Is it true? Is a Blue Conservative wave sweeping Canada as in so much of the rest of the world? Andrew Cohen provided some clues in his Ottawa Citizen article when he wrote that, provincially, five provinces led by Liberals or NDP have been defeated by Conservatives in the last three years. Jason Kenney’s win in Alberta leaves this country with six provincial right-wing governments – Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick.
Cohn is careful to say that not all of these governments are hard-right. However, they are more right-wing than in previous generations, enough so that we might be at the beginning of a political momentum in Canada built more on difference than dialogue, “them” versus “us,” and anger instead of aspiration. Jamie Watt, writing in the Toronto Star this week, talks of how “a Blue Conservative wave keeps rolling across Canada.”
Something is clearly going on and it’s not happening in the way many predicted it would a mere four years ago, when it appeared as though a progressive trend had cemented itself in many provinces and in the federal domain. Political polarization is occurring at an alarming rate, creating wild swings in election fortunes and a sense of dislocation within the electorate.
This isn’t the Conservative wave of the Mulroney era, but rather a hybrid of mixed elements, many of which are bent on the fragmentation of what was until recently a loosely structured Canadian hegemony. That Conservative premiers are working together to pursue their own agenda is nothing new in our politics – other parties have done the same – but it’s the more radical and extreme elements once hailed as too dangerous to touch that are now moving comfortably within Conservative ranks that are the real cause of concern, even for many party members of the moderate persuasion.
When the Business Council of Canada urges political parties to stop using immigration as a polarizing wedge since the economic health of Canada depends on healthy immigration quotas, or when corporate leaders declare that a carbon tax is actually a smart idea, Conservatives would normally listen. Not anymore. For many Conservative leaders this is hardly the message they wish to convey. They feel their fortunes lie in the anger of those who, while surely more extreme, can get the vote out and hound the opposition through social media attacks. Watching developments south of the border has taught Conservative leaders that if a political agenda is angry and motivated enough, it can provide the ongoing critical mass required to prevail over more moderate opponents.
There is a true risk in flirting with such behaviour, but many feel the possible reward is worth it. But in this Conservatives must be careful. The Globe and Mail’s recent revealing report on the chat rooms of the radical Alt-Right movement in Canada was not only troubling but a warning that just below the surface of the supposed Canadian fairness is a growing movement of radicalized individuals bent on hatred and extremes to promote their agenda. But they require political power to achieve it. The reality that they chose as their vehicle of political entry the 2017 Conservative leadership contest should serve as a warning to Conservatives, since it surely does to Canadians.
There was a time when Conservatives believed that the world was a formidable place and that destructive forces had to be contained, including domestic ones. To build a better country required discipline, a responsible free market and an ongoing commitment to ethics, morals and institutions. Wisdom, authority, tradition – these things mattered and were solid enough to build on – and they did. What many of the Conservative leaders of today are proclaiming is at odds with their own history. Moreover, a good number of Conservatives across Canada see little of their own heritage in the modern version of Conservatism that is both more extreme and morally dubious. Republicans, in their blind pursuit of power, are being hoisted on the same petard.
As surely as there is a Conservative wave striding the world a progressive one will follow, as citizens seek to undo the wreckage hatred and division unleashed on societies. It is the yin and yang of politics. There was a time when such extremes were abhorrent to Conservatives and will be again. But today, in a time of populist anger, economic vulnerability, citizen disenchantment and political dysfunction, what is required once again is a Conservatism that rejects extremes and holds to its values of ethics, stability and fairness. That is not what is characterizing the Blue Conservative wave of today.