Are Canadians Becoming More Conservative?

A friend recently asked me whether I think that Canadians are becoming more conservative and, for that matter, notwithstanding the recent U.S. election, whether most people in developed countries are moving to the right. Conservative parties in Europe have done well at the very time that progressives thought they had a chance for a resurgence given recent calamities.

Obviously the question poses some definitional challenges; “right”, “left”, “conservative”, “progressive” are open to diverse and changing interpretations. But most of us have enough of a shared sense of what these words mean to venture a view at least for Canada. I say “venture a view” because empirical data are scarce and contradictory. The conservative Manning Centre has polling data that suggest we Canadians are indeed becoming more conservative. EKOS , on the other hand, has data that suggest we are not more conservative on most social issues, though these same data do indicate a growing anti-tax sentiment, a preference for cutting government, and tougher attitudes to crime. This just confirms the complexity of the issue; political and social values are hard to measure, especially when our views may be uncertain and evolving.

In the current context with no political party able to hold majority territory, I don’t know what our voting preference say about this question unless they hint at a growing polarization of values and maybe a higher percentage of the population than in the past ready to support “conservative values'”.

On a purely subjective and anecdotal basis I attended two dinner parties – both with people I like and respect – at which this issue played, at least in the background. At one, we were discussing an op-ed I had written in which I made the claim that Canada was changing profoundly but without political debate. Simply, I was arguing that we were becoming a more conservative country – lower taxes, smaller government, weaker central government, tougher on crime, putting economy over environment, and so on – even though we were not necessarily becoming a more conservative people. This was happening, I said, in barely visible increments through some combination of drift and design and most of us were just not noticing. The response at the dinner was instructive: little disagreement that we were indeed changing in the directions I suggested but wondering whether the absence of debate simply implied that a new consensus was emerging. In other words, Canadians are becoming more conservative, said one of my companions, and I just haven’t kept pace. At the other dinner party, where I wisely did not discuss my article, I was struck by how easily criticisms of government generally and politicians and public servants specifically slipped off the tongue. The negative language was taken-for-granted, apparently now part of our political culture.

I know, I know, not very scientific, but these polls and these dinners did get me thinking that it would be important to get at how our political culture is changing. I began to wonder whether my baby boom generation is more interested in protecting what it has achieved than in building something new. I wondered if younger generations of Canadians look away from government because they grew up while government was backing away from them or because they heard only accusations of government “fat”, inefficiency and corruption or because government is still dominated by my generation and our concerns and approaches. ( Of course these generational generalizations are just that. In fact, the young people I teach strike me as quite progressive just in different ways than I am used to.)

Are our views on crime hardening? It seems so. Has the proportion of “social conservatives” in Canada increased? I don’t know but perhaps the divide has widened as all the recent talk of “culture wars” implies. Are we more skeptical about the pursuit of social justice? Well, the words have certainly disappeared from the political lexicon. Are we more skeptical about government? Yes, pretty much.

My sense is that there is no easy answer. Surely each of us holds diverse and even contradictory ideas and values simultaneously. We are probably more focused on economic and security matters when we are anxious or alarmed and on social, cultural and environmental matters when we are confident about the future. And anti-government sentiment, which does seem to be on the rise, can mean many things. On the one hand, it can reflect a growing understanding that government has to change, to close the gap between itself and us the governed, and find new ways of serving, given how we have changed and how the challenges we face have changed. Or it can mean an ideologically driven view that government inevitably limits our liberty so, on principle, the less government the better. And at the extreme this can translate to a primitive anti-governmentalism. While progressives generally see a positive role for government on the basis that freedom and dignity require a strong political community, some measure of equality and a healthy society, even they now seem wary of “big government”, especially given our relatively new-found fiscal values. Just about everyone, it seems, is a fiscal conservative.

So it does seem that our political culture is changing at least with respect to the role of government and how much government spends. We also do seem more wary of government and, if we trust government less, we will also be less willing to entertain tax increases. In turn that will limit government’s capacity to intervene and to serve. We can seek the explanation for this declining trust in the behaviour of politicians and governments certainly but also in social, economic, demographic and technological factors. But I am disinclined to think that our political culture, our preferences and priorities are determined by such factors, inevitable somehow.

For one thing, leadership matters. Our values, our preferences and priorities, are learned. Political leaders can ennoble us, drawing out the most generous parts of ourselves, or pander to our worst selves. They can inspire us to aspire to more or convince us to settle for less. They can inspire trust or deepen cynicism. They can try to find common ground or play to the divides. Politics matters. And the quality of our public discourse matters too. In any case, no poll is going to tell us all we need to know. The question of our changing political culture deserves examination and discussion: What have we come to want for ourselves, our community, our country and what have we come to expect of our government? Tell me what you think. Are we becoming more conservative and if so how and why?

Comments
3 Responses to “Are Canadians Becoming More Conservative?”
  1. joeblow says:

    Mr. Himelfarb poses the question whether Canadians are becoming more conservative because he sees that Canadians seem to have lost their will to do anything big or new; they are accepting of, without debate, lower taxes, smaller government and a weaker central government; they seem to be retreating into individualistic behaviors, etc.

    But are these things really the result of Canadians becoming more conservative? Not necessarily. For example, it may be that Canadians are simply a bit on the defensive these days, are experiencing a lot of uncertainty about their future and are playing it cautiously. Any serious study and reflection on this topic would need to distinguish the profound and enduring shifts in Canadian political culture from the ebbs and flows of contemporary political life.

    One thing I would consider as part of contemporary political life is that today it seems impossible for Canadians to think and act big as we have in the past because the collective “we” remains in contention. Our model of unity is under pressure, which undermines our capacity to act from common purpose.

    Another aspect of contemporary political life is that we are still traumatized by President Bush, mostly because the last ten years of American foreign policy moved essentially in the opposite direction to Canadian values and put us on the defensive. Prime Minister Chrétien said after 911, “You cannot exercise your powers to the point of humiliation [of] others. That is what the Western world — not only the Americans, the Western world — has to realize. Because they are human beings too. There are long-term consequences”. He was reflecting a self-referential humility that probably reflected the values of a majority of Canadians. But these values ran against the main political currents that came to dominate the last ten years, which introduced caution and reticence into our political discourse.

    Moreover, the trauma hasn’t ended with President Obama, as it is proving to be more difficult than imagined to reverse the directions of the Bush administration. Indeed, Canadians, like many progressive Americans, are coming to terms with how difficult it is to implement a change agenda in the United States and are asking themselves whether the country may be so broken politically that it will not be able to right itself. We are realizing that we may no longer be able to ride American coattails, and so our uncertainty about the future spreads, as we envisage ourselves adapting ourselves to new models arising in China and in other centers of power.

    We cannot forget, above all, as Mr. Himelfarb suggests, the baby boom generation in all of this. A crucial aspect of contemporary political life as to do with the expectations that baby boomers raised about changing the world only to have retreated into sometimes excessive individualism and materialism. Disillusion is now built into the grammar of what is possible for generations to come.

    I think that Canadians are essentially a pragmatic and relatively non-ideological people brought up in a place where acting for the collective good and getting along are necessary attributes. But given contemporary political culture, it doesn’t surprise me that they would presently take a wait-and-see approach, and go along with things and be accepting up to a point, and be a little bit more cautious and taking care of themselves up to a point, while waiting for something or, as Mr. Himelfarb suggests, someone (i.e. new leadership) to come along. In short, rather than becoming more conservative, it may be that Canadians are acting today just as a pragmatic person would who is having a bad day.

    I agree with Mr. Himelfarb that the question is complex and deserves serious study. But to really get at the crux of the story, it will be important to distinguish the ebbs and flows of contemporary political culture from the more profound and enduring drivers, such as the values that have developed as a result of centuries of living in this place called Canada.

  2. Rodolphe says:

    Another aspect of contemporary political life is that we are still traumatized by President Bush, mostly because the last ten years of American foreign policy moved essentially in the opposite direction to Canadian values and put us on the defensive. Prime Minister Chrétien said after 911, “You cannot exercise your powers to the point of humiliation [of] others. That is what the Western world — not only the Americans, the Western world — has to realize. Because they are human beings too. There are long-term consequences”. He was reflecting a self-referential humility that probably reflected the values of a majority of Canadians. But these values ran against the main political currents that came to dominate the last ten years, which introduced caution and reticence into our political discourse.
    +1

    • Himelfarb says:

      When we think of the enormous impact of the last ten years we rarely think of how they might have affected our own political culture. Thanks Rodolphe for your insights.

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