this was a sentiment clearly held by many delegates, some of who were understandably frustrated that their ideas would almost certainly never see the light of day in Stephen Harper’s government. One journalist I spoke to referred to the event as a meeting of the “conservative movement in exile” and the overall ethos of the gathering was more like that of Woodstock (except with more suits and crappier music) than one of the infamously regimented meetings of Harper’s cabinet. This view seems at least implicit in Lenihan’s piece, as he counterposes conservatism and centralization and suggests that the latter has little to do with conservative ideology. I’m not so sure.


If we want to seriously interrogate this notion, we have to go back to the origins of the modern Conservative Party because it’s against this period that the ostensibly deviant conservatism of Stephen Harper is often measured. Reform, forged from the twin fires of Western alienation and populist ferment in the late 1980s, was officially committed to an agenda of lower taxes and public spending, reformed federalism, and, most notably for our purposes, sweeping democratic reforms. Its founder Preston Manning even initially sought to brand the party as “neither left or right” and as “more reformist than conservative”. Sweeping into Parliament after the 1993 federal election (though just missing out on Official Opposition status to the Bloc Quebecois) Manning and his MPs vowed to break with the old habits of Canada’s staid and ossified political institutions: among other things loosening caucus discipline and rejecting several of the “perks” traditionally offered to Members of Parliament. For a time, Manning even refused to follow the traditional practice of leading his caucus from the front bench and later mused about turning Stornoway into a charity casino. images Reform members behaved, and believed themselves to be, more like the parliamentary wing of a national movement than a traditional political party in the old Liberal or Progressive Conservative molds. In their future incarnations as members of the Canadian Alliance and the [pre-government] Conservative Party of Canada, the same MPs and their supporters remained committed to democratic and institutional reform. Viewed in relation to this period, it’s easy to see why many believe the pattern of increased centralization and authoritarian control of messaging that set in more or less immediately following the 2006 federal election represents a betrayal, or at least a deviation from, the Reform Party’s original project.

I profoundly disagree.

The Reform Party was, above all else, about achieving or at least advancing conservative objectives in a country whose political culture is fairly hostile to most or all of them. These were all perfectly explicit in its program, and I’ve named a few already: lower taxes and public spending, constitutional and democratic reform and, importantly, innumerable social conservative objectives related to things like law and order and “the traditional family” (a favourite phrase of Manning’s in the early and mid 1990s) and the creation of a more homogenous, austere, and martial national ethos. Its membership was overwhelmingly socially conservative and sought to use the party as a vehicle to advance sectarian causes and, where possible, turn them into national policy.

Let us consider the Reform/Alliance democratic reform agenda a bit more closely. During his campaign for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, Stockwell Day promised to hold a national referendum on any issue should a sufficient number of citizens sign a petition calling for one. Yet leaked Alliance documents specifically referred to abortion in relation to the proposal. Day’s eventual leadership victory was welcomed by conservative members of the press such as The Report’s Paul Bunner who enthusiastically wrote:

Mr. Day’s Alliance now represents a romantic hope for a freer country where taxes are lower and government less meddlesome, where respect is granted, not coerced, and where the whims of the intelligentsia are constrained by direct democracy.

Far from being an autonomous part of the Reform project, planks like direct democracy were promoted with a view to better advancing conservative objectives. Populism was ultimately a means rather than an end, which is why it was so easily abandoned following the transition from Opposition to Government.


This fact is also illustrated by Manning himself, who has frequently conflated populist democracy with conservatism despite his own deep commitments to the latter. Take this anecdote from his 2014 conference speech (which I was, incidentally, in the front row to witness – the version below comes from the official transcript):

Back in the days when I was engaged in political door knocking in Calgary Southwest, I was thinking about better ways to get citizens more engaged in elections when I knocked on the door of this house and the voter inside immediately asked, “What’s your platform?” To which I replied, “What’s yours?”

He said: “What do you mean?”

“Well” I said, “My party and I have a platform which I can show you. But what about your platform? What is it that you want to achieve over the next four years – for yourself, for your family, for your community, for your employer or business, for your country? Write that down, and judge me as your MP and my party, if we were to form a government, by the extent to which our policies and actions facilitate and enable you to implement your platform and achieve your goals.”

This is a conservative vision of government – government as a facilitator and enabler of others. And likewise the Conservative Movement is a facilitator and enabler – a facilitator and enabler of conservative thinkers and political activists to better serve their parties, their constituents, and their country.

Had I been the nameless voter in the story above, I would certainly have replied to his question with a platform neither Manning nor his party would have wanted to facilitate (“Well Mister Manning, sir, I’d like to raise taxes on corporations and high earners in order to better redistribute wealth, and I’d like to constrain the environmental and social damage wrought by our economy through the institution of new state regulations…etc.”). You take my point.

Conservatism by other means

I believe Preston Manning to be perfectly sincere in his professed ontology of politics. But it is manifestly wrong to depict conservatism as an axiologically neutral facilitator of popular ideas or, by extension, to think democratic openness is in any way a natural or organic outgrowth of it. (And note the final sentence in the quotation above in which Manning attaches, almost as an afterthought, the word “conservative” to the idea of “facilitating and enabling”.)

Political ideas are not autonomous from their social origins, but rather intimately connected to them. American conservatives do not champion the chimera of “states’ rights” because they have some principled attachment to localism over centralization, however much they may articulate this cause as being a democratic one. Rather, the modern project of expanding state-level jurisdiction over social policy emerged in the South primarily in opposition to the Civil Rights movement and, eventually, as a means of undermining other federally-directed initiatives like equal marriage.

Similarly, the project pursued by Canadian conservatives to dismantle [some parts of] the federal government and promote provincial “freedom” in areas like healthcare has always had more to do with opposition to the kinds of things the federal government has typically pursued rather than a particular commitment to decentralized power. A more recent example is the government’s militant opposition to the NDP’s proposed national daycare scheme. In interview after interview, Conservative MPs have framed the issue as being about choice versus centralization and pluralism versus bureaucracy. But, as I’ve written elsewhere, such opposition has far more to do with a conservative conception of the “traditional family” than it does with any abstract concern about the size or scope of the state.

Ultimately, the purpose of Canada’s conservative movement is to advance the cause of conservatism. Democratic populism can be either a facilitator or an obstacle to that cause, depending on the political context. Harper My sense is that Stephen Harper understands this fact far better than the ever-earnest Preston Manning. His style of government, with its tendency towards unprecedented centralization and control of information, seems premised on an acute awareness that the vast majority of Canadians are not conservatives and, as such, need to have conservatism imposed on them in piecemeal, concealed behind a technocratic smokescreen and with as little visible ideological colouring as possible: Fabian neoconservativism.

It is this understanding, more than anything else, which motivates the almost martial discipline Stephen Harper and his apparatchiks enforce on the Conservative caucus and their ruthless obsession with bureaucratic centralization and control; their repeated steamrolling of parliamentary rules and conventions; their willingness to use public resources for the purposes of self-promotion; their very deliberate transgressions against election law; their use of selectively bellicose rhetoric on the world stage to court particular constituencies at home; and their ruthless, mean-spirited debasing of political opponents. Harper has not, by my estimation, become any less conservative than he was in his Reform Party days. Rather, time and experience have taught him that conservative objectives will be better advanced by way of a coldly Machiavellian approach that subordinates overt ideological fervor to a more utilitarian ideological calculus.

To be committed to an ideology is ultimately to believe in a particular conception of how society and politics ought to be and to pursue it as an ideological partisan; to be an ideologue is to be more committed to its realization than to the procedural and ethical constraints of existing institutions. While Preston Manning may not have fully understood or accepted this, Stephen Harper does. Far from having strayed from the conservative objectives of the Reform Party, he has merely taken them closer to actualization. As populism becomes authoritarianism the means may have changed, but the ends remain exactly the same. In this sense at least, Stephen Harper has made Canada more conservative.