Q&A

You asked, I tried to answer.

Well I was expecting maybe a dozen people to submit questions, and instead I got roughly seventy replies, which is awesome! I won’t be able to answer every question and I may have a go at doing this again at some point. There were lots of interesting questions that didn’t make it here. Some of the answers are quite long so I didn’t end up doing too many. If I didn’t answer your question and you desperately want an answer feel free to reply to this again and ask. Some of the questions here are condensed/paraphrased versions of common questions. There were also a surprising number of personal questions, if you’re not interested in those kinds of questions just skip them. I feel weird answering questions like these but I decided to answer a few.  

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on public broadcasting in Canada--it's traditionally been supported by conservatives (and Conservatives), but has become something of a target for them over the last few decades. Just curious about your thoughts on the value of public broadcasting (in general and in Canada, specifically). 

I have a half finished newsletter on this that I’ve been sitting on for a few months. I’ve been trying to get more familiar with the Broadcasting Act and CBC’s mandate. In short, I’m very supportive of public broadcasting in theory, and done right it’s immensely valuable. But that theory of what public broadcasting could and should be does not match the reality of what CBC is today. Serious reform is needed. The value of public broadcasting in Canada especially is that it doesn’t have to worry about market forces and can focus on Canadian content and coverage. That is what it should prioritize, and in addition to Canadian coverage that it could pursue shielded from market forces, it should also prioritize public education and teaching Canadians about their own country and history. It could also fill gaps in local news and coverage. 

Taken together, the mandate of CBC and a Canadian public broadcaster should play a crucial role in “shaping the national consciousness” and helping to forge and create a national consciousness. CBC has lost its way. It ostensibly does some of the things I’ve described, but not really and it needs serious reform and renewal. CBC has plenty of good journalists, but as many inside CBC itself will admit, it is dysfunctional and in need of a shakeup.

CBC isn’t going to be completely defunded, as many conservatives want, and nor should it be. The brand still has some legacy power, and most Canadians would not want to dismantle it even if they think it needs reform. A country like Canada needs a national public broadcaster and we would be much better trying to come up with serious ideas for a reform. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we already have a great model of what a good public broadcaster could look like in Canada - TVO.  

How important do you think it is (or will be) for Canada to pursue some degree of "internet sovereignty" in the coming years?

Very important. I wouldn’t call it internet sovereignty I would call it digital sovereignty and it’s something I’ve found myself thinking about a lot lately. I’m going to do an entire piece on this at some point and I’m still reading and thinking about it, so I’ll keep this short. But I think this is both necessary and inevitable. The era of the “open” internet was never going to last, and we’re entering a new era of digital regulation. Canada has a choice on this. We can either be rule takers, and have our digital regulation entirely crafted by America, or we can decide what we want for ourselves and try and ensure some degree of digital sovereignty. The Canadian internet will be regulated, the question is whether it’s regulated by people in Washington and San Francisco, or Ottawa. We’ll probably have no choice other than to follow rules made in America, but we should at least consider if there is an alternative and what that could look like.

From a historical perspective, there has been only four successfully elected Conservative Prime Ministers in the last 85 years: Diefenbaker, Clark, Mulroney, and Harper. Of the four, who should O’Toole most seek to emulate in terms of image, style, and policy in order to create a new electoral coalition to bring the party back to government?

This is going to be a really long answer and it answers quite a few questions that were sent in. The framing of this question is indicative of what I think is one of the central problems with Canadian conservatism. I’m going to give you my own half-baked theory on what the real problem is. In the process I’m deliberately blurring the lines between pure electoral politics and considerations and ideational (relating to the formation of ideas) factors, because I think the problem at the political level in part stems from ideational problems. But of course I would think that, I live and work in the world of ideas so I need people to think they matter.   

Canadian conservatism has obviously changed since 1867, it would be silly to expect otherwise. But Canadian conservatism was the dominant political force at the federal level for the first fifty or so years. What I mean by this is that the default was that conservatism and Conservatives governed, while the Liberals primarily opposed. But in the 20th century that flips, and it is the Liberals that are governing party and political force, while Conservatism is the force of opposition.

Leaving aside Clark, only three Conservative leaders have formed majority governments in the last 85 years. Two of them, Diefenbaker and Mulroney, won landslide elections, while Harper built his way to a majority in 2011. Those two landslides came after decades of uninterrupted (or near uninterrupted) Liberal dominance. Canadian conservatism has become a force of opposition, swept to power once in a generation when people briefly tire of the Liberals, and then return to opposition once again.

Why did this happen? In the postwar era especially, the Liberals became the natural governing party because they became the national party. As I’ve wrote in a previous newsletter, liberalism and the Liberal Party redefined Canada in their image. This in my view is the secret to Liberal success. Canadians naturally associate the Liberals with many of the things that people see as part of the Canadian identity now, from the charter to multiculturalism to social programs to bilingualism to multilateralism. The Liberals remade Canada in their image. This makes them the default and the governing force. As long as the Liberals are the national party they will be the natural governing party (federally). In the first few decades of Confederation the opposite was true. The Conservatives were the party that defined what Canada was, especially in its old British image (in English Canada), and it was the Liberals who opposed. 

Canada is a country preoccupied with itself and what it means to be Canadian, this is why I think the party owns the “national question” will be the party that generally governs. And as I wrote in my True North Patriotism newsletter, Canadian conservatism I think ended up reflecting this as well as the force of opposition. Lots of Conservatives are ambivalent or dislike the new Liberal Canada, but they face the dilemma of either opposing it and being the anti-national party, or they can fully accept Liberal Canada, but then they also become a force of permanent controlled opposition. If you want Liberal-lite, more often than not you’re just going to vote for the Liberals. 

The closest a Conservative ever came to changing this arguably might have been Mulroney. Had he succeeded at Meech Lake or Charlottetown I think Conservatives would have ended up reclaiming a good chunk of the “national question.” Now that’s not an endorsement of Mulroney, but it’s a fascinating what-if to ponder, and I’ve always wondered if Pierre Trudeau kind of knew this and that was part of why he was so opposed to the constitutional reforms that would have come out of Meech Lake or Charlottetown.

As long as Liberals are the national party they will be the natural governing party, the Conservatives the natural opposition. But part of this is because of the kind of ideological opposition that conservatism in Canada has embraced. Conservatism in Canada has largely replaced the old Tory tradition with a conservatism similar to that of America. An anti-statist type of conservatism concerned with lower taxes and small government more than anything else. This may not be how conservatives govern in practice, but this is the north star that acts as intellectual and ideological inspiration for Canadian conservatism now. 

The problem is that this is deeply alien to Canada’s political culture and this kind of conservatism never will have widespread appeal in most of Canada in my view. It fits better with Western conservatism, which has a much more libertarian and populist streak to it, but it doesn’t fit the political culture of the country more broadly. Here is a long passage from an old Charles Taylor essay that captures some of the defining features of Canada’s political culture that are as old as Confederation (and before): 

“What is Canada for?...The answer here used to be simple. Way back when it really fitted into our official name of “British North America," the distinctness question answered itself; and unity seemed to be the corollary of the drive for distinctness in face of the American colossus. But as the Britishness, even “Englishness” of non-Quebec Canada declines, this becomes less and less viable as an answer. We are all the Queen's subjects, but this seems to mean less to less people; and more awkwardly, it means quite a bit to some still, but nothing at all to others, and thus cannot be the basis of unity. 

What binds Canada together outside Quebec is thus no longer a common provenance, and less and less a common history. But people find the bonding elements in political institutions and ways of being. This is not a total break from the old identity, because Britishness also defined itself largely in terms of political institutions: parliamentary government, a certain juridical tradition, and the like. The slide has been continuous and without a sharp break from the old to the new. There are even certain continuing elements, but the package is different. 

Canadians feel that they are different from the Americans, because (a) they live in a less violent and conflict-ridden society. This is partly just a matter of luck. We do not have a history that has generated an undeclared, low-level race war continuously feeding itself in our cities. But it is also a matter of political culture. From the very beginning Americans have put a value on energetic, direct defense of rights, and therefore are ready to mitigate their condemnation of violence. There is more understanding of it south of the border, more willingness to make allowances for it. And this has something to do with the actual level of violence being higher there, as well as with a number of strange penchants of American society, such as that expressed in the powerful lobby for personal firearms. Canadians tend to put more value on “peace, order and good government." At least, this is how we see ourselves, which is perhaps what is important for our purposes; but there seems to be some truth in the perception. 

As a consequence, there is more tolerance here of rules and restrictions that are justified by the need for order. With it there is more of a favourable prejudice (at least in English Canada), and a free gift of the benefit of the doubt to the police forces. Hence the relative absence of protest when the War Measures Act was invoked in 1970; hence also the strange reluctance of the Canadian public to condemn the RCMP, even after all the revelations of its dubious behaviour. 

We might add that Americans' tolerance of conflict extends into the domain of law as well. They are more litigious than we are. They think that is a good thing, that it reflects well on them. No one should take any guff from anyone. We tend to deplore it. From an American point of view, we seem to have an endless appetite for guff. But perhaps the long-term effect of the 1982 Charter will be to diminish this difference.

Related to this first point, Canadians (b) see their political society as more committed to collective provision, over against an American society that gives greater weight to individual initiative. Appeals for reduced government can be heard from the right of the political spectrum in both countries, but the idea of what reduced government actually means seems to be very different. There are regional differences in Canada, but generally Canadians are proud of and happy with their social programs, especially health insurance, and find the relative absence of these in the U.S. disturbing. 

This is how “peace, order and good government” manifest in Canadian political culture, and it’s why I think Canadian political culture is distinct and different from America, as much as some argue otherwise. This is more pronounced in the east than in the west, but even in places like Alberta I think this is still true. Canadians are much more comfortable with government, they want a peaceful and ordered society, not a wild and untamed one. The Toryism of early Canada reflected this. In order to preserve Canada and to build a peaceful and ordered society Canadian Toryism was historically much more comfortable with using the state to achieve these ends.

Canadian liberalism as it remade Canada in its own image in the 20th century becomes the party that better reflected this political culture I think. You can see how things like gun control, even if they are ostensibly “progressive” are rooted in this deep political culture and desire for a more peaceful and ordered society.

This answer is long enough it could be its own newsletter, apologies. But if Canadian conservatism is ever going to be a governing force and not just opposition that occasionally gets to govern it has to do two things that forge a distinctly Canadian conservatism that can be appeal to a wide swathe of Canadians. The first, as I detailed in the true north patriotism newsletter is that conservatism needs to start to reclaim part of the national question and own part of the Canadian identity. The second, and related to what a “distinctly Canadian conservatism” should look like, is that it has to become a part and movement that reflects our political culture. Prioritize good government instead of just small government. A Toryism that offers a distinctive vision of how to achieve and protect this peaceful and ordered society. 

Put all this together and you would have a Canadian conservatism that could become a governing force once again, I think. This is a monumental task, and it’s part of what I’m trying to do with this newsletter and my broader intellectual project.

Would you ever consider running for office? 

Sure, though I doubt I would be particularly well suited for it. I suspect I’m temperamentally amongst the more unelectable people you’ll ever meet. Some people enjoy knocking on doors, some do not. I am in the latter camp. But who knows, I’d be open to it one day.

How can Canada become more sovereign and independent? 

An excellent question, and one that I think there is really only one answer to. When we talk about our sovereignty what we are really talking about, given the locale and situation we find ourselves in, is how can we become less dependent or subject to the whims of America. As I’ve tweeted quite a few times in the last little while, America is becoming an increasingly unreliable partner. We’ve benefitted in many ways from the Pax Americana and America’s rise to superpower and hegemonic status. But the era of unipolarity is over, multipolarity has returned. That effects us.

America is embroiled in internal divisions and increasingly turning inwards. It is both ambivalent about its global role and also distracted by internal squabbles. American foreign policy at times seems to itself reflect the polarized domestic climate. Not only do plenty of non-Americans turn their domestic politics into American proxy wars, Americans view every other country as well through the prism of their own polarized divides and culture wars.

Congress is an increasingly vestigial organ, it has willingly abdicated its role in America’s constitutional order, and America oscillates between elected emperors from different parties every four or eight years. As presidents increasingly legislate and govern through executive orders and accumulating powers, it means sudden shifts are much more likely and the world is constantly left lurching and having to rapidly adapt to these sudden shifts. These sudden shifts mean we all get much more caught up in these domestic divisions because they are likely to impact us in important ways. America I think will increasingly behave like a “rogue superpower,” a term I stole from an excellent essay in Foreign Affairs. Confronting this challenge has to be a priority for Canadian policy makers. 

But how to do this? Geography, our small population, and the fact that most Canadians live within a few hours drive of America means that we are, whether we like it or not, bound up with America. We can tinker at the edges, but we cannot change this fact about our country. The only solution is a long term one in my view. Canada needs more people. We need a much larger population and we need to try, if possible, to try and boost the population across the country, and not just in a few large metropolises close to the border. 

Obviously this couldn’t be done overnight. And here’s where some of you will probably be angry with me. We need to boost our natural population growth and birth rates, but we also need sustained and probably increased immigration targets over the long term. There’s a paradox among many self-described Canadian nationalists who hate Americanization but also want to reduce or halt immigration. I’m sorry, but you’ve got to choose here. Unless America were to split apart into several different nations, the only way Canada can become more sovereign is if it can boost its population to have both a larger internal market, force us to look from east to west instead of south for opportunities and inspiration, and make us a more important an independent player on the global stage.

We need to boost natural population growth, natalism is in our national interest in this regard. But the reality is if we’re serious about becoming more sovereign and reducing our reliance on America, immigration is going to have to play a role in that too. We can be a small country on the periphery of the American empire completely dependent on an increasingly unreliable America, or we can become a larger country with a larger internal market that is less dependent on America and more sovereign. That in my view is the only way.

If I am not mistaken, you are Catholic, and you converted (from Anglicanism?). If it’s not overly personal, why did you do so? 

I try and keep my faith fairly private, but yes, I am a Catholic convert. I don’t really have an interesting conversion story. I come from a non-religious but nominally Anglican family, but I started thinking about the bigger questions when I was in high school and it was at least partially because after I moved to Canada as a teenager I had trouble settling in and lots of time alone with my own thoughts. I basically read my way into the Church, became convinced it was true, and was received into the Church when I was an undergraduate. There was no road to Damascus moment, it was much more an intellectual process for me, and my faith is a fairly stoic one. I followed a common path among many converts. The first book I read that got me thinking about it was C.S Lewis’ Mere Christianity and the more I read the more I became convinced and realized that I was going to have to convert. If there was a single hero in my conversion process it was now Saint John Henry Newman. But honestly it’s not a particularly interesting story, I’ve struggled with it at times and fell away from it at one point, but it influences me and is an important part of who I am even though I don’t talk about it much. 

Would you say that you are a postliberal?

I’m not a fan of the label even if I do find a lot of people who use it very interesting and get called it by others. Here’s why I wouldn’t use the word to describe myself. First off, it’s not clear to me that there’s actually a coherent and unified concept we can call “postliberal” and there seem to be some different camps. The first camp is basically just beefed up reform conservatism, one-nation toryism, and old style continental christian democracy. Now this camp I’d definitely fit into, but I’m not sure what is fundamentally post liberal about it. It’s a rejection and important corrective of a certain kind of liberalism, but that doesn’t make it postliberal. 

And then there’s the second stream of what gets called postliberal. This stream seems to be outright hostile to not just liberalism, but democracy. It seems to long for authoritarian leaders, and ironically mirrors a certain kind of liberalism in that it wants to essentially depoliticize the world and impose the highest good. This I think mirrors a certain kind of deformed hyper-rights based technocratic liberalism that wants to remove all important questions from the political realm and reduce them to legal or technical questions of expertise. I reject and want nothing to do with this kind of postliberalism.

Digging deeper, I still have what is in some sense a liberal understanding of what politics is. I am a critic of certain aspects and kinds of liberalism, but my critique ultimately comes from within the liberal camp. What do I mean by this? Well politics to me is not ultimately about the highest good, politics is about figuring out how we can live together. It’s about settling what are inevitable and reasonable disagreements in reasonable ways. There’s no such thing as truly “neutral” political institutions, and politics is inescapably about moral questions. Politics cannot and should not be divorced from fundamental concerns for justice and helping people lead good lives, but politics is not just a raw contestation of power. I’m heavily influenced by Jeremy Waldron on much of this if you want to know where I’m coming from.   

I’m a small-d democrat and defend the Westminster constitutional order as it has evolved. Whether or not you can support all of this without being a liberal is up for debate, and I don’t really care, these are things I will defend and support. Representative democracy is the best available option for dealing with the challenge of politics. I have a fairly minimalist conception of what democracy means, basically that it requires free and fair elections, and the only non-negotiable rule is that everyone has to play by the rules of the game. This includes both the rule of law, and accepting that all politics, including wanting to change the rules of the game, can only be done legitimately within existing institutions. We disagree over all sorts of things, including fundamental moral questions about things like rights and the good, and these disagreements are fundamentally political disagreements. 

This isn’t about relativism, it’s about a kind of realism and the expectations we should have for politics. These questions shouldn’t just be settled by technical experts or juridical philosopher kings, they should be settled collectively, respecting what Waldron calls the fundamental right of rights - participation. Participation in these questions through representative politics is a basic requirement of self-government. Representative democracy is the best available option for settling these disagreements in ways that can forge compromise, consensus, and enable us to live together peacefully and well.  

 And it’s from this perspective that I critique a certain kind of conception of liberalism. I share with many postliberals a critique of hyper-legalistic liberalism and the expansion of the empire of rights that shrinks the political realm, and moves what are ultimately political questions to courts and tribunals. Politics isn’t just a science of administration to be managed by technical experts. There’s a distinction between constitutional law and constitutional politics. This kind of liberalism, popular among people on both the left and the right is incompatible with democracy and self government. 

I value self-government, and where I have what a fundamentally conservative view is that people aren’t just free in the abstract, people have to learn how to be self-governing and self-government has to be nourished. Self-government and a free society thus ultimately depend on social institutions that enable self-government that we ought to protect and support, and the state has a big role to play in this. I find the “families are the bedrock of civilization but we can’t use the state and public policy to help support them” to be a bizarre double think of some conservatives. This is the part of my worldview that is compatible with the first camp of postliberalism I set out above, but I don’t think “post” liberal is the right way to conceive of it.

Do you have plans to turn the Dominion into a publication? 

I’m not planning on turning the newsletter into a publication, but there will be exciting news on this front that I’ll be able to reveal hopefully in the next few weeks. Long term, I do have some plans for an admittedly highbrow Canada-centric journal of some sorts that would resemble something like National Affairs or American Affairs, but figuring out the model for this is easier said than done.

Why did you decide to do a PhD and become an academic? 

Well first off I’m not an academic, I’m an academic in training. I started the PhD intending on pursuing an academic career path, but since starting the PhD I’ve started to move away from that. Part of it is just about the reality of the academic job market. I’m not exactly focused on a booming academic field, and I don’t exactly check any of the boxes that universities prioritize in academic hirings now. I don’t particularly want to spend a decade plus traipsing around from school to school taking precarious and low paying contract positions to try and win the tenure lottery. 

Some people asked questions about being a conservative in academia, and honestly I don’t have much of interest to say on this. I’ve had some unpleasant experiences for sure, but on the whole my experiences have been fine. My department at McGill is eclectic and a good academic environment that I’ve felt perfectly comfortable and welcomed in, and while I think a lot of the conservative criticism of academia have merit, in my experience it’s not nearly as hostile as you would expect if you just read some of the sensationalist coverage. Part of the story about why conservatives have been marginalized from academia isn’t about pushed out, it’s about conservatives willingly just abandoning it because of what it’s perceived as, and that’s a problem.

What do I plan on doing afterwards instead? I don’t really know yet, I’m keeping it deliberately open ended. I’ve had a couple of interesting opportunities since I started the PhD, but my plan is still to finish it. Broadly speaking, my plan is to find something that still enables me to pursue the sort of research and intellectual projects I am engaged in, and something that enables me to keep writing publicly like I do currently. I could go down a few different avenues to do this, but we’ll see. I’m always open to listening to opportunities and suggestions. 

Why do you call yourself a heterodox conservative?

Just take a look at some of the stuff I’ve talked about above, from Canadian conservatism needing to become more comfortable with government, to supporting public broadcasting, to digital sovereignty, to how we can become more sovereign. I think of my worldview as a conservative one, and stuff like this is in my view conservative. But I am very much in the minority on much of this I suspect, which is why I describe it as heterodox.