Traditionally those of a conservative disposition have favored a political approach that valued, and attempted to construct, societies of consistency and stability. However, in recent years, a more agitated form of conservative identity politics has emerged, and is, ironically, now becoming the primary source of instability in the West. Liberal-democratic norms are increasingly held in suspicion by those who have previously sought to defend them, this is creating a reactionary political force, rather than a traditionally conservative one. This ideological disruption has now overwhelmed the Republican Party in the United States and is fracturing conservative politics in most other Western states.
This is creating a heavy burden for traditionally conservative parties, with their ability to maintain a sober and responsible demeanor now the primary test of a country’s domestic resilience. This responsibility lies in how these parties deal with the reactionary sentiments that are forming both within and outside their parties, whether they choose to (or have the ability to) counter these forces, or whether they choose to succumb to them.
One of the conventional narratives that has arisen during the current age of political disruption is that Canada maintains a unique resilience to these reactionary forces. The country has proved itself to be comfortable with – and adaptable to – the rapid pace of change throughout the second half of the 20th Century and into the 21st. Canada has broadly understood that open markets require open arms, hearts, and minds, and due to this it has developed an innate flexibility to absorb the shifts in economic, organizational, and social norms that have occurred globally during this period in history.
The long-dominant Liberal Party of Canada has come to embody this idealized confident and courageous liberalism, and the party had previously found a cooperative foil in the former Progressive Conservative Party, with both parties sharing a broad set of values and approaches more or less at ease with the way liberal societies naturally evolve. While this narrative of an innate Canadian resilience holds a fair amount of water, it overlooks the dramatic political fracturing that occurred in the country during the 1990s; a disruption that has now converged with the current populist pressures being placed on the country’s conservative party.
Fuelled by a feeling of alienation in the country’s western provinces, the populist Reform Party (later called the Canadian Alliance) came to dominate the politics of western Canada during the 1990s, heavily disrupting the political consensus that had formed between the country’s traditional governing political parties (while a resurgent separatist movement was doing likewise in Quebec). The Reform Party’s primary objective was a restructuring of the power distribution in the country, but its brand of politics was strident in tone, and exhibited a heavy influence from conservative movements from south of the border, with strains of libertarianism and social conservatism previously marginalized in the country. However, the party’s regionally specific success guaranteed perpetual Liberal Party rule.
This electoral reality eventually led to the merger of the then named Canadian Alliance with the Progressive Conservative Party in 2003. The merger coalesced around Reform Party wunderkind, Stephen Harper, who became the new Conservative Party of Canada’s first leader, and then subsequently the Prime Minister of Canada from 2006 to 2015. While the interests of the state, and the electoral realities of the Canadian body politic, were able to move the Harper-government towards the country’s existing sensibilities, there remains no doubt the Conservative Party is a different ideological entity than the previous governments of the Progressive Conservative Party. It is a party of deeper passions, and one of greater dissent towards established norms of the Toronto/Ottawa/Montreal elite.
It is the relationship between this passion and dissent and the traditional conservative predisposition towards stability and consistency that presents the current challenge for the new leader of the Conservative Party, Andrew Scheer. Scheer – a man who would struggle to be recognized walking into his own home – is also faced with the task of shaping a party that still defined – both publicly and ideologically – by Stephen Harper, the only previous leader the party has had. The party continues to be in thrall to Western interests (it holds no seats in the 4 Atlantic provinces) and is now coming under further pressures from this combative form of identity politics that seeks a greater social disruption than the Reform Party’s primary target of structural change to Canada’s distribution of power.
Although Canadian identity is often forged in opposition to aspects of American culture, the influence of Donald Trump as a norm entrepreneur within U.S conservative ideology cannot help but infect conservative norms in Canada, as it is doing worldwide. The ease of modern communication and the now cross-border nature of media has created this internationalization of political identity, with a number of narratives becoming consistent political markers regardless of country. This identity convergence also seems to be fermenting a somewhat ironic nationalist international in reaction to the restraints that liberal-democratic and liberal-internationalist norms place on state action, with this sentiment, stalking and seducing parties like Canada’s Conservatives.
These pressures have already created one significant schism in the Conservative Party, with former Harper-government cabinet minister Maxime Bernier having split to form his own party. The self-professed libertarian has oddly named his new party the collectivist People’s Party of Canada; demonstrating the ideological confusion that has come to permeate conservative politics as it mentally wrestles with the pace of change, and the unease and disgruntlement that this creates. Populist actors like Bernier are pulling rhetorical devices from a range of sources as they attempt to distinguish themselves from traditional conservative positions. The traction they gain with these positions will undoubtedly influence how traditional conservative parties shift themselves.
While Bernier’s departure may indicate that Scheer will not tolerate any revisionism with his party, the influence of these reactionary sentiments seems to be creeping into the party regardless. While Scheer himself has shunned the alt-right Rebel Media (a Canadian Breitbart), some of the upper-echelons of the party intersect with the media outlet, and the publication remains influential on sections of the rank-and-file. Conservative MPs are starting to test the waters with attacks on the media, have spread misinformation about the implications on the United Nations’ Global Compact on Migration, and in alliance with Canada’s provincial conservative parties (the Conservative Party itself exists only at federal level) Scheer is fermenting a suspicion towards the country’s efforts to combat climate change (an irresistible tactic in conservative identity politics).
While the kind of rhetorical brashness required to pursue these reactionary approaches may have worked for Ontario premier Doug Ford, Scheer himself is a calm and mild-mannered individual, someone who doesn’t fit the current “tough guy” ideal of leadership that has permeated conservative identity politics. Ford himself, as premier of Canada’s largest province, seems to have set himself up at the primary oppositional force to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Using his brash, dramatic, and off-the-cuff style to continually seek conflict with Trudeau, and generate publicity for himself. This may push Scheer into bolder positions in order to establish his authority as the principle conservative leader in the country (a position also threatened by the leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party, Jason Kenney).
At only 39 years old, Scheer’s leadership of the party was designed to give him the time to mold it away from a reliance on Harper and attempt to broaden its appeal eastwards. Previously, Harper was able to find a temporary coalition between the Western provinces and the Toronto suburbs, but this coalition collapsed at the 2015 election, leaving Scheer with the task of finding a more consistent alliance of interest groups for the party. Yet if the Conservative Party is unable to win the election scheduled for October this year, the impatience and impertinence of modern conservative activism may not acquiesce to Scheer continuing in the role.
The internationalization of conservative identity politics is placing unique pressures on conservative parties to maintain an adherence to stabilizing rhetoric and norms. The increasing support for ideas and leaders that are suspicious of liberal-democratic values and practices is pushing these parties into areas at odds with their fundamental objectives of stability and consistency. Although any overt-nativism would struggle to gain any significant traction in Canada (with the exception of Quebec), other components of agitated resentment do seem to be infiltrating the Conservative Party and shifting its operational tactics. The task for Andrew Scheer is whether he has the ability to negotiate and subdue these destabilizing forces, and whether he can define and promote a Canadian conservatism that can alleviate, not exacerbate, people’s anxieties, and provide a more disciplined approach to defending the country’s existing, and well-served, norms.
Image Credit: Andrew Scheer [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
The author is a Melbourne-based analyst working on issues in the Pacific, India, and Canada. He writes on international affairs for The Diplomat.