We are now a week away from a federal election.
What I’ve been wondering about over the course of the campaign is what has happened to conservatism.
This summer the Republican primaries in the United States have been dominated by Donald Trump, a candidate that almost no one takes seriously. His success thus far has been attributed to causes such as the anger felt by most Americans at the political system (as a non-politician Trump can market himself as an outsider) and the public’s fascination with celebrity, which keeps everything Trump says and does at the top of the news cycle.
Another reason for his success may be the weakness of the rest of the very large Republican field. At one point there were seventeen declared candidates, and taken as a group they are an unattractive, uninspiring lot. Perhaps what’s most surprising is that only a few of them seem capable of speaking convincingly on any subject (a talent that eludes Trump as well). I thought giving speeches was the one thing politicians had to know how to do. Someone forgot to tell Jeb Bush.
But the bigger problem with the Republicans may be that a particular historical strand of American conservatism has played itself out. In terms of cultural conservatism it seems as though the “culture wars” are, if not over, at least moving into a new, yet-to-be-determined phase. The right to an abortion is now settled, and the fight over gay marriage mostly is too. Human-driven climate change is a fact accepted by everyone who is not a complete idiot. The idea that the U.S. can build a wall separating itself from Mexico (or Canada), and somehow round up all its illegal immigrants and send them back to their countries of origin is laughable. And yet all of this can be found in the platforms of leading Republican candidates.
When it comes to economic or fiscal conservatism the picture is just as bleak for right-wing politicians. In a nutshell: what advantage do they offer over the center or center-left? Economic inequality has continued to grow unabated under Democratic presidents, and it seems very unlikely that Hillary Clinton will do anything to stop these trends. If you’re a member of the 1%, or 0.1%, or the 0.01%, you have nothing to worry about: the Dems have your back. If you want to say that neoliberalism won the battle for ideas I don’t think that would be far from the mark (leaving aside the question of what such a victory means). And that being so, what is there to mobilize right-wing voters who are fiscal conservatives?
In short, the conservative movement has found itself left behind on almost every issue. This doesn’t mean they’re doomed to irrelevancy, far from it, but it does mean that either they or the world will need to change course in some dramatic way for them to regain power. And I am inclined to think it’s the world that is more likely to change first.
Where does this leave conservatives? Primarily as an anti-government party. This is a ridiculous position for any national political party to take, but in at least one sense it may have some traction. I sense a growing divide between public (unionized) and private sector workers both in Canada and the U.S. that could make for a coming split between a party of the state and a party of everyone else. If there is a future for the right it may be here.
In Canada the Conservative Party, or as it insists upon branding itself, the Harper government, is similarly bankrupt of ideas. The most depressing aspect (thus far) of the campaign has been the attention given over to the “issue” of the niqab. This is pure dog-whistle politics, a waving of the bloody shirt (or veil) that apparently came from Lynton Crosby, a political guru who specializes in this kind of thing. It’s not even a minor issue. It’s a non-issue. It literally affects no one. And yet voters, particularly in Quebec, have seemed to respond.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that Harper still has two big advantages going in to the election.
In the first place there is the first-past-the-post election system. This archaic and undemocratic form of politics explains the Conservative campaign philosophy, which goes by different names but is usually referred to as Roveism (after Karl Rove) or “base politics.” Given the way the vote on the nominal left is split among several different parties the Conservatives can, in theory, not only win but win a majority with less than 30% of the popular vote. All they have to do is appeal to a hard core of support, which they can do by waving the bloody shirt and complaining that anything they’ve done wrong (the F-35s, the Senate scandals, the Robocalls) is all just a smokescreen of lies being sent up by the liberal media.
Such a strategy would be disastrous in a system of proportional representation, turning that hard core of support into a fringe movement. But we’re not playing by those rules.
The second advantage the Conservatives have is the fact that they are the party out of power in most of the provinces. In particular, their traditional stronghold in Alberta recently elected a premier from the NDP and the key province of Ontario is led by the deeply unpopular government of liberal Kathleen Wynne, who won the last provincial election, and a majority government, due only to the sheer incompetence of the Conservative candidate, Tim Hudak. I think voters like for there to be some conflict between their provincial and federal governments as a way of providing checks and balances, so this is something that I think works in Harper’s favour.
I voted in an advance poll. There were seven candidates in my riding: the four major parties, plus a Communist, a Libertarian, and one of the few candidates nation-wide for the Radical Marijuana Party. Waiting in line to vote (reports of long waiting times at the polls turned out to be accurate, as I was standing and sitting in line for nearly an hour), I spoke to the people standing directly in front of and behind me. One was a tech worker and the other a retired military man. Both had been Conservatives in the past but despised Harper and had specifically come out to vote against him, mainly on the grounds of his managerial incompetence. The riding has a long history of being Liberal, though the sitting MP is not running again in this election. I would say the Liberal is a shoo-in to win, but a popular liberal mayor was recently defeated by a hard-right candidate in our last municipal election so I wouldn’t be too sure.
So here’s my prediction on the federal election, offered up with that caveat that I’ve nearly always been wrong in the past and will probably be wrong this time as well:
Despite polls showing the Liberals clearly in the lead and gaining momentum, and much talk about “strategic voting,” I think the Anybody But Harper vote is so fragmented the Conservatives will be able to get re-elected with a minority, but won’t be able to govern, that task falling to a coalition of the Liberals and NDP.
In another week I’ll be back with some thoughts on what happened.