Wegierski: A Comparison of the Conservative Traditions in America and Canada — Divergent Paths of Development in Two Distinct Countries (Part II)

In 1984, Brian Mulroney won a huge landslide as leader of the Progressive Conservative party. The unwillingness of Brian Mulroney, who was Prime Minister of Canada from 1984-1993, to carry out some substantively conservative policies, almost certainly resulted in the arising of the Western Canadian-based Reform Party in 1987 (which formally became a countrywide party in 1991). It should be noted, however, that the Reform Party of Canada was much different from the U.S. Reform Party (especially in its brief Buchananite incarnation). The Reform Party of Canada was comparatively far more electorally credible and attracted about a fifth of the popular vote in federal elections in 1993 and 1997 (although the Liberals won comfortable majorities in the federal Parliament in those elections). The frequent characterization of Canadian Reformers as “far right” was wildly inaccurate.

 

It is important to note that although Mulroney was commonly considered part of the conservative electoral wave of Reagan and Thatcher, he was mostly, viscerally, a “small-l liberal”. Thus, nothing like the Reagan or Thatcher revolutions ever took place in Canada.

 

Although the Reform Party was even more pro-American than Mulroney, earlier proposals for a Canada-U.S. Free Trade deal (Mulroney’s major accomplishment, over which he waged and won the 1988 federal election) had been, historically-speaking, strenuously opposed by more traditional Conservatives, who had looked to Britain. Mulroney also precipitously raised immigration, from the 54,000 to which it had fallen in Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau’s last year in office (1983-1984) to about a quarter-million persons a year, where it has remained ever since. With Canada’s population now at over 35 million, it is more than double the official U.S. immigration rate, per capita – and probably the highest rate of immigration per capita in the world. The imposition of the GST (Goods and Services Tax), the Canadian equivalent of a value-added tax (VAT), while interpreted as a “hard right” move by some, could also be seen as a typically liberal tax grab. In terms of society and culture, Mulroney appeared beholden to the multicultural, feminist, and other politically-correct agendas, and, despite his then rather unpopular rhetoric of “deficit-fighting,” actually incurred huge deficits, doubling the total federal government debt to about $500 billion (Canadian) by the end of his tenure in office.

 

Most of the developments in the Canadian polity, society, and culture occurring in the wake of Trudeau, have consisted of a further extension and pushing forward of his social liberal agenda. In the last two decades, however (presumably in reaction to the collapse of Soviet Communism) left-liberalism has become far more willing to concede some major fiscal and economic issues to the “managerial Right” — while continuing a ferocious struggle against small-c conservatism and social conservatism.

 

Left-liberals had tried to maintain the centre-right parties in Canada in the 1990s and early 2000s in as eviscerated a shape as possible, building up the federal Progressive Conservatives at the expense of the Canadian Alliance (which arose out of the Reform Party in 1998-2000) and trying to bleach out substantive conservative thinking as far as possible from all these parties. In the 2000 federal election, the splitting of the popular vote between the P.C.s and CA, as well as the continual deriding of Stockwell Day, the CA leader, as a “fundamentalist Christian extremist”, resulted in another comfortable Liberal majority in the federal Parliament.

 

In December 2003, a reconstituted Conservative Party was formed from a merging of the federal Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance – and seemed to have unexpectedly acquired a certain conceptual energy under the leadership of Stephen Harper. In the June 2004 federal election, the Liberals were reduced to a minority government. From January 2006 to 2011, the Harper-led Conservatives  held onto a minority government in the federal Parliament, having won a plurality of seats in the federal elections of 2006 and 2008. In the May 2, 2011 federal election the Conservatives finally won a strong majority.

 

Given the left-liberal dominance in so many social and cultural areas, the election of a possibly substantively conservative majority government at the federal level in Canada, might not mean that anything will really change. Nevertheless, it’s clear that only a Conservative majority in Parliament could ever hope to really change things.

 

Another possible challenge to the mostly Ottawa-and-Toronto-centred left-liberalism could arise from the ideas of maximal regional devolution (decentralization or so-called “provincialization”) becoming more salient in Canada.

 

It could be argued that, given the left-liberal predominance in the Canadian media, in the education system (from daycare to universities), in the judiciary and justice system, in the government bureaucracies, in so-called “high culture” (typified by government-subsidized “CanLit”), in the North American (Canada and U.S.) pop-culture and “youth-culture”, in the big Canadian banks and corporations, and (for the most part), in the leaderships of the main churches, any existing “small-c conservative” tendencies are being continually ground down. There is also the panoply of left-oriented special interest groups, who receive extensive government and some corporate funding.

 

In contrast to Canada today, which could be seen as mostly a left-liberal country, the United States could be perceived as more conservative. There are the superpower exigencies of America which require it to maintain a large and effective military. There is the vast influence of Christianity, both of fundamentalist Protestants and tradition-minded Catholics. There is a large network of conservative think-tanks and foundations. There are also hundreds of more traditional, mostly religious-based, colleges in the United States.

 

In the United States, there appears to be much more of a sense of space and debate within the generalized right-wing, between such groupings as paleoconservatives, social conservatives, neoconservatives, libertarians, paleolibertarians, right-wing Greens, “social conservatives of the Left” (such as Christopher Lasch), classical liberals, religious conservatives (sometimes called “theocons”), and so forth. However, some critics have charged that this generalized right wing is in fact dominated by neoconservatives and Republican Party operatives, which tends to weaken the saliency of traditionalism in the U.S.

 

Canadians have been traditionally and are even today characterized by a deference to authority. When the ruling paradigm was conservative, they tended to be more conservative than Americans (in the positive sense of conservatism). Canada throughout its earlier times could be seen as a more polite and orderly country than America – something which has arguably persisted even today in the form of the lower crime rates and greater civility in political discourse.

 

The disadvantage of this deference was that when the ruling paradigm was changed from the top in the Sixties and later, most Canadians have tended to follow, in a conformist fashion. Today, they tend to be far more ostentatiously politically-correct than most Americans. Indeed, there is virtually no heritage of independence, self-reliance, or belief in rambunctious free speech in Canada. Canadian officials point proudly to their laws against so-called hate-speech as highly necessary. They say they do not have “the American hang-ups” about restricting freedom of speech.

 

In the United States, far more persons are putatively conservative, and there appears to be far more of a real social base for conservatism. However, the solid conservative base is arguably poorly led and misled by narrow cliques within so-called “movement-conservatism” and the Republican Party. In Canada, the conservative leadership sometimes appears to be sounder, but is hamstrung by unfortunate circumstances in the social, political, and cultural environment.

 

The processes of massive social and cultural transformation in Canada are only beginning. On March 9, 2010, Statistics Canada released projections that so-called visible minorities (this is a term of official usage) will constitute a third of the Canadian population in 2031. They are projected to be 63 percent of the population of Toronto and its suburbs (43 percent in 2006); 59 percent of the population of Vancouver (42 percent in 2006); and 31 percent of the population of Montreal (16 percent in 2006). Unlike in the United States, the centrifugal forces in Canada are very strong, typified by the official multiculturalism which requires all levels of Canadian government to support and valorize – to a greater or lesser extent — the distinct cultures of the various diasporas. The so-called majority culture is becoming ever more attenuated. At the same time, more intellectual forms of traditionalism, conservatism, and nationalism, have been virtually excised from the academy and the mass media.

 

Part of Canada’s problems may have their origins in the British establishment. The WASP elites are probably the most self-hating and politically-correct grouping in Canada. Ironically, they maintain themselves in very comfortable lives while looking with disdain at the “reactionary” lower-middle and working-classes, who may have greater residues of genuine patriotism. Others who appear to be without a bright future in Canada are the so-called “white ethnics” such as Ukrainian-, Italian-, and Polish-Canadians. The term “multiculturalism” – which once also referred to “white ethnic” fragment cultures — seems to be increasingly taken to mean “multiracialism”.

 

Conservatives have, since 1896, faced the problem of their lack of support in Quebec. The voters of Quebec have, in the federal elections from 1993 to 2008, given most of their seats in the federal Parliament to the separatist Bloc Quebecois – only to massively switch their allegiance to the NDP in 2011. Despite strenuous efforts, the Conservatives have won only 10 seats from Quebec in 2006, 10 seats in 2008, and only 5 seats in 2011.  A centre-right party existing at the provincial level, the Action democratique du Quebec (ADQ) after surging in an earlier provincial election, has faded – and now folded itself into the new, more centrist, Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ). The Quebec issue appears intractable for the Conservatives. At the same time, until the federal election of 2011, it appears that most of the immigrant communities, including “white ethnics” and visible minorities, have tended to support the Liberal Party. (Some exceptions being Ukrainians and Balts, who tended to support the P.C.s and Conservatives.) In the future, the Liberal Party (or the possibly surging NDP), can probably count on the Toronto-Montreal-Vancouver bloc, where, in 2006 and 2008, the Conservatives failed to win a single seat. As these urban areas grow ever larger, their influence in the Canadian polity will increase. At the same time, in the rural hinterlands, a growing Aboriginal population has become increasingly radicalized. Aboriginal issues clearly have a far greater saliency in Canada than in the United States.

 

Without much of an intellectual and think-tank infrastructure, conservatism in Canada does not seem likely to be able to translate the strong majority of the Conservative Party won in the federal election of 2011, into an instrumentality for activist, highly transformational change.

 

Now mostly lacking an active, living and sometimes rambunctious right wing as in the United States, Canada — it could be argued — is deprived of a source of critical intelligence about the realities of human nature, society, and culture, and of the social and cultural underpinnings of economic achievement. Thus, in the future, it might in fact become even more prone than the U.S. to various social, cultural, as well as economic dislocations, disasters and calamities.

Marek Wegierski

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