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The Challenge: Re-Defining Canadian Conservatism for a New Century


An analysis of the state of Canadian conservatism, and the challenge to electability posed by the schism between the social/religious branch of the movement, and the fiscal/pragmatist wing. Can a workable coalition be forged between the religious-traditionalist right and neo-conservatism?


Charles W. Moore

 Author Notes

Freelance journalist, syndicated columnist, and web publisher based in Nova Scotia. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications across Canada, in the U.S., and overseas. He is also editor/publisher of the Barquentine Ventures Online Journal and the MacCave Online Journal.

 Essay - 1/29/1998

The most crucial message conservatives must strive to convey to the as-yet unconvinced, is why it is better and more intelligent to be conservative than liberal or socialist. This is where conservatism has been losing the culture wars, or at least where we have had difficulty gaining “converts.”


The conventional-wisdom knock against conservatism and right of centre thinking is that it is allegedly the ideology of despair, callous self-interest, greed, hard-heartedness, etc., that conservatives are all fat-cat business hypocrites who trash big government when it suits them but run to it when they need help. Conversely, liberalism and socialism are popularly associated with hope, compassion, generosity, “caring,” etc. Both of these dialectic stereotypes are arguably false, but they are reflexive assumptions of a probable majority of Canadians. That does not necessarily mean that in their own private opinions most Canadians actually hold strong liberal opinions, but they have been brainwashed and browbeaten by the media, the educational establishment, the entertainment industry, and other self-styled culture-makers into fearing that there is something vaguely shameful about admitting to being illiberal or “right-wing.”


Now, the worst thing we can do in trying to counter these misconceptions, and leftist cultural bullying in general, is to start insisting that we are really just as liberal as the liberals. If we argue that we are essentially liberals too, then we’ve tacitly conceded the point that liberalism really is better, and if that is the case then why shouldn’t voters cut out the ambiguity and just vote for liberals who call themselves liberals. An aside: there is a pragmatic reason why the adjective “Progressive” was appended to the name of Canada’s Conservative Party, but the message that name sends today is that the PCs are not really conservative. It amounts to a defeatist apology enshrined in the very party name.


If we hope to convince the voting public that there are substantive, positive reasons for voting Reform or Tory--other than merely as a temporary alternative when they get tired of or angry with incumbent Grit governments--then we’ve got to stop apologizing for being conservative. This is especially important when articulating our message to young people.

A second point is to make sure that we really believe in conservative values and principles ourselves, and mean what we say. Presently, there are in practical fact a diversity of philosophies--some downright contradictory--parading under the banner of “conservatism.” We need to examine what conservatism really is, why we are conservatives, and make sure that we are able to express our reasons convincingly and from the heart.

Happily, there are plenty of positive, philosophical reasons for believing in genuine conservatism, and there are real, substantive distinctions between conservatism and liberalism/socialism, which, if properly presented and explained, will, I believe, persuade people to come on side.

There are of course many complex philosophical principles underlying conservative political and social theory, and it is worthwhile for us to familiarize ourselves with them as much as possible, but heavy philosophical arguments are not really something that can be used as an effective tool in electoral politics.

What we must do is distill these truths into language and concepts that ordinary people find accessible and easily understandable, without watering down the truths themselves. This is eminently possible, and there is a wealth of material to draw on.


At minimum, it will always take somewhat more effort to be conservative than liberal, because conservatism is an idealism based on rational thought, whereas liberalism and socialism are based on emotion, feeling, and sentiment. We have to market conservatism as being worth the extra effort, while simultaneously striving to make the necessary effort as stimulating and gratifying as possible.

It is easy to be a liberal. All you have to do is say “yes” to everything. Conservatives choose the more responsible road of saying “no” to some things, and it requires thought, reason, and logic to be able to explain why. A good rhetorical example is to put it this way: Liberals say they want to help people. conservatives, on the other hand, want to create economic and social conditions where most people will not need help, and ensure that resources are there for those who still do. Liberal help comes at a stiff price: they want to control our lives. Conservatives want to let individuals control their own lives as much as is practical in a society.

Margaret Thatcher carried the following quote from Abraham Lincoln around in her famous handbags during her entire tenure as Prime Minister:

“You cannot bring prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot further the Brotherhood of Man by encouraging class hatred. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn. You cannot build character and courage by taking away a man’s initiative. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.”

Note that Lincoln says “no” to a number of things, but not in a spirit of negativity.


At least until recently, conservatives have always forcefully affirmed that morality is a public as well as a private matter. Liberalism teaches that moral issues must be personalized and relativized into “How I feel about it.” The language of conviction is only considered appropriate within the realm of personal meaning. People have been conditioned to regard moral values as something that should not be publicly binding. This notion is profoundly at odds with traditional conservative thinking.

Under liberalism, moral understanding becomes radically dissociated from formal or theoretical systems of moral reflection, and we are left with only emotion, sentiment, and personal taste as a guide to what is perceived as provisionally right or wrong. Moral conflicts become predicated, not on objective principles or community traditions, but rather in a hodgepodge of personal preferences. As ultra-liberal American commentator Stanley Fish puts it: “All principles are preferences; all preferences are principled.” Conservatives must gird themselves to refute that pernicious claim, which has become so widely and uncritically accepted in North American popular culture. Those of us who take morality seriously are not so foolish as to regard moral questions as relative. What rational person, to cite an extreme example, would argue that raping children or selling them into slavery amounts to a matter of moral “preference?” However, the faulty theory of pseudo-morality inherent in liberalism would be obliged to support just such an argument in order to remain consistent. Of course liberalism, on critical examination, has very little philosophical coherence or consistency.



“Liberal,” of course is consonant with “liberty,” which liberals define as virtually unlimited personal freedom. Liberals hate accountability, or the very idea that anything bad might be someone’s fault. Conservatives, if they know their stuff, understand that true freedom is paradoxically inseparable from responsibility and accountability. If there is no absolute truth, absolute freedom is a sad and ultimately pointless objective. Also a dangerous one. If there is no truth, than anything anyone says could become truth. From the fundamental liberal axiom of unqualified freedom derives a package of subsidiary doctrines nearly all liberals subscribe to:


1. “The good society is that in which the only common good is an agreement not to agree on any common good.” This is a recipe for fragmentation and community breakdown, as well as being demonstrable nonsense. Shared community values are the very basis of sustainable societies. Conservatives need to point this out at every opportunity. Of course, shared community values must be based in objective moral principles, which liberals hold not to exist. That is why there is no inconsistency in the observable fact that the more liberal policies are adopted by governments--the more society falls apart.


2. “Cultural diversity is to be prized regardless of the content of the culture.” This is the ideology behind state imposed multiculturalism, and the reason why the liberal deconstructors of Western civilization in academe and the alleged intellectual elites are so self-destructively intent on throwing our cultural traditions to the wolves. Pluralism, rather than absolute truth, becomes the de-facto new quasi-absolute. Liberal anthropology assumes that all ideas are equal in worthiness (cf. Stanley Fish’s comment cited above), all people are essentially good (ergo: intrinsic human evil is non-existent), and that all cultures are of equal value with “choice” being the only meaning of freedom.


3. “The sexual liberation movement is a great step forward in the advance of civilization.” Consequently, centuries-old codes of morals and manners have been overturned, and society is bombarded with sexual themes. Things are now the commonplace knowledge of children that wouldn’t have been mentioned in polite society 30 years ago. It is virtually impossible to get through a single waking hour without encountering a sexual topic in the news or entertainment media. As conservative humorist and political commentator P. J. O’Rourke puts it: “Liberals want the freedom to put anything into their mouths, to say bad words, and to expose their private parts in art museums.” It takes slavish ideological blindness not to be able to recognize the sexual revolution’s disastrous consequences--AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases; 30-odd percent of children born out of wedlock; ballooning rates of abortion; epidemic divorce and family breakdown; militant homosexuality; a thriving pornography industry; etc--but liberals seem to be just that blind. Conservatives ought not to be.


4. “The right to abortion is a fundamental human right.” This is more liberal denial of accountability and responsibility. Liberals insist that there is no real good and evil, no real right and wrong, and that the universe is merely an enormous screen onto which we project our desires and call them moral choices. Liberals think human beings can create new moralities--a philosophically absurd presumption. For instance, you can make up a new moral code in which killing infants is right instead of wrong. The abortion movement is one vast collective liberal exercise in denial; an effort to assuage the guilt associated with infanticide by getting others to, at least ideologically, join in the bloodletting. This is only partially successful, even in an immediate, temporal sense. Conscious denial that any natural, moral laws have been broken, does not mean that the individual is still not unconsciously aware that they have transgressed natural law. Therefore, they are driven to seek absolution in politics as an exercise in denial. Conservatives worthy of the name must repudiate abortion.


5. “The right to suicide is another fundamental human right.” The liberal doctrine, because it is founded in a lie, is the doctrine of death and self-destruction at its fundamental level. The late Malcolm Muggeridge called it “The Great Liberal Death Wish... holding out the fallacious and ultimately destructive hope that we can construct a happy, fulfilled life in terms of our physical and material needs, and in the moral and intellectual dimensions of our mortality.” It is no coincidence that liberals overwhelmingly favour euthanasia and abortion, deceiving themselves that doing so amounts to supporting “choice.”


6. “Regardless of whether or not there are children involved, society has no business pressuring people to get married or remain married.” Liberalism is fundamentally anti-family, because the family as a social unit (and the only viable building block of healthy societies), places restrictions and qualifications on individual freedom and liberty--at least on the simplistic liberal versions. They inveigh against all institutions that subordinate the individual to the socially normative. Conservatives must hammer home the incompatibility of liberal theory with family values. Liberalism strives to eliminate what it perceives as abuses inherent in families and community, but it cannot create or protect community because of its radical individualism.


So much for our review of liberal notions. The problem for conservatives pressing our case in today’s society is that the above package has been internalized by a large (and growing) portion of the population, including many who consider themselves conservative, as a result of systematic indoctrination. People are aware that something is horribly, tragically wrong with our society, but it’s hard for them to recognize all the feel-good liberal deceptions as being the underlying cause. Canadians exhibit amazing non-comprehension of the necessary cause-effect relationship between various societal pathologies they loath and fear, and the welfare-state social programs they cherish. Thus, when conservatives attack any part of the above outlined package of liberal beliefs, they are perceived as attacking the central axiom which people have been conditioned to accept unquestioningly.


Canadians are starved for strong, visionary leadership, of which there’s been a long famine in this country. Not dictatorship--a “my way or the doorway” autocracy--but leadership that is prepared to listen, to carefully consider various options and opinions, but also possessing the courage and conviction to act decisively and with authority when circumstances call for it.

Thucydides said of Perecles, that: “He led them, not they him; and since he did not win his power on compromising terms, he could say not only what pleased others but what displeased them, relying on their respect.”

Margaret Thatcher was never particularly well liked, but people knew that when she said something she really meant it. She was respected, and the people rewarded her with three successive majority governments. I’m convinced that she could have won a fourth, if the “wets” in her own party hadn’t lost their nerve over the poll-tax backlash and turfed her out.

Alberta’s Ralph Klein is another Conservative politician in the tradition of Mrs. Thatcher, who says what he’s going to do and then actually follows through. After winning the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party in December 1992, when the province’s Tory government was backed by only 17 percent of voters in the polls, Klein boldly downsized cabinet and slashed senior administration by nearly 40 percent; cut provincial government employment by 4,000 through layoffs, early retirement, voluntary buyouts, and attrition; closed hospitals; raised fees form medical services; terminated funding for pre-school education; and cut government spending by 20 percent across the board. Despite these cuts, and a lot of whining from the lib-left, Premier Klein continued to enjoy high approval ratings throughout his first term, and won a second majority handily, which , according to Klein, “shows that a government can have an honest agenda and can be tough while still enjoying popularity.”

Albertans didn’t like Klein's spending and program cuts, but knew they were necessary. This is doubtless partly due to perhaps a higher level of economic literacy in Alberta than obtains in certain other parts of Canada. But Ralph Klein has succeeded in remaining popular despite making massive cuts, where, say, Nova Scotia's former Liberal premier John Savage became hugely unpopular while accomplishing so much less. Klein said what he was going to do, and did it, while Savage played Dr. Feelgood during his election campaign despite (one hopes) knowing full well that he could never satisfy the expectations he was raising given the province’s dire economic straits.


There are those who believe that in a democracy, leaders should actually be slavish followers of the public will, executing what the community indicates it wants (at the moment) through polls, petitions, and referenda. Of course politicians should take popular opinion into account when making decisions, but what about when unpopular measures are really necessary for the common good? Would anyone argue that a majority of voters would ever approve program cuts or tax increases? Therein lies the fundamental, structural flaw in populism, whether its NDP populism or Reform Party populism or Liberal populism or Progressive Conservative populism. Alexander Tytler, an 18th Century Scottish historian, once observed that: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.” Tytler was of course referring to populist style democracy. And that is why thinking conservatives should be staunch champions of representative rather than direct democracy.

The key is to strike a balance between the Pereclean and ultra-democratic concepts of leadership (unless the leader in question is on a par with Perecles!), to remain flexible and open to a variety of ideas without becoming wishy-washy or excessively pragmatic. Here is where a clearly focused philosophical vision is crucial. The successful leader will be one who can articulate that vision to voters in such a way that they will be persuaded to follow him/her in pursuit of noble goals.


One of the most vexatious challenges facing those responsible for defining the Canadian small-c conservative movement's mission, is internal dissonance among members of the two self-perceived right-of centre parties, and indeed among nominally conservative Canadians in general over what it means to be a conservative in the 1990s. Does the parties want to really stand for something substantive, or content to just remain bluish-pink second-stringers playing catch-up liberalism and pinch-hitting for the “government party” from time to time?


The most potentially divisive and troubling internal conflict of visions, is that between those we might loosely term cultural conservatives (social-religious, traditional morality and family values oriented) on the one hand, and economic conservatives (business oriented fiscal bottom-liners, who tend to be moderate pragmatists on social/moral issues) on the other. These categories are of course not mutually exclusive. For instance, many business people have strong religious convictions. There is plenty of crossover. But these are distinct factions in both the PC and Reform parties that will find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades in our culture wars often enough to cause problems for party unity.

Cultural conservatives are keenly eager to engage the secular humanist left--liberals and socialists--in polemical combat, whereas the default instinct of economic conservatives is to steer clear of controversy and conflict, which is usually bad for business. This dissonance makes for often uneasy relations between these two main branches of conservatism.

For example, former N.S. Tory Premier Don Cameron’s credentials as an economic conservative were unquestionable, but he was freely open to--even enthusiastic about--entrenching homosexuality as a specially protected ground of discrimination in the Human Rights Act--something that is absolute anathema to cultural/religious conservatives

Like Mr. Cameron, most of today’s fiscal neo-conservative devotees of capitalism want nothing to do with defending orthodox Christian moral and ethical principles such as opposition to abortion and euthanasia, or refusal to affirm homosexual behavior as morally adequate. Many neo-cons are no less hostile than socialists and liberals to any sort of Christian assertiveness in the public square. The neo-con attitude was summed up by former U.S. President Richard Nixon, who referred to the cultural conservative stance as “an embarrassment. So many people are gay, or go both ways. I don’t want to hear about it. And I don’t want to hear about abortion. That’s people’s own business.”


The friction between cultural and economic conservatives is an entirely new phenomenon in Canadian politics, and the neither Progressive Conservative Party nor the Reform Party have yet to adequately and substantively address it. While neither party is overtly anti-religious, political parties in Canada have always been secular throughout Canada’s history. This was appropriate in the socio-cultural climate that prevailed in this country until about 30 years ago. Up until then, Canadian society enjoyed a strong moral/religious consensus largely based in the Christian principles which the vast majority of Canadians affirmed. Agreement on what constituted desirable social values was automatically assumed and assented to by the overwhelming majority of Canadians.

All that has now changed radically, and to understand why, one must come to grips with the distinctions between “secular” and “secularist.”. Secular political parties have always tried to remain neutral between religions, so long as they all represented various shadings of traditional morality. Modern and post-modern secularists, on the other hand, are radical separationists who insist that religious moral values are a purely private matter, and thus “have no place in politics.” In their view, freedom OF religion means freedom FROM religion. Secularist humanists are ideologically hostile to traditional religion’s moral absolutist claims, and seek to drive religious values out of the public square altogether. Traditional values are replaced by a liberal-humanist pseudo-morality that substitutes the notion of “fair and equal” (as if fairness and equality were entirely new concepts liberals dreamed up) treatment for all cultures and lifestyles. They seek to impose a dogma of unconditional acceptance of virtually anything individuals want to experience (cf: Stanley Fish's “all preferences are principled”), combined with a powerful hostility toward traditional moral standards and inhibitions especially if the latter are of a religious nature.


This agenda is absolutely unacceptable to cultural and religious conservatives, who have been forced to respond to the secularist threat by mobilizing politically. Unfortunately, as noted above, significant numbers of economic-pragmatist conservatives are influenced by, and even buy into, the secularist belief that moral principles should be a matter of public indifference. This is not surprising, in light of the relentless secular humanist indoctrination virtually everyone under 45 has been subjected to in our culture since they were infants, but it poses, as outlined above, the most difficult internal challenge to political organizations in which both cultural/religious and economic/pragmatist conservatives comprise large membership blocs. The question is: Can a workable and cohesive internal coalition be knit together between these two groups who basically have radically different modes of thinking on social and moral issues?

Even when they agree that a certain policy--say welfare reform--is desirable, they will approach it with different emphases. Economic conservatives want the welfare system revamped to make it more efficient and less costly. Cultural conservatives, on the other hand, while having nothing against efficiency and thrift, are also motivated by the conviction that dependency on handouts destroys character and initiative, and causes social deterioration.

With notable exceptions, cultural conservatives tend to be members of the working and lower middle classes, self-employed business people, and/or devoutly religious persons from all social and economic strata. Economic conservative pragmatists tend to be from the professions, the corporate executive class, or the wealthier small-business class, and often hold influential and privileged positions in political parties. The significance of this ideological split must be faced head-on and discussed freely and openly--not wallpapered over and swept under the rug.

A graphic example of what can happen when the cultural conservatives are largely ignored by a dominant party elite of economic pragmatists was witnessed in the 1993 federal election when cultural-religious conservatives staged a wholesale bail-out from P.C. to Reform.


Canadians are arguably more conservative in their political orientation in the late 1990s than they have been at any other time in this century, but as a political force they are stalemated by the schism within conservatism. Fiscal conservatives and cultural conservatives are held together in an uneasy coalition not so much by what they favour, but by what they oppose: namely big government. However they do not even agree on why they dislike big government. One faction objects only to what it costs, and would probably be quite sanguine about what big government does if cost were less of a factor. The other camp is sub-divided within itself on the cost of big government, but in complete solidarity in its opposition to what big government does. They see both the legislative process and the courts being used to turn Canada into not a religiously-neutral society, but an unapologetically anti-Christian one, and that they cannot accept.

Fiscal neo-conservatives are reflexively suspicious of the cultural conservative agenda, which seems to them like a plot to “ram Christian values down everyone’s throats.” They know that religious conservatives see the laws of the land as ideally expressions of moral, and therefore Biblical principle, and fear that cultural conservatives’ intent, conscious or unconscious, is to establish a theocratic state, a prospect that repels them.

Cultural conservatives, on the other hand, are fed up with being taken for granted, and claim with historical justification that the civilization it took Christianity two millennia of blood, sweat, and tears to build is being mortally sacrificed on the altar of multiculturalism, tolerance without limits, sexual libertinism, and sundry other politically correct liberal-humanist hobby-horses. For instance, there is seething anger and resentment against the P.C. Party among many cultural-religious conservatives in Canada, a substantial number of them of them former long-time Party supporters. These people believe, with considerable justification, that their views and values have been ignored--often outrightly scorned and ridiculed--for too long by cultural pragmatists in the Party’s upper echelons who have jumped on the liberal-humanist bandwagon. This has created a loyalty-crisis that the party can ill afford at this time (or any time). The 1993 electoral rout was a graphic demonstration of why.

On the other hand, cultural conservatives are also becoming increasingly unenchanted with the Reform Party's cautiously equivocal public stance on issues like abortion and homosexualism.

Neither party can ever hope to win a federal election without the support of the cultural-religious right. The most important conundrum facing conservatism in Canada today is whether some sort of workable reconciliation can be reached between its two mutually hostile branches. Ignoring this question, wallpapering over it and hoping it will go away won’t work. Twice in this decade, American Republican presidential candidates have lost to a deeply flawed Democrat because their attempt to straddle the widening gulf between fiscal and cultural conservatism left them looking like they didn’t stand for anything in particular. Similar strategies won’t work in Canada either.

What was business as usual up until the ‘90s, is no longer a viable option. The political-cultural landscape has shifted dramatically, and the former status quo isn’t going to return. There is a bitter culture war being waged in this country, which is going to force a profound re-alignment of political loyalties.

The war is between those who believe that Canada’s traditional moral-religious heritage must be salvaged and preserved, and liberal-humanist cultural elites bent on turning this country into a radically secular, multicultural, anti-religious, pan-sexualist dystopia. Attempting to push these troublesome and divisive issues aside to concentrate exclusively on economic concerns won’t work. The divisions must be faced, difficult as that is. A useful first step would be to begin honestly and openly acknowledging and discussing the problem, rather than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. The time is ripe for individual Canadians to choose which side of the barricades they’re going to occupy, because we no longer can afford the luxury of sitting on the fence.

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