When I was a kid, I started writing letters to Progressive Conservatives packed with “strategic advice” about not losing elections to Liberals. Habits that stir you are hard to break. And now, despite a career of neutral service to three governing parties in Ontario, the itch is back—and I’m free to scratch it. I love competitive politics and believe that fearing close elections is good for every government. That usually requires Conservatives not being branded as weird aliens.
(New Democrats eventually got past the problem when their “democratic socialist” leaders became “social democrats.”)
Today, the Conservative Party of Canada is singularly exposed. So here goes.
Less than halfway to the next election, the party’s membership faces unsure electoral opportunities and two dangerous questions. Will there be a leadership candidate on the ballot in May who can define themselves and then beat Justin Trudeau without being competent in French and, united, how do they cope with Donald Trump’s toxic presidency next door?
Assuming currently reported confidence that Canada is on “the right track” falters, and an appetite for change returns, is it plausible to explain new ideas and promise to heal divisions almost entirely in English? Can a Conservative leader go on the attack relying on simultaneous translation? In this age of personality politics, will Quebecers stop judging the whole man or woman and settle for memorized platitudes?
But let’s move on from a known known.
In designing an aggressive Conservative alternative for the next election, let’s look at six ways of not being branded Trumpets. As befits the subject, most are downers, with one promising gamble at the end.
1. Denying Trump’s shadow is useless.
The new President is like a stray puppy, unpredictable, unattractive and irresistible. He’ll be on the Conservative leader’s porch first thing the next morning. And even if he or she doesn’t feed him, Liberals will be over before sunrise to keep him frisky.
Insist that Trump is not really a conservative—that he’s an “independent,” a “populist,” a “fraud,” whatever. According to the meme of the moment, the very day the new leader complains about Ottawa and its insatiable elites, he or she will be called out for playing to a “Trump-lite” base.
2. As important as being new, avoid being a Canadian “Republican.”
In Canada, fear of populist US Republicans generates more votes than fear of immigrants, foreign investors, global epidemics, and family dynasties. Loathing the right half of America is polite shorthand for: Americans are sick and we’re not.
Sure, opposition leaders can, and I would argue, should be able to promote ideas a slim majority of Canadians might not yet like. But they can’t lean against a long-held distaste for xenophobic US right-wingers that 80% of adult Canadians enjoy and nourish.
3. Being louder patriots won’t impress.
Canada’s nationalism is Liberal now. Weird historically, but done. Standing up for “Canadian values” is Justin Trudeau’s franchise.
America’s “I’m mad as hell” Presidency will grow hoarse and all those angry T-shirts will fade before Canada’s next election. However, it is extremely unlikely Canadian voters will look for or find reasons to stop disliking Donald Trump, his angry supporters, or his chauvinist style.
Our politics and the Charter tolerate cynical imitation. There is, however, a well-earned pride amongst old Tory partisans for preferring to lose honorably. Losing as populist counterfeits to Justin Trudeau would be ugly. People would laugh. Eye contact would be difficult, and without eye contact, amassing $millions more than the competition won’t take a political campaign anywhere.
4. Telling Liberals to be aggressive trade negotiators is lame.
Don’t be too cocky with those statistics about our “balanced” trade relationship or try alarming individual US legislators, unions, and businesses with musings about a “trade war.” While Canada is the biggest customer for 35 US states, our economy is more than twice as reliant on the export of goods and services than is the US (31.5% of GDP compared to only 12.6%, in 2015). And for our biggest region, swing-vote Ontario, that reliance is approaching 50%, overwhelming with its southern neighbor.
The high-tariff diplomacy of John A. Macdonald and Robert Borden isn’t available to us. It’s a dangerously credible threat by Trump’s America, but would be a clownishly obvious bluff for trade-reliant regional economies like ours. The answer to a superpower bully isn’t tough talk.
5. Sorry, Trudeau’s sunny diplomacy isn’t naïve or lazy.
A majority of Canadians and their trusted advisor The New York Times are enthralled by Joe Biden’s instruction that Canada, with Trudeau, must carry civilization’s torch through this dark night. Trudeau’s wink-wink southward asides repeat endlessly: “I share the nausea, but must carry on quietly, for the sake of our workers and their precious children.”
We have the most sociable Prime Minister in Canadian history, with a Cabinet that devours briefing books and advice from Canada’s most glamorous white-collar business: understanding and lobbying important Americans.
If commercial relations really do get scary, Canadians will rally behind their constructive Liberal government, the namesake of the party that has not “sold out” to Washington or harmed continental interests on Bay Street either.
In any case, no matter how adaptable their tweeters, Conservative leaders can’t compete against Liberals or New Democrats with 19th-century Tory insults about vulgar US politics. If only because their voting base is still genuinely positive about America and its future.
6. Outflank Trumpism and Trudeau with better ideas.
We know Trump’s big-government nationalism won’t work here, and when economic nationalism doesn’t work, it wastes resources and turns nasty. Also, Trump’s agenda in Washington may be neutered by a blood bath in the White House. Nevertheless, his election last November was evidence of trouble in his country and, likely, in ours. He has torn the fabric of our shared post–Cold War order.
Simply doubling down on trade diversification, multilateralism, and our unreformed Westminster democracy would be an all-Canadian reply to Trump all right, but not to the times. The Conservative Party would remain the status quo’s spare party, with an anti-liberal name.
Conservatives are as qualified as Liberals to see the times are changing. However, before being taken seriously as innovators, they should acknowledge how experience and changes in Canada have changed them as well. For conservatives, “new” doesn’t go without saying.
For openers and as a thought experiment—why not do something about that word “conservative”? At it’s best, it’s a noble, dull word, whether puffed up with hyphens or not. It’s like a sad Victorian poem one reads, after others act.
Rebranding is both a painful and profitable industry. While all organizations fear symbolic change as much as the real stuff, they often profit handsomely when they do. And, anyway, Conservatives are the least qualified in Canada to get huffy about nomenclature.
At the time of Confederation, the word “Conservative” was sprung on Canadians as only the second half of the “Liberal-Conservative Party.” And over half a dozen times since then, it has been kept on and taken off the party’s name.
Conservative virtues, of course, grace politics across the spectrum; otherwise, we would have destroyed our civilization long ago. Yet, despite how beautifully the conservative temperament is dressed up in Masterpiece dramas, today, “conservative” as a political label has been appropriated by sheltered and wealthy US right-wingers and unlovable organizations that are excited by leaps of faith and the least-democratic clauses in their county’s liberal constitution.
Furthermore, the all-powerful creative industries that educated and entertain Generation X and millennial voters has remorselessly linked the word “conservative” with hot buttons, such as: cold, intolerant, old-stock, complacent, sexist, unfeeling, and antiscience—useful when stuck in a snow bank, but boring.
The postcolonial British Tory themes of deference toward state power—including a “sober” unelected Senate and numerous unelected public agencies, as well as economic and cultural protectionism, European networking and fear of US-inspired populism—are now nestled in Ottawa at the heart of the Liberal Party of Canada.
As that shift consolidated after Pierre Trudeau’s return to power in 1980, the traditional, grassroots small-l liberal constituencies of small businesses, family farms, new Canadians, and populist democrats shifted in sufficient numbers to secure Stephen Harper’s three-term, “neo-liberal” prime ministership.
Ideologically, I’d guess that a majority of Conservative activists, especially in the growth centers west of the city of Kingston to the Pacific Ocean, are already Canadian-style libertarians.
These activists are community-minded and cooperative, not the supposed rugged individualists who, after intense parenting, survive outdoors in southern California. They’re convinced, however, that our personal and economic freedoms are under greater threat than central government and artificial borders, that planners are taken too seriously and markets unwisely less so.
They champion public measures to expand workplace training and reduce changing employment barriers, believing that open economies must remain open to benefit all individuals and working families. They see greater leisure time as an economic dividend, not as a euphemism for giving up and parking people who are not earning a living wage.
Presumably, they’ve come to see that public “entitlements” (legislatively defined transfers, including universal health and unemployment insurance in every province and tax credits and equalization payments) provide more reliable social support than charities and photogenic guilt-trips. And, as important, they appreciate that “entitlements” leave people comparatively free, while leaving bureaucracies profoundly less free to treat people arbitrarily or bribe and bully businesses, civil society, and other elected levels of government.
While it’s safe to say they’re not out to create that mythic Anglo-sphere alliance, they do believe that genuine democracies around the world rely on the United States' commitment and strength. And they can actually name aloud ones, like Israel, Taiwan, along with Japan and South Korea.
Feeling comfortable using the words “libertarian” or “classical liberal,” for that matter, is more important than rushing to formally change the name of the Conservative Party.
“Canadian” and “democratic” are attractive adjectives. However, they should think twice before bothering to go back to qualifying the word “conservative”—a noun opinion-makers and educators more powerful than the Canadian Conservative Party have either appropriated or debased.
With luck, however, once they resolve to free themselves of that noun “conservative,” they’ll be able to more firmly embrace and promote the truly expansive possibilities of more stable economic and social relations between our two liberal democracies and their common global interests, whatever the fate of the Trump presidency.