Res­cu­ing the real Cana­dian con­ser­vatism

We must sep­a­rate our brand with that of the cur­rent mean-spir­ited Repub­li­can­ism

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - THOMAS MATHEWS Thomas Mathews, a mem­ber of the bars of On­tario and Que­bec, prac­tises law in Toronto. From birth on­ward, New Jer­sey has been his sec­ond home.

The ele­phant and the mouse. This old-time ref­er­ence of­ten ap­plies to Canada mak­ing its way in the world liv­ing be­side the cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal be­he­moth that is the United States. A slight gust of wind in Wash­ing­ton can turn into a full-blown tor­nado in Ot­tawa, such can be the sensitivity of Canada to de­vel­op­ments in the U.S. While some Cana­di­ans may not like to ad­mit it, our stand­ing on the world stage is of­ten de­ter­mined by how much in­flu­ence we have — or are per­ceived to have — in Amer­ica’s cor­ri­dors of power.

Cana­dian con­ser­vatism has un­mis­tak­ably been in­flu­enced by the con­ser­va­tive move­ment south of the bor­der. Some in­flu­ence was wel­come or in­evitable, while at other times, force­ful re­sis­tance was in or­der for the Tory monar­chists. Along with a stead­fast be­lief in the monar­chy, the con­ser­va­tive im­pulse to store and pre­serve in­sti­tu­tional knowl­edge led to Sir John A. Macdonald’s pref­er­ence of the West­min­ster sys­tem of gov­ern­ment over Amer­ica’s then novel checks and bal­ances ap­proach. Cana­dian con­ser­vatism also al­lowed for the proper bal­anc­ing of rights be­tween the English and French found­ing peo­ples, which has now suc­cess­fully evolved to in­clude count­less other mi­nori­ties.

In the age of a Trump-led Repub­li­can Party, re­sis­tance must be in or­der for Cana­dian con­ser­va­tives. In­deed, tra­di­tional con­ser­vatism, trac­ing its mod­ern ori­gins back to Ed­mund Burke in the U.K., and John Adams in the U.S., must dis­so­ci­ate it­self com­pletely from the Trump phe­nom­e­non.

In times of po­lit­i­cal up­heaval, it pays to re­turn to first prin­ci­ples and re-ex­am­ine what we have learned through the con­ser­va­tive re­flexes of Burke and Adams, through to Lin­coln and be­yond. It is espe­cially im­por­tant that con­ser­vatism be al­lowed to have an ap­pro­pri­ate and cred­i­ble out­let af­ter Trump’s coup of the Repub­li­can Party. Con­ser­vatism, in its tra­di­tional essence, is not an ide­ol­ogy, but rather the nega­tion of ide­ol­ogy. It is a cer­tain view of life marked with deep re­gard for tra­di­tion, or­der, and pri­vate en­ter­prise. But with Trump now be­ing the Repub­li­can stan­dard-bearer, can any­one blame young vot­ers for in­stead as­so­ci­at­ing con­ser­vatism and Repub­li­can­ism with at­tacks on women and mi­nori­ties, bel­li­cose ver­bal as­saults, and sim­ply stupid ideas?

Canada’s 2015 fed­eral elec­tion may have turned on a Trump-like tac­tic of bul­ly­ing Mus­lims and mi­nori­ties, al­though the Cana­dian at­tack was more veiled. Then Con­ser­va­tive Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper, trail­ing in the polls, de­cided that the (al­most en­tirely aca­demic) is­sue of the wear­ing of niqabs dur­ing cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­monies de­served his up­most at­ten­tion on the cam­paign trail. While the Con­ser­va­tives re­ceived a small bump in Que­bec polls, vo­terich South­ern On­tario ar­guably pun­ished Mr. Harper on elec­tion night for such un­states­man­like tac­tics. The pro­tec­tion of mi­nori­ties and more­over, re­spect for the in­di­vid­ual, have al­ways been con­ser­va­tive val­ues. How­ever, can any­one blame vot­ers for not know­ing this, given the past and present prac­tice of so many right-lean­ing politi­cians play­ing on na­tivist fears?

As Canada has his­tor­i­cally — at least over most of the 20th cen­tury — been a left-lean­ing coun­try, the United States has of­ten been a stal­wart right-lean­ing na­tion. Con­ser­vatism was en­trenched in the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal psy­che via Fed­er­al­ists such as John Adams, Alexan­der Hamil­ton, and John Mar­shall. Their con­ser­va­tive ten­den­cies were im­printed on a Con­sti­tu­tion that has placed im­por­tant lim­its on any sophists or eco­nomic lev­ellers try­ing to sig­nif­i­cantly change the U.S.

Cana­dian con­ser­va­tives have of­ten looked ad­mirably upon the con­ser­va­tive move­ment in the U.S. How­ever, now that the con­ser­va­tive move­ment and the Repub­li­can Party find them­selves in dis­ar­ray, Cana­dian con­ser­va­tives must be wary of an un­pleas­ant tide that may make its way north. Trump is not a con­ser­va­tive: in­stead, he rep­re­sents the per­ver­sion of con­ser­vatism. De­spite ear­lier at­tacks from sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal fig­ures in the Repub­li­can Party, the num­ber of politi­cians now vy­ing for favour in Trump’s Court is de­plorable. Rather than pol­i­tics as usual, the turn­around rep­re­sents a com­plete ab­di­ca­tion of prin­ci­ple. Trump vi­o­lently at­tacked Repub­li­can es­tab­lish­ment fig­ures as cow­er­ing weak­lings. Given the end­less line of Repub­li­cans mak­ing their way in line to kiss his hand, could Trump have been far from cor­rect?

While await­ing the au­topsy of the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, U.S. con­ser­va­tives must con­tem­plate that a split from the Repub­li­can Party might have to be a pos­si­bil­ity. Po­lit­i­cal par­ties have died off and new ones born, but one based on tra­di­tional con­ser­vatism must have a place in the affairs of the United States. Should that re­quire a messy di­vorce and the im­pos­si­bil­ity of chal­leng­ing for the White House in a num­ber of con­sec­u­tive elec­tions, it might be the just price to be paid for years of in­com­pe­tence.

The Con­ser­va­tive Party of Canada is cur­rently un­der­go­ing a lead­er­ship race, pre­sent­ing an op­por­tu­nity to re­turn to the ba­sic tenets of con­ser­vatism, while ve­he­mently dis­as­so­ci­at­ing it­self with Trump and his per­ver­sion of con­ser­vatism. While Cana­dian con­ser­vatism will al­ways have to weather the winds em­a­nat­ing from the United States, it can serve as a suc­cess­ful ex­am­ple to Amer­i­cans dur­ing the in­evitable re­build of their con­ser­va­tive move­ment, re­gard­less of the win­ner on Novem­ber 8, 2016.


Con­ser­va­tives: For­mer Cana­dian prime min­is­ter Brian Mul­roney and U.S. pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan in 1985. Thomas Mathews says to­day’s Repub­li­cans have ab­di­cated core prin­ci­ples.

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