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Sean Speer: You can disagree with Quebec’s cultural conservatism, but you can’t afford to ignore it

Commentary

It’s become something of a tradition at The Hub to use the summer to zoom out a bit from day-to-day current affairs and public policy in order to focus on the ideas and arguments that underpin the country’s political life. 

I’ve written in recent weeks about the state of conservative ideas and politics across the Anglosphere, including the rise in the United States of a fissure between “freedom conservatives” who can be broadly defined as classical liberals and libertarians and “national conservatives” who involve some combination of social conservatives, cultural conservatives, and post-liberals. 

I’ve been grateful for the generally positive reaction to my commentary—even among those who may disagree with conservatism but are interested in understanding the dynamics within the intellectual and political movement. 

The main criticism has come from some conservatives who’ve taken exception to my description of the Canadian conservative project as essentially a small “l” liberal one. That is to say, as Friedrich Hayek wrote in his famous essay, “Why I’m not a conservative”, North American conservatism distinguishes itself from conservatism in Europe and elsewhere by virtue of the fact that the ideas, institutions, and norms that it’s trying to conserve are themselves liberal. 

Yes, of course, there’s the famous “Tory touch” embedded in Canada’s founding ideas and institutions. The Peace, Order, and Good Government ethos of the British North America Act involved a modified liberalism. I’ve written in various places for instance about the idea of “ordered liberty” which reflects the amalgam of conservatism and liberalism at the heart of Confederation. But the whole project—including the constitution—was shot through with the era’s liberal ideas. 

That doesn’t mean of course that contemporary critics of liberalism don’t have compelling arguments. I’d encourage readers to listen to my recent podcast episode with University of Notre Dame philosopher Patrick Deneen whose 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed, received wide acclaim for his penetrating critique of the limits and failings of modern liberalism. But the notion that the dominant philosophical underpinnings of Canadian society haven’t been small “l” liberalism frankly strikes me as ahistorical and of limited utility for thinking about the future.  

Where my commentary probably does deserve some pushback however is my tendency to over-universalize the Canadian conservative tradition and failure to distinguish between the conservatism of English Canada and Québec.

The province’s unique cultural identity and preservationist project has caused Québec society to never fully embrace liberalism. It stands to reason therefore that its conservatives haven’t sought to preserve the liberal order so as much as Québec’s own culture and institutions including its customs, language, and political norms. In that sense, there’s a case that the historic notion of the “two solitudes” between English Canada and Québec extends to conservatism itself. There’s a risk, then, especially for commentators like me, to neglect the unique particularities of Québec conservatism when thinking and talking about a single conception of Canadian conservatism. 

Even if one disagrees with aspects of the province’s cultural conservatism, it seems to me that it’s crucial for understanding Canadian conservatism in general and Canadian culture and politics more generally. In that vein, I was grateful to recently exchange with high-profile Québec conservative intellectual Mathieu Bock-Côté. 

For English Canadians unfamiliar with Bock-Côté and his ideas and writings, he may be the most important Canadian intellectual that you don’t know. Not only does he capture so much of the zeitgeist of Québec’s resurgent cultural nationalism, but his opinions are influential with Québec politicians at the highest level. In 2019, for instance, Québec Premier Francois Legault caused some buzz when he said Bock-Côté’s book, L’empire du politiquement correct (The Empire of Political Correctness), was on his summer reading list. 

Because of the inherent differences between English Canadian and Québec conservatism discussed above, Bock-Côté’s ideas and arguments may be somewhat unusual to The Hub’s readers. His focus on culture and identity rather than the more materialistic appeals of English Canadian conservatism may even produce a bit of a reaction. But it’s important to have a sense of where he and other leading Québec intellectuals stand on these issues if we’re to have a better understanding of the politics of the country. 

What makes Bock-Côté so interesting though is that his influence doesn’t stop at the Québec border. In recent years, he’s emerged as an increasingly prominent right-wing voice in France, where he replaced former presidential candidate, Éric Zemmour, in a key broadcasting slot on the country’s major right-wing news network. 

As Globe and Mail columnist Konrad Yakabuski observed in a long-form essay on the state of Québec cultural nationalism earlier this summer, Bock-Côté has reached such a profile in the French-speaking world that his “writings on immigration, language and identity have spawned a cottage industry among intellectuals on the Québec left, who have dedicated essays and books to challenging his ideas.”

Which, I suppose, brings me back to my initial point. Critics of my characterization of Canadian conservatism as essentially about conserving classical liberal ideas and values wish, in some way, that they had their own Bock-Côté in English Canada. They’re drawn to a more assertive conservatism that focuses less on tax rates or the size of government and more on defending a particular conception of Canadian culture. They’d prefer, in short, if the prevailing conservative orthodoxy was less mine and more his. 

I’m skeptical about how much his arguments would prevail in parts of English Canada which in a way reinforces the durability of the two solitudes. As we discuss in our exchange, it may be that a pan-Canadian conservatism cannot exist. At their core, the English Canadian and Québec conservative projects are ultimately motivated by divergent—and even competing—understandings of their aims and purposes.

I won’t aim to solve such a big question here but it does reinforce that even if one disagrees with Bock-Côté’s ideas, you cannot afford to ignore them. For that reason, The Hub, which aspires to facilitate dialogue and debate across ideology, language, or region, is pleased to publish our interview. 

Ginny Roth: The Liberals aren’t just losing, the Conservatives are winning

Commentary

On May 2, 2011, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives won a majority government. That was what happened, but in the days following election day, it wasn’t really the dominant narrative. Instead, commentary tended to focus on related phenomena. There had been an “orange wave”, with the NDP scooping up dozens of seats in Quebec and forming the official opposition in Parliament—their leader Jack Layton was a star. The Liberals had cratered, plummeting to only 34 seats in the House of Commons—their leader Michael Ignatieff was a dud.

Sure, there was passing reference to the success of the Conservatives. After all, Stephen Harper had converted their minority into a majority and would have four more solid years to govern, virtually unopposed to start. But the overarching takeaway was not that the Conservatives had built meaningful public support for an ambitious political agenda and delivered on it with a resounding electoral victory. It was almost as though Conservatives landed a majority government by accident, through a combination of NDP success, Liberal foibles, and good luck. It didn’t help that Conservative voters tended to be quieter and that if you ran in certain circles, the kinds of circles analysts, pundits, and other public commenters live in, they were almost impossible to find. It was hard to track down Conservative voters, and even harder to understand where they were coming from. 

I was reminded of 2011’s analytical incuriosity over the past couple weeks as various serious pollsters released data showing Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives with a nine-ish percentage point lead. A number of analysts have sought to explain what’s going on, focusing on a few different factors, since it seems clear that no one big event is what has shifted opinion. People are finally growing tired of the Liberals, they say—it’s just taken a long time. People are finally feeling the negative impacts of inflation, they say—it’s just…taken a long time. People are really starting to dislike Trudeau, they say—it’s just…well you get the point. Where commenters do address the leader and the party experiencing favourability gains, they bend over backward to avoid acknowledging his appeal. In fact, they inexplicably jump to analyzing areas he’s struggling, describing what a challenge it will be for such a radical, scary figure to actually convert his opponents’ losses into his own gains. This despite most modeling showing that Pierre Poilievre and the Conservative’s popular vote share means they would win a majority of seats were the election called today.

You wouldn’t know it from last week’s analysis, but something else happened recently in Canadian politics—something rather major. Almost a year ago, Conservatives elected a new leader in Pierre Poilievre. Is it possible that’s had some effect? Is it possible people who can’t afford a home aren’t just frustrated the prime minister said the problem is not his responsibility, but that they think Pierre Poilievre would fix it? Is it possible they’re not only ticked off about the ever-increasing carbon tax but also now convinced the Conservatives would scrap it? Is it possible that since Poilievre’s been talking about inflation for literally years longer than anyone else, voters think he might be the guy who would bring spending in line and fix it? Is it possible Poilievre’s plan not to focus narrowly on mythical LPC/CPC vote switchers as virtually every analyst suggested he should, but to expand his voter universe by targeting NDP voters, LPC voters, PPC voters, lapsed CPC voters, and non-voters by focusing on defending fundamental freedoms, producing more goods in Canada, and improving the cost of living is…working?

We don’t have to speculate as to whether Poilievre and the Conservatives are succeeding (instead of the Liberals merely failing). There is a serious third party in Canada in the NDP. If the movement in the polls had so little to do with Poilievre’s political success, surely, they would be the primary beneficiary. Indeed, we do have a counterfactual in Quebec, where waning Liberal popularity has benefited the Bloc Quebecois. Across the rest of Canada, including in Atlantic provinces, Ontario, and British Columbia, the Conservative’s message is resonating. So why the reluctance to concede this point? What explains this unwillingness on the part of otherwise smart analysts to explore Conservative political success? Why side-step reasonably clear explanations, groping instead for any way to rationalize what, to them, is seemingly irrational? 

Because when you don’t know anyone who votes Conservative, it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who did or plans to. Understanding requires empathy and empathy is hard—particularly as our polarization and online thought bubbles mean people of different culture war tribes and political persuasions barely interact. This might be fine if our thought-leading institutions were populated with a diversity of viewpoints, but they’re not. Our analysts tend to be liberal, progressive elites who socialize with other liberal, progressive elites. There’s nothing wrong with being a liberal, progressive elite, many of them are among my dearest friends. But when you’re in the business of explaining political outcomes, it helps if you know people to whom the front-runner is appealing. At least it’s helpful if you have any interest in trying to understand what’s going on. 

Political public opinion shifts for all kinds of reasons, and winning seats in the House of Commons is a zero-sum game. By definition, for one party to be winning, another party needs to be losing. But when it comes to analyzing the factors contributing to Conservative political success, our commentariat has a massive blind spot.

The good news for Conservatives is this is a sure sign that Liberals (and their ideological brethren in the commentariat) are stricken with their infamous kryptonite. Only arrogance, the kind for which our country’s self-described natural governing party is famous, can explain the unseriousness with which they’re confronting the strongest competitor they’ve faced in a decade. Only arrogance can explain why they’ve opted not to try to define Pierre Poilievre in the public consciousness before he’s had the chance to define himself. Only arrogance can explain why our country’s analysts refuse to entertain the notion that the Conservatives might just have a plan and that it might just be working. Historically, when Liberal arrogance has peaked, Conservative electoral success has followed.