On Canada, Conservatism, Tories, and Blackberries

By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC


Wichita, KS

In honor of Canada Day, in the fine federation (though these days, in the eyes of a majority of Canadians, less a federation than an Americanized nation, or at best a “multinational” country) to our north, here’s an old post of mine, written soon after Stephen Harper’s Conservatives eked out a win in the federal elections of 2006. The only thing I would I would change about it is that it says nothing about George Grant, a tremendously important Canadian thinker and a vital link in the Canadian “Red Tory” tradition. Other than that, I stand by it all. To my old friends in Toronto, Happy Canada Day!


Recently I read a column by John Ibbitson in The Globe and Mail, written on Canada’s federal elections last Monday. I followed the contest between Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party and everyone else fairly closely, at least for an American; we have close friends in Toronto, and Canadian politics and political thinking has always interested me. But there was another reason why I followed the campaign news from Canada, one that perhaps only makes sense in the context of my relationship to the rather paltry political continuum which marks the limits of most politics in the U.S.: in Canada, there are Tories, and I wish we had some here.

Except that the Conservative Party in Canada today, though called “Tory,” isn’t really, at least not in the way I like to use the term. What am I looking for? I’m looking for Red Tories in the original sense–the noble, old-fashioned “conservative” mix of religion, egalitarianism, self-government and national populism, which goes back to Benjamin Disraeli and John MacDonald, and found strong expression in Canada through the Progressive Conservative Party of John Diefenbaker and Robert Stanfield. We don’t have Tories in the U.S. Oh sure, someone will occasionally pull the term out of their hat, but it has no real meaning in the overwhelmingly liberal (philosophically speaking) terrain of American society: the number of people who identify their conservatism with a need to protect social goods and promote social justice and virtue through local community and state action is vanishingly small. It’d be wonderful to be able to vote for such a candidate someday, and so whenever an election is called in Canada, I find myself watching the Conservative party, hoping to see someone flying my preferred banner. That hope is mostly in vain though. Sure, the Canadian Conservatives are a lot more comfortable with social programs than American “conservatives” are; it’s a much more “moderate” or even, in a crude sense, “socialist” party as far as that goes, and good for them. But for all that, Stephen Harper didn’t run and win his minority government as a Red Tory; the fact is, he barely ran as a Tory at all. The Ibbitson column I mentioned above explains why:

[Whoever wins,] the Canada that Canada is becoming will carry on. The immigrants will continue to arrive by the hundreds of thousands each year; hundreds of thousands of native-born Canadians will leave, or be driven from, rural life. The Conservatives cannot stop these exoduses. And so either Mr. Harper will continue the transformation of his party, seeking to infuse the urban reality of Canadian society with a dynamic conservatism–and yes, the two can co-exist–or he will let his party and his soul become hostage to the resentful, rural redoubt that still lurks in the wings.

There is a posture of inevitability in this passage, which carries the assumption that “dynamic conservatism” is the only possible, respectful conservatism these days, the only conservatism that isn’t the refuge of “resentful” losers out on the farm. Of course, what Ibbitson really means by dynamic conservatism is the “conservatism” which has been polished into a bright sheen by Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. since the Reagan administration, if not earlier: that is, neoliberalism with some nice communitarian and localist rhetoric thrown in. It’s all about the suburbs and the corporations, tax cuts and law and order, growth and trade. The farm, the community, the nation: those are all well and good, but they need to be taught their place. And let’s not pretend that isn’t an attractive package! The majority of Americans, and with every passing year more and more Canadians as well, have embraced in practice (but perhaps more importantly in principle) a liberal and liberated and urbanized version of modern life, where commerce is quick and homes are interchangeable and borders are open and change is constant and the internet connects everybody anyway. What we want is our neighborhoods clean, our tax burden low, our civic obligations minimal and our government out of our business. Of course, for many liberals this would be the point where my analysis breaks down: a lot of the political muscle behind this “conservatism,” in the U.S. and, again, increasingly in Canada as well, comes from various Christian groups that have very strong opinions about how the government ought to involve itself in our (moral) business. Fair enough; certain elements of what might be called Toryism survive. But since for the most part they are not combined with anything like a genuinely populist and egalitarian socio-economic platform, the whole package of “dynamic conservatism” fails, at least in my view. But when liberalism–as expressed by both Canadian Liberals and American Democrats–mostly fails to make much of a communal or moral connection with the people (much less actually offer an alternative to the ideology of growth), all the people for the most part have left is the question of who to blame for high taxes and high unemployment and high crime, and the “dynamic” capitalists will always have a persuasive answer to that question, at least.

Yesterday, a blogger I frequently read, Laura McKenna, shared another one those stories she is so good at getting to the heart of: how her husband is being pressured to spend even more time at work and away from her and the kids so that he can “get ahead,” and how his boss wants him to carry a Blackberry–because, of course, there’s so much important work to be done that you really ought to make sure you can read the latest e-mails from The Man at any time of the day. A typical tale of high-pressure corporate life, you say; true, but also, as Laura notes, another bit of supporting evidence for her conclusion that “corporate life is the enemy of the modern family.” My friend and frequent antagonist Nate Oman takes exception to this conclusion: he’s no ally of those who embrace the “super-turbo-charged-24/7/365-at-the-office” ethos which characterizes so much of modern corporate capitalist practice, but doesn’t think the Blackberry supports such–on the contrary, he sees the Blackberry, and the world of constant and interchangeable information which it is just one very small part of, as a triumph of networks over hierarchy, a liberation of energy and activity (and time) which has torn apart the old socio-economic contract in favor of a much more meritocratic one. He admits that “a reward system based on results” is more competitive, less secure, and less forgiving that the old system, but as it is also more “flexible,” perhaps it is, ultimately, even more friendly to families than all that came before.

The modern world is, practically by definition, a flexible one. As political revolution, social atomization, and technological innovation makes for ever more options and opportunities, all we individuals want is to be better able to respond to it, to go with its flow, to bend with it. The old Red Tory idea–and it’s not just theirs; it’s an idea that existed at the heart of practically every serious populist or egalitarian movement of the past three hundred years–was that, of course, we need flexibility….but we also need to make sure everyone is guaranteed a place, a home, a society, a space beyond the pace of the market, wherein they can put down roots and so be able to bend without breaking or being bowled over. No one who isn’t psychopathically libertarian can honestly deny this, not even the neoliberals who call themselves “conservative” today. And so in America the Republicans associate themselves with the religious right, and at least manage to keep various family values issues on the table; and the Democrats (despite the wishes of some of their big-city blue-state mandarins) keep trying to keep farmers and unions and those concerned about consequences of globalization politically viable. And in Canada, the Liberals rightly defend their country’s attempt to make health care a duty of the whole; while across the aisle at least the Conservative government will presumably put a stop (for a while, anyway) to now ex-Prime Minister Paul Martin’s desperate last-minute promise to get rid of the “notwithstanding” clause in the Canadian constitution–supposedly a threat to rights of individual Canadians everywhere but in fact one of the truly and admirably localist (or at least regionalist) aspects of Canadian politics. So yes, there are still options for populists out there; some good compromises can sometimes be made, here and there. But for the most part, whatever their more superficial political differences, the way Nate sees the world is probably about the same way John Ibbitson sees the world–and, on the basis of the evidence, it’s a way of seeing the world that Stephen Harper has little problem committing himself to. I bet he carries a Blackberry.

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