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In Search of True Conservatives


The recent conservative agenda is too narrowly focused on economic issues.

This article originally appeared in The Hamilton Spectator, December 13th, 1997


Jon Wells

 Author Notes

Columnist at The Hamilton Spectator

 Essay - 12/13/1997

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

When William Gairdner's book The Trouble With Canada was published in 1990, it quickly came to symbolize the conservative revolution sweeping the land.

Gairdner effectively tapped into the conservative wave as it was cresting in Canada, but well after it had already washed over the U.S. and the U.K., courtesy of the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions.

The Trouble With Canada was a runaway hit, selling more than 70,000 copies in six printings. (Five thousand sales make a Canadian best-seller.)

So, you might imagine Gairdner -- the man who championed decisions that were "bottom up" and welfare that offered "handups, not handouts" -- to be the toast of the town in Canada's power centres.

But no, Gairdner is here in his home near King City, north of Toronto, a stone's throw from nowhere, both literally and figuratively.

Gairdner remains very much an outsider.

Those who think conservatism dominates politics -- that it has achieved "ideological hegemony," in the words of leftist academic James Laxer -- should visit Gairdner. For this is the place you find traditional conservatives these days: still very much in the wilderness.

"I'm not really part of the public discussion on social issues," he says. "Writing books has changed me and made me ideologically lonely."

For Gairdner, the rallying call of the right -- "It's the economy, stupid" -- represents only a tiny part of the conservative manifesto.

Conservatism, Gairdner argues, was never supposed to be only about money. It's also about morality and the role government plays (or, more aptly, doesn't play) in society.

His conservatism runs much deeper than balancing the budget and cutting taxes.

But Gairdner's moral views -- he is staunchly anti-abortion, saying that as an ethical question it is the modern equivalent of slavery -- place him almost as far outside the political mainstream today as in 1990. Gairdner represents a split in conservatism that is rapidly undermining the great right-wing victory.

"A lot of conservative ideas have triumphed over the last 20 years," says University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss. "But there is kind of a crisis in small-c conservative thought these days."

- - -

Clearly, the right has made great strides. On the economic front, signs that the times have changed are everywhere.

Can any politician today utter "tax increase" without fear of being tarred and feathered? Would any government propose to spend its way to prosperity, as some MPs urged in the House of Commons as recently as 1991?

U.S. President Bill Clinton -- whose Democratic Party conceived the "Great Society" social spending programs of the late 1960s -- stands before Congress and declares the "era of big government" is over. In Britain, Tony Blair is elected prime minister only after embracing the economic legacy of Margaret Thatcher.

But those waiting with dread, or anticipation, for a conservative triumph extending beyond economic policy -- radically curtailing the role of government and halting, or reversing, any moves towards legalized euthanasia, gay marriage, unrestricted abortion, multiculturalism and affirmative action -- may wait a long time because the conservative movement is badly fractured.

- - -

Newspaper baron Conrad Black, perhaps Canada's most outspoken conservative, saw the tainted victory coming. In a 1988 speech to the Fraser Institute, the Vancouver-based free-market think tank, he predicted the rise of conservatism but added: "There will be neither outright victory nor the equally deserved rout of conservatism's opponents...The conservatives will not really win but in our inimitable Canadian fashion, they will gain."

Free-market (read: neoconservative) economics may be ascendant, but other conservative tenets have failed to capture the popular imagination.

Social conservatives (read: paleoconservatives) like Gairdner -- those who believe in vigorous defence of traditional mores like prayer in public schools -- accuse the fiscal neocons of having abandoned the very principles of conservatism.

"I won't use phrases like fiscal and social conservative because I think all true conservatives are social, so it's a specious distinction," says Gairdner.

Reform Leader Preston Manning, who is loath to trumpet his own conservative views on abortion and other moral issues, admits fiscal conservatives today "won't touch moral issues with a 10-foot pole."

That split within the conservative movement is translating into political weakness. In short, the right has demonstrated a tremendous capacity for eating its own.

A recent example was the narrow re-election of Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey. A darling of the right for her tax-cutting and deficit reduction, Whitman is now reviled by social conservatives because she is pro-choice. She nearly lost the election because social conservatives abandoned her.

In Canada, the split between Reformers and Progressive Conservatives can broadly be defined as a split between paleoconservatives and neoconservatives. The depth of that divide was most obvious during this year's federal election, when PC Leader Jean Charest called Manning a "bigot" -- extreme language in Canadian politics.

Political pundit and Tory spear carrier Hugh Segal echoes Charest's tone, saying conservatives must avoid the "American disease," by cleansing the ranks of social conservative "nut bars" so that moderates like Charest, or in the U.S., Colin Powell, may lead.

The Reform-PC rift helped the Liberals win the last two federal elections. The combined Reform-PC popular vote in 1997 was 38 per cent, tying the Liberals.

The implications of this splitting of the conservative vote are clear. Fiscal conservatism, espousing free trade and deficit reduction, may reign in Ottawa, but the Liberals (read: liberals) still hold power and, with it, control of the nation's agenda and political culture.

That has translated into government action that is decidedly unconservative. Consider, for example, Ottawa's paternalistic zeal to ban tobacco advertising and enforce Canadian content in broadcasting.

Clearly, conservative forces will have to develop some rapprochement if they are to have any significant impact beyond the economy. But there is no evidence of that happening.

"There is a war among conservatives," argues Ted Smith, a mass communications professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, "between the pragmatists and the idealists."

- - -

The disarray of the right was evident at two recent soul-searching conferences, one in Calgary in summer 1996 and one in Washington this past fall. In D.C., hand-wringing conservatives debated in dark tones where to go next.

The angst left many shaking their heads. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, for one, suggested conservatives should "lighten up."

Krauthammer wrote that the right is flailing for issues. He argues conservatives, confronting a relatively quiet post-Cold War world in which free markets reign, are asking: "Is that all there is?"

John O'Sullivan, editor of the New York-based National Review, the most influential conservative magazine in the U.S., is one who believes there is more.

"To congratulate ourselves on the victories of the past and do nothing else is absurd," he said. "The left has admitted defeat in two areas -- the Cold War and free-market economics. Now. . .the battle has moved on to new territory, and on that territory, conservatives are losing."

O'Sullivan says the new battles pitting right against left include:

1) Regulation of the economy, particularly in areas of environmental control, such as global warming;

2) Social policy, affecting everything from affirmative action and smoking bans to multiculturalism;

3) National sovereignty, particularly as it relates to the influence of the United Nations and other international bodies.

It's easy to see why O'Sullivan believes the right is losing these new battles. Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Jean Chretien, for example, both subscribe to free-market, fiscal conservatism. That should make them loyal soldiers of conservatism. But both also support global warming regulations, aggressive use of the UN, multiculturalism, affirmative action and other social policies that place them firmly in the camp of "the other side."

"The struggle is far from over," said Fraser Institute director Michael Walker. "The reality is, there's still a very big gulf between where we are and want to be."

- - -

The big question is not whether there are conservative issues. It is, rather, can conservatives find enough common ground to advance them?

The short answer, it appears, is no.

"We are cobbled together like Frankenstein -- a stitch here, a stitch there," Mickey Edwards, a lecturer at Harvard and former congressman, says of the conservative movement.

"It will be hard to hold that together. As you win more and more victories, the necessity of hanging together becomes less, you become free to pursue your own concerns."

Conservatives exist across a broad spectrum, from Boston's libertarian gay broadcaster David Brudnoy to old-style Canadian Tories such as Dalton Camp.

Uniting the entire group, in the absence of an epochal ideological struggle like the Cold War, is impossible.

But there are other possibilities. Some social conservatives, perhaps out of necessity, wonder if political power is best exercised outside national governments.

Rejected Reagan supreme court nominee Robert Bork, in his controversial book Slouching Towards Gomorrah, wrote favourably of "creating small islands of decency and civility in the midst of a sub-pagan culture." Bork argues that gated communities and home schooling are indicative of this movement.

Smith at Virginia Commonwealth University goes one better. He says the betrayal of conservatism by neocons is fuelling separatism and states'-rights movements in the American south and Midwest.

"Social conservatives are seeing they can't operate at the federal level, because the neoconservatives have completely accepted a huge and expansionist government."

Separatism, of course, is not new to Canada.

William Christian, a political studies professor at the University of Guelph, says: "There does seem to be a movement afoot to devolve responsibilities to smaller units. I could very well see the breakup of Canada or a dramatic reconfederation. Those on the right who don't come to terms with this will be politically irrelevant and will be more into nostalgia to fight against the tide."

As repugnant as many conservatives may find such talk -- nationalism, after all, is also a conservative tenet -- they would do well to look to their roots.

Devolution of power -- that is, the fight against "big government" -- is a cornerstone of conservatism. That is, if parents want condom machines removed from schools and the Lord's Prayer read in class each morning, then let the parents decide, not the government.

Says O'Sullivan: "A conservative wants a freer, more spontaneous and more traditional society to be protected against Leviathan (central government), which is trying to direct people in its own way, which may not be the will of the society."

The philosophical problem then becomes a political problem: how to garner enough power to make devolution possible? Manning thinks he has a solution.

The Reform leader believes there is a conservative coalition just waiting to be tapped in Canada.

"We believe if you draw a circle around all the people who believe in fiscal responsibility, the equality of all provinces and citizens and bottom-up democratization of decision-making, you have enough critical mass to be a governing party," he says.

This coalition is preferable for Manning to pursuing a pure right-wing agenda.

"You can do that but you end up as an NDP of the right. The centralist government ends up stealing some policies here and there, but you never govern."

The third dimension -- democratization -- is the key. Manning believes that for Reform or any conservative party to achieve power in Ottawa and then change cultural and social policy is wrong-headed.

"You want to get the decision into an arena where there's half a chance of winning.

"I'd rather try to win a moral or social issue with a large number of ordinary people than try to win it in Ottawa."

In other words, you have to get the people on side. And the mechanism to make that happen is direct democracy, more specifically the extensive use of referendums.

That's already happening south of the border. Last year, for example, Californians voted in a referendum to abolish affirmative action based on race and gender -- a favourite conservative bugaboo.

But Manning also acknowledges the perils of democratization for conservatives: "The danger is, the people won't follow you."

This is the ultimate dilemma in conservative thought, that government should listen to the common sense of the common people -- except the masses cannot be trusted. It is a circle that cannot be squared.

So what to do?

Virginia Postrel, editor of California-based Reason Magazine, counters that smaller, decentralized government may be the answer.

Her thinking goes something like this: If you reduce people's reliance on social programs such as welfare, you will reduce the number of illegitimate children and that will translate into stronger, more traditional families and so on.

Then, stating the painfully obvious, she adds this caution: "But the other side is, conservative values might not be the ones that come out of it. These people (like Manning) will have to be satisfied with diversity, and everybody must have a place at the table."

Democratization is thus a volatile game for conservatives to play. Manning, of all people, knows this well, having seen how -- in his own words -- the bright light of Reform occasionally attracts a few bugs from the grassroots.

- - -

The 21st century may signal the end of ideology. Communism is a spent force, the free market as the basis for ordering economic affairs is universally agreed upon (with debate over details) and democracy has triumphed.

The centre of the political spectrum has become a big place. There is scant difference, really, between Charest, Chretien, and Alexa McDonough on fiscal issues. In this environment, conservatism wins some battles, but loses the war. A middle-of-the-road Hugh Segal-style conservatism embraces tepid economic orthodoxy and abandons volatile moral and social issues.

But traditional conservatives don't belong in the great political middle. That is the home of relative truths, accommodation and the art of the possible. It is the reason Gairdner is tilting at windmills from his secluded office.

And so conservatives struggle against the current, pontificating from the periphery, excluded from mainstream politics, taking comfort in the words of 18th-century British parliamentarian Edmund Burke: "We know that we have made no discoveries and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality -- nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity."

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