The State of the Conservative Movement
It’s, uhh, not great to put it mildly. Some thoughts on the divide within the conservative movement and where to go from here.
(Warning: This is a very long read)
One of the challenges thinking and writing about Canadian conservatism if you’re more philosophically inclined like I am is maintaining clear distinctions between conservatism as an approach to politics from the conservative movement and various Conservative parties. They can’t ever be entirely separate of course. But part of the challenge in Canada is that big-C Conservative politics and considerations dominate and often encroach on the space of these other facets.
I don’t just mean in terms of partisan politics being confused with first principles or the movement more broadly, though that often does happen. What I mean is that debates within the conservative movement, and over basic principles, often end up getting pulled into the gravitational orbit of party politics. What this means is that the party ends up being the battleground for fights within the movement, and intra-party fights become proxy battles over basic principles in distorting ways.
The most obvious example of this is the battles and narratives that form around party leadership. In the aftermath of the 2019 election a broader debate ended up playing out over social conservatism and its place in the party and Canadian society, all centred on Andrew Scheer. The leadership election to replace Scheer ultimately became a proxy contest about a “true blue” versus “red tory” conservatism. Now, in a reversed way Erin O’Toole’s continued leadership and opposition to him is becoming a proxy about the future not just of the party but the future of conservatism in Canada.
But this isn’t a newsletter about Conservative Party politics. It’s a newsletter about the movement more broadly. And here’s where I’m going to just get off my chest some pent up pessimism that’s been simmering for a while.
The Canadian conservative movement is in not in great shape right now in my view. It is beset with internal divisions that make the movement disjointed and fracturing a real possibility. These fights threaten to turn conservatism into a movement purely of opposition, with little to offer in terms of a substantive governing agenda. Furthermore, these fights are taking place while there is a desperate need for some serious thinking and work to be done to craft an agenda that is ready for a world that has changed dramatically in the last few years. Instead of rising to the occasion and responding to a series of emerging challenges, the movement is being divided between warring factions mired in internecine conflict that renders both sides irrelevant.
What I want to do here is first sketch out a bit more specifically what these intra-conservative divides are about, and then sketch out what I think these challenges are that we need to be thinking about and recalibrating conservatism for in the post-pandemic world.
The Line published a piece a few weeks ago by political scientist Stewart Prest titled “The fault lines in Canadian politics run right through the conservative coalition.” The premise of the piece, is that on all sorts of issues there is a divide within the conservative coalition between more mainstream people and views and a large group of conservatives very much outside of the mainstream on a host of issues - from climate change to vaccines to social values. The piece itself tries to suggest this is because of our voting system, which I think is a strange conclusion looking at this situation. But the basic formulation of this divide within the conservative coalition that Prest sketches out seems largely accurate in my view.
But my read on the situation is a bit different from the standard media narrative framing it as moderates versus extremists, because I think the problems for the conservative movement aren’t just with one side of this divide. It’s with both, and this is leaving me feeling more alienated and depressed about the state of conservatism here than I have in quite some time.
I’ll deal with both these sides of the divide separately. Firstly, I’ve never been a fan and have little interest or loyalty to what the mainstream discourse dominated by people who aren’t conservatives often spins as “moderate” conservatism. What this normally really means is the supposed “socially liberal fiscally conservaitve” template in which conservatives are just progressives who like slightly less spending. These kinds of people are overrepresented in discourse and are common amongst what you might call the professional conservative consultant class, but there’s next to nothing meaningfully conservative about this brand of conservatism. It’s a pointless worldview and amounts to little more than controlled opposition. It conserves nothing and has no substantive ends or goals. At best it is just a kind of liberalism a few years or decades behind. A moderate and serious conservatism doesn’t look like this.
I also don’t think it’s some sort of sleeping electoral juggernaut. Most ordinary people don’t think about politics like the politically obsessed do, and so much of the way we frame and talk about politics in terms of left/right, moderate/radical, conservative/liberal, and what constitutes the “centre” is built to explain how political obsessives think about politics and not really how normal people do.
But you can take issue with this kind of conservatism and not be enthusiastic about what appears to be the alternative in this binary framing. I don’t know what exactly to call this side of the divide. The common term in media now is populist, but it doesn’t really fit. One of the reasons populism is a useless word now is that it often gets attached to groups and people who are saying or advocating things that are incredibly unpopular minoritarian positions. These people might have a kind of populist aesthetic, but it’s often times more an angry minoritarianism. But I’ll reluctantly use populist here simply because its the label lots of these people attach to themselves.
I’ve made no secret that I’m sympathetic to some of the broader shifts that have been taking place on the right around the world in recent years in a more culturally conservative and blue collar direction. But my interest and enthusiasm here has always been about a substantive political agenda, and one thing I’ve come to realize (or perhaps have been in denial over) is I’m motivated by something quite different than lots of fellow travellers and people that have moved in this direction. It’s not about a robust or substantive political agenda so much as it is a kind of aesthetic politics of rage wedded to an anti-establishment and contrarian impulse.
Some of these people will call themselves anti-globalists or Canadian nationalists, but in reality are hyper obsessed with America and American politics and import MAGA style stuff here. Their supposed patriotism consists in being American “patriots” and hating Canada, and turning our politics into American proxy wars. There’s a wonderful absurdity to this. It’s paradoxically a form of hyper globalized politics, but thankfully this is a loud but relatively small fringe within the conservative movement.
But these kinds of people overlap in many ways with a broader chunk of the movement you can describe as populists, and where this overlap comes is at the vector of COVID politics and broader right wing “anti-globalism.” COVID has (figuratively) broken the brains of a lot of people across the political spectrum, and on the right especially some people have truly lost the plot.
There’s lots of deserved criticism to be made of governments and the decisions they’ve made over the last 18 months. I don’t think our public health officials and various institutions come out of this looking particularly good on a variety of measures (though on vaccine rollout I think they’ve done a pretty good job). So many of the public health measures we’ve put in place, and still have, are largely hygiene theatre. I share some of the reservations many have about vaccine passports and mandates. COVID is with us for good now. My biggest concern remains that as we move into the endemic stage we end up sleepwalking our way into permanently keeping much of the public health regime we’ve constructed.
But it’s hard to offer any reasonable public criticism because if you do you unfortunately get lumped in with the anti-lockdown and anti-vaxx fringe that have truly lost the plot. These are the people who compare public health measures to Nazi Germany, deny that COVID is a real threat, and think vaccines and the virus are part of some sort of grand global conspiracy theory. There’s a variety of other developments on the right you could broadly lump in with this stuff, but I think you get a sense of what I’m talking about here. COVID politics just distills it well because it’s such a potent and visible issue right now.
There’s nothing fundamentally conservative about this kind of politics. There’s a serious need for a healthy scepticism of our establishment class and most of our elite and governing institutions. But this kind of politics moves far beyond a healthy and much needed scepticism into a kind of contrarianism that is anti-institutional and deeply distrustful of any kind of established knowledge. This is not a governing ideology either, it’s an ideology of pure opposition.
There are still smart and serious conservative voices and figures in the conservative movement that don’t fall under either of these categories. But these voices are often drowned out by louder voices on either side of this conservative divide, and wield relatively little influence. If conservatism in Canada ends up just being a binary choice between progressives who want slightly less spending and angry aesthetic populists interested in meme obsessed online contrarianism and lib owning then count me out.
A World in Flux: The New Challenges Conservatism Must Address
But while good chunks of conservatism descends into a deeply unserious place, the world has changed dramatically in the last few years and these changes demand an ambitious response. At the core of conservatism is a basic kind of realist assumption about the world being fundamentally in flux. The conditions and circumstances we find ourselves in vary and constantly change. Conservatism should recognize this and be able to adapt and change as conditions demand. This is not an unprincipled relativism, it is a prudence that can be understood as a living tradition that is refined and adapted for a particular moment or place.
So while conservatives are mired in internal squabbles, they are not focusing enough on crafting an agenda and thinking about the great emerging challenges we face today. For the rest of this newsletter I want to briefly outline what these challenges are. This isn’t an short term electoral or political agenda, it’s an assessment of the things we should be thinking about and responding to so that we can build a conservatism that has answers to the most pressing questions of the day in a world in flux. I’ve split them into four broad challenges:
The Death of the Post Cold War Paradigm and the New Era of (de)Globalization
Escaping the Two Percent Trap
Cultural Conservatism not Culture Warriors
The Realities of Climate Change
The Death of the Post Cold War Paradigm and the New Era of Globalization
I’ve harped on this before and I’ll do so again because it’s important to stress how serious this challenge is, especially to Canada. The post Cold War neoliberal era is over. It was dying before the pandemic, but COVID well and truly killed it off. Whether you’re sad or happy about this, it’s a reality we have to respond to and currently aren’t prepared for. Globalization is a contested term and there’s no point getting into that here. But one thing worth stressing, as was rightly pointed out by Dan Breznitz in a very good recent episode of The Agenda on supply chains is that when we talk about globalization a lot what we are really talking about is the integration of east and southeast asia, China especially, into the global economic order.
As Breznitz points out "we did not have global production or global supply chain. We have a Chinese dominant supply chain. And that's the problem." COVID exposed why this offshoring of our industrial capacity to China especially was such a bad idea, and why we need to be rapidly focusing on extricate ourselves from China and from dependency on Chinese exports and industrial capacity. Other countries have already started doing this. Canada is still living in la la land ignoring this problem or hoping it goes away. This is never going to change under the current Liberal government, but it’s something conservatives at every level of government across the country need to be thinking about.
There’s also an important conservative insight into how we got into this mess in my view. Ideas have consequences. Perhaps the great policy and strategic blunder of the post war era is going to be the absurd way the west and American especially deliberately engaged with and enabled China’s rise. To quote John Mearshiemer in a recent Foreign Affairs piece:
Beguiled by misguided theories about liberalism’s inevitable triumph and the obsolescence of great-power conflict, both Democratic and Republican administrations pursued a policy of engagement, which sought to help China grow richer. Washington promoted investment in China and welcomed the country into the global trading system, thinking it would become a peace-loving democracy and a responsible stakeholder in a U.S.-led international order.
Of course, this fantasy never materialized. Far from embracing liberal values at home and the status quo abroad, China grew more repressive and ambitious as it rose. Instead of fostering harmony between Beijing and Washington, engagement failed to forestall a rivalry and hastened the end of the so-called unipolar moment. Today, China and the United States are locked in what can only be called a new cold war—an intense security competition that touches on every dimension of their relationship. This rivalry will test U.S. policymakers more than the original Cold War did, as China is likely to be a more powerful competitor than the Soviet Union was in its prime. And this cold war is more likely to turn hot.
Ideas have consequences. The basic liberal assumption undergirding our engagement and economic integration with China - namely that if we liberalize economically China would liberalize in other ways as well was an absurd premise to have built strategy and policy around. And yet this is what America, and the west more broadly did and here we are.
Forget the somewhat silly globalism versus nationalism debates that a good chunk of political discourse now evolve around. We’re entering a new period of globalization in which the relocation and onshoring of supply chains and strategic industries is happening. This isn’t about the end of globalization and the move toward autarky and hyper protectionism so much as it is about a different kind of globalization emerging in which different spheres and more consideration of the national interest and security will emerge as important once again.
But this challenge for Canada is a big one not simply because of China, but because of our relationship with a United States that is increasingly what I have termed before a “rogue superpower.” A bipartisan consensus in America is emerging that, in response to these global challenges and a new domestic political climate, is more protectionist and more ambivalent about its global commitments. Take the recent kerfuffle over electric vehicle subsidies in America for American made EVs. And let me quote myself from a National Post column a few months ago after the Afghanistan debacle: “One of Biden’s first decisions was to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline. But Biden had no problems waiving sanctions on the company building the Russian pipeline Nord Stream 2. Just last week Biden asked OPEC to increase oil supply. Biden has strengthened a Buy American pledge that may freeze out Canadian companies from the U.S. government procurement market. The Americans were unwilling to reciprocate on the border reopenings earlier this month, when we decided it was time to open the border to fully vaccinated Americans for non-essential travel.”
We are broadly speaking stuck whether you like it or not on the side of the Americans in this new cold war with China and there is no escaping how integrated and dependent we are with the United States. But we really have to take seriously that we are integrated and tied up with an increasingly unreliable and unstable superpower that does not care about us either. We have to be thinking in this new era not just vis-a-vis Chin and Asia but also with our relationship with America too. A Canada less reliant and dependent on America would be a good thing regardless of these changing circumstances in my view, but the urgency of these changing circumstances require serious course adjustments.
Escaping the Two Percent Trap
Going to keep this one fairly brief because I’m not really an economic policy wonk and there are plenty out there who are and can do a better job on the specifics here. This one should be an easy and obvious one for conservatives to be capitalizing on and building a renewed agenda that conservatives of many stripes will be comfortable with. I’m stealing from Sean Speer on this and calling it “escaping the two percent trap.” Even before COVID we were suffering from a long term economic malaise and stagnation, and policy makers need to prioritize a bold economic agenda to kickstart growth again in Canada. Canada’s annual growth has averaged less than two percent for the past two decades.
GDP growth and productivity is not the be all and end all of a proper conservative or humane economic agenda. This is something conservatives forgot in recent decades and are seemingly rediscovering again. But we should be careful not to swing too far in the opposite direction and discard the importance of growth entirely if we want to improve people’s lives. Growth is important for generating innovation, wealth, and opportunities that improve people’s lives. Growth also helps sustain the revenue needed to fund public programs that provide some basic security and stability to people. What conservatives should bring to a new growth agenda are deliberate attempts not just to support growth, but a kind of conservative version of inclusive growth that empowers families and individuals so that they aren’t trapped in vicious economic cycles that require people to put off important life decisions like getting married and having children just to stay on the economic hamster wheel. I’m conceptualizing this as going hand in hand with a lot of what I had to say in my long newsletter earlier this year on a renewed social conservative agenda.
In terms of the specifics of this, I’ll leave that to people who know more than me. Speer and Perevalov’s report for the Public Policy Forum on the case for growth in the post-pandemic world is a good place to start and has lots of good ideas. One thing I would add to this is that if we decide to get serious about generating real productivity and growth gains beyond just raw GDP, housing needs to be a priority. Real estate in Canada is a huge drag on productivity and actual productive growth now because it constricts labour markets by making it so costly and unaffordable for people to move to powerhouse cities for work. And because the returns on it are so lucrative, real estate sucks capital investment in Canada away from actually productive investments. Escaping our economic sclerosis is going to require action on this front. This is not just a Toronto and Vancouver problem now and the resulting economic drag is bad for all Canadians.
One other quick thing on this front is that I’m all for policies and moves that might save smaller communities and regions and rebalance growth away from our mega cities and surrounding areas. One potential boon on this front I think might be a permanent shift to more remote and hybrid working arrangements that enable people to work in large urban areas and live in other places. This could be a great opportunity to rebalance the benefits of growth a bit, and instead of running away from it I think it might be a real opportunity we should help to encourage.
Cultural Moderates not Culture Warriors
This one is likely to generate discomfort from the “conservatives” who cede literally any and every cultural or social disagreement to progressives. There is a real opening for a cultural conservatism that stakes out what I’m awkwardly describing as “moderate” territory in contrast with the cultural and social insanity that has taken ahold of not just the radical left but all sorts of mainstream and elite institutions. I’m also contrasting this with some of the radicalization and culture war politics of parts of the populist right. There’s a huge opening for conservatives on this, and regardless of what the social liberal/fiscal conservative types tell you this absolutely should be a key component of an renewed and serious moderate conservative agenda because it’s crucial we pushback on this stuff without going off the deep end ourselves.
I don’t particularly like the term “wokeness” these days because it’s kind of become a catch all term that has replaced “political correctness” as the generic right wing word to describe left wing cultural radicalism. The term I prefer to use to capture this cultural radicalism, and the sweeping victories it has won in mainstream and elite circles and institutions, is the “successor ideology.” On this I’m comfortable drawing parallels here to the United States because it’s undeniable that the same kind of cultural radicalism that has swept over elite institutions in America have done the same thing here too. Wesley Yang, the writer who coined it, initially described it as “the correct term for the melange of academic radicalism now seeking hegemony throughout American institutions.” I think this is right and it’s something we need to serious confront.
This successor ideology is a catch all phrase to describe the various social justice, intersectional, anti-racist, identitarian, inclusivity/equity/diversity industrial complex, totalizing systemic theories of oppression and hierarchy that have escaped academic cloisters and now dominate virtually all elite and mainstream institutions. These aren’t just ideas confined to campuses and radical protests. The ideas now dominate in media institutions, in the corporate world and boardrooms, in school boards, in the bureaucracy, and in virtually all professional-managerial fields.
Just think about how much progress the successor ideology has made in the last few years. Think about how commonplace it is to talk about “white supremacy” and the concept creep around it. White supremacy now ecnompasses all sorts of things it would have been unthinkable to seriously suggest just a few years ago. Think about how far we’ve moved in just a few short years on gender questions and what things now get you called a bigot for thinking that would have been ludicrous to suggest even a few years ago. In Canada specifically think about how we’ve gone from saying Canada is the greatest and most inclusive nation in the world to calling it an evil and illegitimate settler-colonial project perpetrating and ongoing genocide against indigenous peoples.
That progressives have embraced these ideas is not itself cause for alarm or surprise, what is genuinely disturbing is how rapidly this worldview has become dominant and accepted as orthodoxy by so many elites and elite institutions that govern us. What is considered mainstream now as defined by what elite attitudes generally are across a host of cultural and social issues has shifted substantially. Lots of these people will deny this of course, but for anyone who doesn’t share these cultural and social assumptions the radical shift is impossible to deny. This is something we cannot ignore, we absolutely have to respond seriously to it.
The way to do this in my view is not to become hardcore culture warriors that ape the worst impulses and characteristics of the left, or embrace insanity ourselves which is what part of the right has done in response to this. Instead it’s to recognize that this shift amongst elites and elite institutions puts them out of lockstep with the broader population. Aggressive culture wars are not a winning approach or a particularly good idea in Canada. But championing a calm and steady cultural conservatism that firmly pushes back and holds the line against this kind of stuff, and makes serious efforts to limit the spread of the successor ideology in public institutions is going to be crucial to any new conservative agenda responding to contemporary challenges.
The Realities of Climate Change
And unlike the previous section this last one might instead generate some anger amongst the populist types who see climate change as some sort of scam or something to just be ignored. Again I think there’s real opportunities for a serious conservative agenda that are being missed right now. But you might be surprised on what I have to say on this so hear me out if you’ve made it this far.
This is again where a kind of conservative realism and prudence is crucial to crafting a conservative response to the way the world is headed and the realities of climate change. If you paid any attention to the latest climate change conference in Glasgow I imagine you probably came away unimpressed regardless of whether you think this is an existential crisis or a conspiracy theory. This is precisely where I think prudence should come in. Climate change is happening, and I think we’re actually in denial if we think the world is going to meet emissions targets this time around (just like we haven’t met emissions targets in the past).
Conservatives are often eager to point out that Canada alone really cannot make all that much difference in the global fight to curb emissions. Even if we completely stopped emitting tomorrow we’d barely make a dent in global emissions. And they are right to point this out. But this often becomes a classic example of a collective action problem in real time. Because we can’t make any difference we shouldn’t do anything unless everyone else does something first.
I think this is the wrong way to approach this. We should absolutely acknowledge and admit we can’t solve this alone. We should also go a step further, and be honest with ourselves about the prospects of meeting global emissions reductions targets. We aren’t going to achieve them most likely, which means we need to start preparing for scenarios in which the world is warmer. During the pandemic think about how much of the world came to a standstill. Do you know how much this reduced global emissions last year? A measly 6.4%. Think about that. If a global pandemic and massive economic contraction only reduced global emissions by 6.4%, think about what it’s actually going to mean to get to net zero. We need to be honest about how long the energy transition will take and the scale of the change and innovation needed to actually help us achieve this.
This doesn’t mean pretending climate change isn’t real, and nor does it mean bracing for the apocalyptic scenarios of some of the most radical environmentalists who seem to think humanity genuinely on the verge of extinction. It means being prudent and honest about what we can actually do and begin to pay much more attention and devote substantially more resources into preparations for more extreme weather events and natural disasters. Conservatives should champion climate mitigation and preparedness as part of a serious plan to address climate change.
But this shouldn’t be it, and yes I still think we should be championing serious climate policies that reduce emissions - and yes I think carbon pricing is the most efficient means of doing this. But I also think if we’re asking people to live greener lives, part of what we should be doing is making public investments that make it easier to make green decisions. Even if we can’t solve it alone, Canada can lead the way by creating conditions in which we can innovate and find more efficient and less emissions intensive ways to do all sorts of things that can then be adopted elsewhere. In our battle to reduce emissions here, Canadian innovation could help lead the way abroad and make a meaningful difference in this fight.
And at the same time I don’t think this means abandoning or giving up on the oil and gas industry. The energy transition is going to take a long time, we aren’t just going to stop using fossil fuels. Canada’s oil sector in 2019 was responsible for just over a quarter of Canada’s total emissions, and Canada’s leading oil producers recognize this challenge. In June, the five biggest oil sands companies announced their goal to reach net zero by 2050 and pledged a 97% cut in emissions. Conservatives being serious about climate policy isn’t anti the oil and gas industry, it means working with them. And given that oil isn’t going anywhere the goal should be to make Canadian oil as green and clean as can be and ensure it’s a crucial part of global and North American energy markets for as long as possible.
So in short, there’s ample room and for conservative prudence and realism when it comes to climate change. The world probably isn’t going to meet its targets given the scale of what is needed, and we need to be serious about climate preparedness and mitigation. But we need to do this alongside a serious climate plan that enables us to punch above our weight and lead the way on green innovation, and we can do this whilst still championing Canadian oil and gas.
If you’ve made it this far then well done and thank you. Let me just wrap up with a quick final comment. I am worried about the health of the conservative movement right now, and I will confess to feeling somewhat alienated from it all right now. This essay isn’t some partisan political agenda simply about electoral success or narrow political considerations. But there is a desperate need for a prudent and serious conservatism to get to work building an agenda that responds to the serious challenges we face. I hope some of you share my concerns, both about the state of the movement and the challenges that need addressing. Those of us in the wilderness need to think seriously about this and do our best to bring back to health and reinvigorate the movement even if the two warring factions of progressives and populists aren’t interested for now.