Can reasonable conservatives resist the populist fringe?
As an outsider looking in, I must say it is fascinating and terrifying to see how strong the glue is that holds modern conservative political movements together.
Thoughtful conservatives have long prided themselves on their purported conviction, moral clarity and unity of purpose which, they believe, stands in contrast to lack thereof shown by compromising, wishy-washy liberals.
But that self-image must presumably be under some strain. Their big tent is being forced to make room for the rise of more insular, authoritarian views — focused on supposed civilizational clashes and migrating hordes of Syrian refugees rather than on prosperity and economic freedom — and at the same time to economic nationalists who are rejecting prevailing orthodoxy about trade.
There has never really been a prototypical conservative. The movement has enjoyed success electing politicians in Canada and the United States in recent decades, but it has always been an uneasy alliance of different factions.
But there were certain unifying principles they all could get behind without surrendering too many of their core values. The compromises they made for the sake of unity were seen as small and acceptable.
Sure, the libertarians (for example) didn’t care for the movement’s socially conservative proclivities, but they could find common ground on issues such as trade and tax policy and that was good enough. The nativists, now on the rise — who might not have cared for the relatively welcoming approach to immigration exhibited by leaders like George W. Bush or Stephen Harper — were able to put aside their disagreements because of their utter hatred of the broadly defined left.
But times seem to be changing and ideas that were once fringe, even counter to the dominant narrative, are ascendant. How long can the right’s big tent hold it all together? And how long will thoughtful, traditional conservatives rally around their parties, which are being co-opted and pushed to pursue policies that are in conflict with their own values?
The rise of protectionist tendencies in the U.S. Republican Party has been one of the most remarkable turnarounds to witness. Free trade, after all, was a conservative idea. It arose from an ideology that was convinced unleashing the power of markets, and allowing capital to flow to and from the far reaches of the globe was a good thing.
It was the left, and Democratic politicians who expressed concern about the social impact of hollowing out the manufacturing base in the United States and outsourcing production to China and Mexico. But it is now a Republican president, responding to the demands of a base that elected him, who almost pulled the plug on NAFTA — the framework for trade on the North American Continent for over 25 years — just a few weeks ago.
The themes may be different here in Canada — protectionist tendencies are more prominent on the Canadian left, for example. But the Conservative Party’s leadership race has been incoherent as party members struggle to choose a leader to take them into the future. How are Michael Chong, Kellie Leitch and Maxime Bernier members of the same party? How is it that, in a party which has long prided itself on provincial rights, someone like Kevin O’Leary, who routinely spoke of forcing recalcitrant provinces to bend to his will, could consistently poll above 20 per cent among party members? What unites this crowd of candidates other than their disdain for the Liberals and the left?
The interesting question is whether these fissures will develop into cracks and then chasms or whether the binding force will continue to succeed in keeping the whole thing together.
In the U.S., where the unity of the movement has been most challenged through the election of a president who can hardly be called conservative in the traditional sense thus far suggest it may well be the latter.
Even though establishment conservatives abandoned Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election en masse last fall, the coalition managed to hold.
While many Bernie Sanders boosters stayed home — preferring to burn the whole thing down than elect a hawkish centrist like Hillary Clinton — reluctant Trump supporters held their nose and stuck with their party. Trump may by morally grotesque but the Supreme Court hung in the balance, so the social conservatives voted for him anyway. He may have talked of tariffs and keeping out foreigners, but he promised to cut taxes and repeal Obamacare so the free market conservatives voted for him anyway. Sure, he is an erratic know-nothing narcissist with zero experience running a government, who mused openly about the possibility of using nuclear weapons, but intelligent, educated conservatives — the very “elite” he rails against — helped hand him the nuclear launch codes.
And they stand with him to this day. With the odd exception, the Republican Party has given no indication that they will do anything but walk in lockstep with a president that eschews so many of their values.
The glue that binds conservatives still holds.
Shifting back to Canada, a number of conservative friends have mused privately to me in recent month about whether they could continue to support the Conservative Party if it picked certain candidates standing for the leadership. Luckily for them, O’Leary abruptly dropped out of the race and other lunatic fringe candidates are distant also-rans. It now seems likely that the party will make the decision easier for them and choose one of the candidates they can live with. Crisis averted for now.
But as more parochial and xenophobic flavours of conservativism continue to assert themselves, we will get to see whether it can all be held together. At some point, principled, thoughtful conservatives may have a choice to make between the values that brought them to the movement in the first place, and making common cause with those who view Ezra Levant’s agit-prop clown car outlet, The Rebel, as a legitimate source of news.
Much depends on how far they are willing to bend.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.