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Sean Speer: Canadian conservatism is powered by fusion

Commentary

Starting this week, The Hub is publishing essays that reflect some of the different intellectual and political persuasions that comprise modern Canadian conservatism. The goal of the ongoing series is to establish something of a generally-acceptable Canadian conservative taxonomy as well as to understand the points of convergence and divergence across the various conservative factions.

One is struck in reading these thoughtful commentaries by the extent to which the different perspectives that make up Canadian conservatism aren’t seemingly aligned on big political questions about culture, economics, and the proper purpose of politics.

Modern libertarianism’s live-and-let-live philosophy, for instance, can conflict with social conservatism’s conception of a virtuous society. Similarly the techno-optimism of today’s Silicon Valley-inspired conservatism runs into conflict with traditional conservatism’s skepticism of technology and progress which may be best reflected in Russell Kirk’s derisive description of automobiles as “mechanical Jacobins.” There are also subtle yet notable regional variations in Canada including Atlantic Canadian communitarianism, Quebec cultural nationalism, and historic Prairie populism.

The question is: what holds these different factions together as an intellectual movement as well as a matter of electoral politics?

The latter may actually be a more straightforward answer. Although these different factions may have divergent political priorities or points of ideological emphasis, they tend to share a common opposition to Trudeaupian liberalism which combines an aversion to markets with an outright hostility to traditionalist values. Political oppositionalism shouldn’t, in other words, be underestimated as a unifying force in a world of negative polarization.

Libertarians and social conservatives may not agree, for instance, on whether the federal government should subsidize student summer jobs, but they’ll invariably agree that if it does, it shouldn’t impose a progressive litmus test to determine eligibility. That the Liberal Party has moved to the Left on both economics and culture over the past decade only reinforces the coalitional case for different conservative factions to work together as an electoral strategy.

This point is worth emphasizing: notwithstanding the media’s focus on the prospects of the Conservative Party’s disunity, there’s little evidence to think that’s a serious risk. The combination of generational change within the Conservative ranks and Pierre Poilievre’s own popularity with the party’s electoral base as well as these new and emerging center-right voters actually portends a near-term future of even greater Conservative Party unity.

Yet these political calculations are partly contingent on Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system. Its winner-take-all dynamic preferences large brokerage parties which therefore incentivizes ideological factions to overcome their differences and instead focus on their common electoral objectives.

The case for the Conservative Party itself can come to rely too much on these arguments. Conservative author and pundit, Tasha Kheirriddin, for instance, recently argued in an episode of Hub Dialogues that “fracturing the [conservative] vote [led to] the Liberals in power for 13 years … That’s usually what’s happened in the history of Canadian politics when seeing a new centre-right or new right-wing party emerge.”

The problem with this line of argument is it’s so highly contingent that it lacks an affirmative case separate and apart from our particular institutional arrangements. In a different electoral system, including, for instance, proportional representation, the wholly political case for a conservative coalition would diminish. Under that scenario, these different factions could ostensibly splinter into separate political parties that run under their own partisan banners and then come together post-election through a transactional parliamentary arrangement.

Such a counterfactual should prompt serious philosophical questions about whether these different conservative factions actually hold together as an intellectual movement or merely coalesce together as a utilitarian electoral coalition that shares mutual ideological and political opponents rather than common goals and values. Put differently: Is modern Canadian conservatism a marriage of shared values or a marriage of convenience? I happen to think it’s the former.

It’s worth an aside here to recognize that the “fusionist” project which first found expression at National Review magazine in the 1950s and sought to build a principled-based argument for a pro-liberty and pro-traditionalist coalition was not solely rooted in political arguments. Its originators such as Frank Meyer and Bill Buckley sought to establish a philosophical case rooted in the idea that freedom and virtue ought to be understood as two sides of the conservative coin.

There’s no doubt that there are members of today’s conservative factions who couldn’t find themselves in an intellectual fusionism. Their relationship to other conservatives is merely a matter of political calculation including the power of negative partisanship. But as someone who has spent most of his adult life in these circles, my informed hunch is that they represent a minority. Most conservatives, in my experience, see themselves as part of a marriage rooted in a mutuality of ideas and values.

Canadian conservatism has always involved a unique North American mix of different ideological viewpoints, intellectual persuasions, and temperamental dispositions. From its root, it has reflected a combination of small “l” liberalism’s focus on liberty and a small “c” conservatism’s emphasis on tradition as well as something of a small “p” populism that drew on the continent’s frontier mentality. The relative weight of these different intellectual and political impulses has ebbed and flowed at various times over our history but they all can lay claim to being part of the Canadian conservative tradition.

As McGill University PhD candidate and Hub contributor Ben Woodfinden and I write in an essay for a forthcoming compilation on Canadian political thought, Sir John A. Macdonald should be viewed as the progenitor of this amalgam of liberalism and conservatism:

“Macdonaldian ideology, then, can be best described as a ‘liberal-conservatism.’ It was a synthesis of the two intellectual traditions: he personified a particularistic amalgam of the old world and the new world. Burkean traditionalism and Hamiltonian dynamism both ran through the Old Chieftain.”

There’s a strong case, in fact, that the Macdonaldian model, which may seem somewhat contingent and even contradictory but ultimately reflects an ongoing dialogue between liberal progress and conservative tradition, remains the default intellectual basis for an ecumenical form of Canadian conservatism.

It’s perhaps best characterized in what I’ve previously written with Ken Boessenkool as “ordered liberty” – which involves an emphasis on liberty, personal freedom and individual autonomy that’s rooted in an understanding of institutions, traditions and norms which impose non-coercive yet powerful constraints on base human instincts and channel them in constructive directions.

The idea here is an inherently fusionist one that draws on some basic yet enduring insights about human experience and human nature. Freedom depends on a set of underlying values and cultural norms to thrive and even sustain itself. Virtue similarly requires freedom – it cannot ultimately flourish in a climate of coercion.

The best contemporary expression of this understanding of Canadian conservatism is probably found in former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2003 speech to Civitas in which he talked about the different conservative factions and how they hold together as a coherent intellectual movement. His key insight was that these different ideological and political impulses should be viewed less as neat-and-tidy coalitional factions and instead be understood as running through the heads and hearts of most conservatives themselves. As he explained:

“The truth is that strong economic and social conservatives are more often than not the same people, and not without reason. Except at the extremes of libertarianism and theocracy, the philosophical fusion has become deep and wide-spread. Social conservatives more often than not demand the government stop intervening in individual decisions, just as classical liberals often point to the religious roots of their focus on the individual…[Similarly] private enterprise and trade, as Adam Smith pointed out, can turn individual selfishness into useful social outcomes. In fact, the founder of classical liberal economics came to his theories as much by his study of moral philosophy as anything else.”

Harper’s description of Canadian conservatism still resonates with me and generally reflects most of the conservatives that I’ve encountered. While individuals will invariably have different policy preferences and come down on different issues in divergent ways based on prudential or temperamental considerations, most conservatives broadly share a commitment to liberty and an appreciation for tradition.

On one hand, it reminds me of Bill Buckley’s adage: a real conservative need not be religious but cannot be hostile to religion. At the same time, a reactionary, illiberal conservatism would be mostly ahistorical in the Canadian context and outside the norm of the Canadian conservative tradition. As I’ve previously written for The Hub, Canadian conservatism is fundamentally about conserving the country’s liberal ideas, institutions, and values.

At this level of abstraction, there bound to be considerable agreement among different conservatives. It’s the application of first principles and political choices about when to emphasize liberty over tradition or vice versa that’s bound to produce some tensions. The sweet spot is when you can draw on both. Harper-era pro-family policies like the Universal Child Care Benefit and Registered Disability Savings Plans are good examples. They combined a preference for individual choice with a conservative understanding of the family as the primary social institution.

Which brings us to the current Conservative Party leadership race. Most polls and pundits anticipate that Pierre Poilievre will be the winner. He’s talked a lot about freedom in the campaign as a unifying idea for the full spectrum of conservatives. I think he’s broadly correct, especially in the context of pandemic restrictions, cancel culture, and so on, that an emphasis on freedom will no doubt find salience across the different conservative factions. It should help to buttress their coalitional instinct in the lead up to the next federal election.

But as his post-leadership message evolves, Poilievre should aim to bring greater expression to broader conservative notions of faith, family, and tradition in the name of what former Prime Minister Harper called a “broad coalition of conservative ideas.” That would be in keeping with the Canadian conservative tradition of ordered liberty and help to answer the all-important question: freedom for what?

Howard Anglin: Searching for sacred shades: Some loose principles of living for the politically dispossessed

Commentary

Over the next few weeks, The Hub is offering readers a taxonomy of Canadian conservatism. Different writers are describing their social conservatism, classical liberalism, Red Toryism, techno-futurism, and perhaps more eccentric branches of the political family tree. I don’t know if I should be insulted or flattered that, for my contribution, the editors didn’t even pretend that I have a coherent philosophy to convey. Instead, they asked if I would describe my own presumably undefinable worldview “to accompany the series.”

I told them that I can’t think of anything more self-indulgent than trying to corral the motley herd of unexamined prejudices and preferences that passes for my political philosophy. Which makes it a perfectly enjoyable assignment for me, but I can’t imagine why anyone else would care or bother to read it. Assuming no one will, I’ve approached the exercise without any effort at concision or order. Think of what follows as a loose and much less-entertaining version of Crash Davis’s credo in Bull Durham

In recent years, I’ve been less likely to describe myself as conservative (much less “a conservative”—conservatism is a disposition, not a lifestyle brand), though I sometimes still use the word as a convenient shorthand. This is because I find less and less in modern life that is worth conserving. Because I am not a liberal, classical or otherwise, that leaves me politically anonymous. Whittaker Chambers called himself a “man of the right,” but that locks one into the framework of the French Revolution, whereas I hope that I would not have been on either the right or left side of the National Assembly but outside, decrying its wicked work. 

That brings me to my first principle: I can’t think of a single revolution I would have supported at the time. Some counter-revolutions, yes, but no revolutions. The very word “revolution,” like its handmaiden “progress,” makes my thumbs prick. That doesn’t mean that some changes haven’t been good or that I eschew all the products of, say, the Industrial Revolution. I just would have been agin’ it at the time, as I am agin’ current technological revolutions that threaten to further detach us from nature and our physical humanity. 

That is a second principle: I prefer the human and the natural to their opposites. Things that take us further from an embodied experience of the world tend to be ugly and alienating. Not as a rule, but on balance. Buildings, furniture, clothing, tools, and household goods that lack ornament, whimsy, craft, differentiation, or the imprint of an identifiably human creator defy their surroundings and repel our gaze. I regret most mass production, even as I often avail myself of its convenience.   

So, inconvenience is a third principle (hypocrisy too, apparently). We are too quick to trade away the human touch for convenience. Efficiency is usually inhuman, when it isn’t outright antihuman. A hand-written note takes longer to write and to send than an email or a text, but don’t tell me it isn’t more meaningful. I prefer to visit three different shops, each run by someone who specialises in what they sell and who knows my tastes than to visit a single superstore. Box stores, national chains, global brands, Amazon: they leave me as numb as most popular entertainment, and for the same reason. I want more variety, more originality, more eccentricity, and more personality in my life—which means less efficiency.

Inconvenience is important because convenience is about cutting corners, and it is in the corners that we find the imperfections and idiosyncrasies that differentiate us from machines. If you sand the rough edges of life, you lose much of its meaning. We experience the meaning of life not as a rational process of understanding but in unexpected encounters with the world and the people around us. An ATM may be (marginally) faster than a bank teller, but it can’t smile or tell you something you’d never thought of before. It won’t be a meaningful encounter.

That leads to another principle: I believe that creation is suffused with meaning, even if that ultimate meaning is beyond our comprehension. There is deep comedy in the darkest tragedy and deep tragedy behind comic relief. Shakespeare understood the possibility—or perhaps the unavoidability—of such a “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral” existence, simultaneously delightful and confounding. So did Virgil: “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt,” which Cecil Day-Lewis rendered as “Tears in the nature of things, hearts touched by human transience.” 

And yet, as I said, I believe we are here for a reason and that, as St John Henry Newman knew, “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. … He has not created me for naught.” Or, as St Paul put it: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” All will be revealed, not in time but in the world beyond time.

Philosophically speaking, I am not philosophical. At least not as that word has been corrupted by intellectual speculators over the last four hundred years. If Aristotle, Plato, Avicenna, or Aquinas didn’t say it, it probably isn’t worth saying. Since the middle ages, philosophers have mostly just caused trouble. At their worst—the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill; the empirical proto-liberalism and scientism of Locke and Bacon; the teleological presumption of Hegel and Marx—they have been self-fulfilling prophets of mass murder, misery, and environmental destruction. I don’t know that this can be reduced to a principle, but Dr Johnson’s violent refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s “ingenious sophistry” is a good illustration of what I mean. I am a Johnsonian. I prefer the rough experience of reality to the slippery smoothness of intellectual abstraction.

I believe that poetry captures life better than prose. And while I am not convinced by Shelley’s claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (or by anything else that obnoxious man-child wrote), if it were true, the dismal quality of modern poetry would explain the dire state of modern legislation. I believe that to prepare our children for life, we need to teach more good poetry and to teach it, in that most telling of pedagogical phrases, “by heart.” We remember so little of what we learn in school, but what we learn by heart we always have with us.

I believe that our ancestors were, with some adjustment for cultural taste and the mundane brutality of the pre-modern world, as smart and as sensitive as we are. If you think you understand the human condition better than Shakespeare or Cervantes, Montaigne or Moliere, Heloise or Austen, Duns Scotus or St Hilda, St Francis or St Dominic, Zhuangzi or Mencius, Averroes or Maimonides, then I don’t know how to explain to you that you are incontrovertibly mistaken. That doesn’t mean they weren’t sometimes wrong, but on balance they were no more wrong than we will prove to be. 

More generally, I agree with Richard Weaver that ideas have consequences, but I don’t think that many ideas truly penetrate the popular consciousness. Most that do are malign. Luther, Locke, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Gramsci—the history of modern ideas with real-world consequences has been a cascade of destruction and disenchantment. But I also believe that, despite the best efforts of the ideas-merchants, ideas are not more important than the buried folkways, cultural memories, half-remembered religions, and the long intergenerational histories that run below the intellectual currents of the age. 

I believe that the social and political crises we face are, as most crises in human history have been, symptoms of an underlying crisis of spirit. We will not solve them by looking for new planets to despoil or escaping into virtual fantasy worlds. We cannot look for physical solutions to problems of the soul. We must better understand the great spiritual rupture of the Enlightenment between the human mind and the natural world. Until we re-align our lives with the rhythms of nature that nurtured our humanity and our souls with the natural law of which they are a part, we will continue to feel out of place and out of sorts, fighting with ourselves and with each other to regain something we no longer remember that we have lost.

Related to this, I believe in the objective reality of evil and in original sin, and I don’t believe you can adequately explain human history without them or something like them. To counter evil, which is always and everywhere active, we must inculcate its opposites—truth, beauty, and goodness. We can do this by encouraging “love, wisdom, discipline and stillness amid the roaring of the Machine.” These virtues precede and transcend politics, but we should use political power wherever we can to promote them. More generally, the idea that politics should be drained of moral content is not merely absurd but impossible. A conservative who is not willing to use the levers of the state to promote virtue and discourage vice is just playing at politics—or at conservatism. 

To take an easy case, under any political system we are going to have houses, buildings, and communities. So the government should ensure that we have more liveable, walkable, and beautiful communities. As Jason Kenney liked to point out when high schoolers would come to take their graduation photos at the Alberta Legislature, there is something in the human heart that gravitates toward beauty. Our public buildings—schools, churches, and government offices—should inspire us. We were able to do this a hundred years ago, with a fraction of the wealth; there is no excuse for utilitarian building today.

Sticking with politics, I have lately borrowed some loose principles for living in a democracy from the late Tony Benn, that grand old man of the English Left. Benn preferred to put his faith in the rough and tumble of politics rather than in unaccountable technocrats, unelected judges, and international bodies. He believed that everyone who purported to wield political power in a democracy should be asked five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?” The current populist discontent that so appalls our neoliberal establishment is the result of the latter’s inability to answer these questions satisfactorily, particularly the last two.

Continuing in a political vein, Margaret Thatcher famously (and possibly apocryphally) once cut short a policy discussion by slamming a copy of Hayek’s “The Constitution of Liberty” on the table and declaring “this is what we believe.” A similar declaration of my philosophy would be accompanied by a tall stack of Hopkins’ and Larkin’s poetry; Shakespeare; Boswell’s Life of Johnson; smatterings of Augusto del Noce, Jacques Barzun, and Robert Nisbet; Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard address; some Jane Jacobs and Simon Leys; Aquinas, Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno; and the aphorisms of Nicolás Gómez Dávila. 

I mention Dávila last, for it is in one of his longer aphorisms that I find the closest thing to my worldview: “To be reactionary is not to espouse settled cases, nor to plead for determined conclusions, but rather to submit our will to the necessity that does not constrain, to surrender our freedom to the exigency that does not compel; it is to find sleeping certainties that guide us to the edge of ancient pools. The reactionary is not a nostalgic dreamer of a canceled past, but rather a hunter of sacred shades upon the eternal hills.”

It may not add up to much of a governing philosophy, but as a makeshift and occasionally mutable credo, I’ll put it up against Crash Davis’s. Though he was right about AstroTurf and the designated hitter.