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‘Combative but still substantive’: Strategist Ginny Roth on why TikTok fame isn’t enough to attract young voters

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with conservative thinker and political strategist Ginny Roth about the state of Canadian conservative politics, as well as broader trends in Anglo-American conservatism.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Ginny Roth, the national practice lead for government relations at Crestview Strategies, a leading conservative thinker and political strategist, the former director of communications for Pierre Poilievre’s leadership campaign, and fortunately for us, an occasional contributor to The Hub.

I asked Ginny to join me to talk a bit about the state of Canadian conservatism as we head into 2023, but also to get her perspective on some broader trends within the world of Anglo-American conservatism and their possible implications for Canadian policy and politics. I should just say that we’ll spend a good part of our conversation focused on big-C and small-c conservatism. I think it’s a discussion that will be of interest for anyone who follows Canadian policy and politics regardless of their own values or preferences. Ginny, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

GINNY ROTH: Thanks for having me, Sean.

SEAN SPEER: I thought we’d start with the Conservative Party of Canada. I mentioned that you were involved in Pierre Poilievre’s leadership campaign. Ostensibly, that gave you a unique window into him, the way he thinks about politics, and the direction he’s going to lead the party. Let me open up things with a general question. Has anything surprised you since he took over in terms of the way he’s led the party, the issues he’s taken on, or the way that he’s communicated with Canadians?

GINNY ROTH: I don’t know that I would say that anything has surprised me. I think when you’re on a campaign, there’s a fixed period of time. It’s usually pretty short, although this leadership was longer, and you are trying to get as much of people’s time and attention as possible. The factor that people need to remember when they observe the success of Mr. Poilievre as a leader of the Opposition is that he now faces a bit of a marathon, if you believe what people prognosticate about when the next election will be. It could be years.

You cannot just burn all the gas in your tank in that period. I think one of his biggest strategic questions is, to what extent do you try to develop your brand and your party’s brand on issues with voters? To what extent do you try to harm your opponents’ brands? And to what extent do you use the resources available to you, both idea resources and hard money and time resources to do that, and how much do you have to conserve? It’s the kind of thing that not all people factor in because they think, “Oh, I haven’t seen the guy in a few days,” or “What’s he up to?”

I think that is one of the biggest strategic questions that people have to remember. What we have seen with him, I’ve been really pleased to see him continue to focus on the economy as a core pillar of his value proposition and the Conservative value proposition to voters that we know him to be very strong on, especially when it comes to inflation and cost of living, but I’m also pleased to see him explore some new areas like crime and addiction and mental health that we know Canadians are starting to care more about, or at least anecdotally, it seems like they’re becoming hotter issues.

SEAN SPEER: One thing that has been notable over this transition period is that some polling suggests that his resonance with young people has persisted. Let me ask a two-part question, Ginny. One, what do you attribute that to and, two, how can you bring expression to a policy agenda rooted in the interests and needs of younger voters and ultimately get them to vote in numbers that are meaningful? In other words, is there a Conservative equivalent to legalizing marijuana?

GINNY ROTH: Yes, I think it’s hard to parse his appeal to young people because people want to say that it’s either style or substance, and I think it’s both. I think, stylistically, he has an incredible ability to communicate with people about complicated issues in a way that does not dumb them down, but that speaks in real, concrete, approachable, current language. He does that via current media. Mainly online via social media.

In terms of the issue sets, he’s talking about issues that matter to people who are under the age of 45 in a way that very few politicians have. You’re right. I think cannabis legalization was an issue that the Liberals were able to leverage in the 2015 election to great success with young people, but we also know that if you pursue this, going after young people superficially, it can fail, right?

There were probably 10 different features written on Jagmeet Singh’s success using TikTok in the lead-up to the last few elections. We rarely saw it manifest in meaningful turnout among young people voting NDP. I think there has to be a feeling that when the rubber hits the road, there’s a reason for a first-time voter who’s 27 to show up to the ballot box and actually cast their ballot.

What I think that Pierre has proven is that despite what many elites in our media have claimed, there’s no barrier to those people voting Conservative. Many of them bought memberships and voted for him in a Conservative leadership, so I don’t think there’s any truth to this idea of the Conservative brand is inherently toxic with young people. Question is, what will motivate them?

Housing is the most obvious issue that political leaders have avoided for years because I think they felt like it was a choice between boomers who had equity in their homes and young people who can’t afford homes. I think that sort of bravery of Poilievre to say, “No, this is the right side of this issue,” which is pointing out the deep inequity in intergenerational wealth and success and figuring out what we can do for young people to change that.

I think we’ve all been pleasantly surprised to see that, actually, a lot of those boomers have their kids living in their basements and don’t want them there anymore. On the issue side, if he can keep talking about housing and maybe even find a few new issue areas that affect young people who just want to do what people were able to do a few generations ago—buy a house, start a family, and do so in a safe way—he’ll have some real traction going into the next election.

SEAN SPEER: We’re speaking on Friday, January 13th. This week at The Hub, we ran a really excellent article by our editor-in-chief, Stuart Thomson, that sought to unpack Poilievre’s promise to defund the CBC. There is a range of options to operationalize his policy promise from reducing CBC’s public appropriation to essentially winding down the organization by statute. I won’t ask you to break any confidences, but do you have any sense of how he and his team will think about this issue, including the politics of the CBC?

GINNY ROTH: Yes, so I would start by saying that I think this is one of those issues that part of the reason that Poilievre was so successful in the Conservative leadership is that he ran on conservative issues that people would describe traditionally as red-meat conservative issues, that the base cares about it, Conservative members care about it. That is true. The difference between him and some past leaders is that his plan was not to make those commitments and then ease out of them or move on or hope people forget.

It’s to say, they’ll just be some of many issues that he’ll confront and that some of those other issues might have a much broader appeal like, say, housing or inflation or what have you. Even if defunding the CBC has a narrow appeal to Conservatives, it’s still important that he’s still going to do it, right? I think people have a real sense that that’s part of his character brand. I think he finds it really important.

That means he has to keep that promise. I think he’ll approach it the way he approaches all kinds of thorny policy issues, which is just to talk to a bunch of experts and get a bunch of advice and assess the different costs involved in each, the difficulties, and all in keeping with the spirit of the original commitment. I think that the spirit of the original commitment’s really clear: “Defund the CBC.”

I think when people think about the CBC, they think about a bloated, publicly-funded entity that is pseudo-commercial, that does not do a great job of some of the high-end content that maybe consumers wouldn’t fund that they may see from PBS or the BBC. But also that doesn’t do a great job of appealing to consumers and following a market motive. There are different paths he could take. Either way, I think, yes, he knows that people need to feel like he’s committed to the promise. Any policy manifestation, I think, will allow him to say, “Yes, I defunded the CBC.”

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask one final question about Pierre Poilievre and the federal Conservatives, then we’ll move on to some of the bigger global issues that I mentioned in the introduction. Assuming we’re not going to have an election in 2023, what are some benchmarks for success for Poilievre and the Conservatives over the coming year besides polling about, say, voting intentions? How should we assess if the party is moving in the right direction?

GINNY ROTH: I think on the issues and policy side, we’ll know that he’s been successful over the course of the last few months and the next year if the issues that he’s talking about are the issues that become the seminal issue that everyone’s talking about. He clearly did that on inflation. Sean, you and I have talked before about just how early it was that he was ringing alarm bells about inflation way before everyone else, almost two years ago now.

Basically, no one else was. That gave him incredible credibility to be able to say, not in a certain way, but “I told you so. I’m the expert on this and the other people who told you this wouldn’t happen were wrong. If inflation gets worse, I’m the guy you should listen to.” That’s what happened. I think his credibility on that has been incredible.

To watch, for instance, the video he put out that he shot in Vancouver about how things in Canada seem broken, how is it that we can let people live in squalor intensities and suffer from addiction and not bring a common sense approach to try to treat that? And then he gets mocked briefly in a way, I think, that is similar to the way he was mocked when he called out inflation early on by elites who are so-called experts, oftentimes with designations after their names, but who just don’t really seem in touch, I think, to regular people.

I can see that following a similar track where if you live in a big city, you increasingly feel less safe in your neighbourhood. You increasingly see people struggling and suffering that you think need to be helped with treatment, not enabled. All of a sudden, that starts to resonate. Then months later, people go, “Wow, he’s been talking about this for months.” If he continues to have a string of issues like that where he catches an issue early on and then really owns it, I think that will be a sign of success.

On the practical side, this is the stuff that’s less sexy. He’s got to get candidates nominated. He’s got to raise money. He’s got to get a caucus rolling in the same direction on all these issues and getting the fundamentals right and keep his membership engaged so that there’s a ground campaign in place that can dominate and carry the message on the ground in the next election.

SEAN SPEER: Just a ton of insights there, Ginny, thanks for sharing them with me and our listeners. You’re also a close observer of Anglo-American conservatism, including efforts to reconceptualize the conservative policy agenda to both better reflect contemporary issues as well as what’s sometimes referred to as the “political realignment,” the idea that there are shifts occurring within the electorate in terms of who typically votes for the Left and who votes for the Right. Do you want to reflect on those trends and whether there’s evidence that they’re also occurring in Canada?

GINNY ROTH: Yes, for sure. You and I have talked about this before, Sean. I think the follow-on to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump meant that—both of which were hyperpolitical moments and campaign moments. People got voted out and referenda were lost or won, depending on what side you were on. They weren’t led by intellectual movements. The intellectual movements have now come behind those geopolitical events to try to both explain them and figure out a path forward.

I think that’s really positive because if you don’t have those intellectual movements, you risk over-simplifying and over-interpreting what those wins could look like. I follow those intellectual movements because I think I want to try to understand what’s going on. Interestingly, Stephen Harper was at the forefront of this when he put out his book after leaving government as prime minister, trying to understand what the impact populism would have on right-of-centre thinking and watching that evolve since then.

He was quite prescient in that he was not going so far in the direction of a realignment as to say, “Free trade is a failure. We’ve got to start over. We’ve got to abandon all conservative sympathy for pure free markets.” But he did say that the 1990s period of purely economic right-wing thinking was maybe missing some things and that the conservatives would need to do some serious thinking about how to address issues following that. That thinking has gotten more sophisticated over time.

There are some thinkers in the U.S. I look to who are trying to basically say, “Was there anything to what Donald Trump was doing in terms of prioritizing blue-collar workers and their interests in the U.S.?” Thinking about a bit of a culture fight where conservatives have not argued for the kind of life they want people to live for a long time, so they start doing that outside of the context of an economic argument. Now that we’re beyond Boris Johnson in the U.K., you’ve got British thinkers who’ve been trying to explain that as well.

In Canada, we had less of that dynamic because we haven’t had this breakthrough political moment where a populist wave has elected a new leader or a new government. I do think you see an evolution in the types of things that Pierre Poilievre is talking about, for instance, where it’s not just pure economics. There’s also a cultural component. For us, I think COVID and the government’s reaction to COVID created a bit of a space for Canada to start to have a conversation about our centrist elites who are maybe a bit misguided, and speaking to people about what they care about when their only focus is on small-L liberal economics.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a good segue to my next question, Ginny. One idea that manifests itself and a lot of this intra-conservative discussion around the Anglosphere is the rise of so-called “woke politics” and the notion that it represents a political opportunity for the Right. That besides hardcore progressives, the Left’s emphasis on identity, race, and gender is actually a turn-off.

One proof point may be Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial win in Virginia. Another may be the endorsement by several trade unions of Doug Ford’s Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in last year’s provincial election campaign. What’s your sense? Should conservatives be leaning into some of these cultural issues? How do they do it in a way that doesn’t succumb to the perception that they’re indifferent or hostile to the experiences of racial or sexual minorities?

GINNY ROTH: Yes, I think this is a good question because I think there’s a lot of danger here. I am someone who thinks that conservative political parties and leaders should speak to people not just about the economy but about the culture, their lives, what matters to people, how to live a good life, and how the government can either get out of the way or support that, but it’s fraught, right?

Conservatives do have a past of sometimes being offside of evolving public opinion. I think if you’re a conservative like me, you want to be a conservative that presents positive alternatives, but also that can win elections because, otherwise, what’s the point? It’s a good question. One of the guidelines I use for myself is there’s a thinker who’s prominent on Twitter. I think he’s a Ph.D. student at Cambridge.

He’s coined the term “luxury beliefs” that he uses it to describe what’s happened with some of our elite institutions, particularly university campuses, where the Left talks in a language that seems to be totally out of touch with everyday people. Not just language, but they describe their beliefs. One of the classic beliefs is, to get back to the crime issue, is that you can argue for defunding the police if you live in a really safe neighbourhood, right?

If you live in a crime-ridden neighbourhood, you can’t argue to defund the police because you’d feel unsafe. It’s a luxury belief. Using language that’s totally inaccessible to everyday working-class people speaks to that as well. It’s the belief itself and the language that you use. I think that’s a really good tool for conservatives when we think about what kind of woke issues you want to talk about or bring to the fore.

It’s not about challenging core liberties, rights, and beliefs. It’s about saying, “Our elite institutions have totally lost touch on big matters of public policy.” You’re seeing a lot of this with education curriculum and education priorities in the U.S. too with what everyday, regular, non-ideological people want and prioritize. I think that’s a good guideline for conservatism. We think about what issues we should tackle.

SEAN SPEER: You’ve alluded a couple of times, Ginny, to some thinkers and intellectuals who are influencing the way you yourself think about these issues. As conservative politicians across the country, including Poilievre as well as provincial leaders themselves, think about these broader trends, are there conservative politicians across the Anglosphere that you think are striking these balances? Are there possible models that Canadian conservatives ought to be studying?

GINNY ROTH: It’s tough because Canada is not the same. We’re not going through the same political moment as, for example, the United States or the U.K. Glenn Youngkin is a good example of someone who I do think struck a balance. He originally was thought of, I think, as a relative establishment Republican, but he surrounded himself with people and issues that really got to— specifically in the education issue set—much more current cutting-edge issues that some of the more America First-type Republicans might be interested in and that regular people cared about.

Ron DeSantis, I think, is speaking about an issue set that is less relevant in Canada. We don’t have a border with Mexico. There are a lot of circumstances that we’re not in. Yet his ability to cut to the core of an issue that is hyper-resonant for people in a moment and then deliver on a public policy commitment and announce it in a political rollout that is picked up in the news and covered widely is just really exceptional behaviour for an elected official. He comes off appearing to be a winner, right?

Even if he picks some issues that turn some people off here and there on the margins, he seems like the guy that if you want to get things done and if you want to fight back against woke culture or, frankly, you want a well-run state that’s not going to trample on freedoms and that’s going to have a reasonable budget, that he’s the guy to do it. His style, the way he uses social media, the way he’s combative but still substantive, I think it’s a really good model for Canadian politicians on the Right who want to think about being relevant to people even if the issue set is a little bit different.

SEAN SPEER: One thing that I really admire about you is that you’re a highly-successful, professional woman who lives in Toronto, where it would be socially acceptable to say that you’re a conservative, especially if you said, “I’m a conservative on economic and fiscal issues, but I’m a social liberal,” which is basically a signal on a whole host of contentious cultural issues. But you don’t. We did a podcast episode together in the aftermath of the Conservative leadership race for the Public Policy Forum, which is probably not your typical audience, and you said, “I’m a social conservative.”

Ginny, one gets the sense that the social conservative wing of Canadian conservatism isn’t in a particularly strong position these days. I was struck, for instance, that in the last leadership campaign that Poilievre ultimately won, there wasn’t much of a groundswell on key social conservative issues as there had been in previous races. What’s your sense? Notwithstanding your own preferences and values, does social conservatism have any prospects of influencing the political agenda?

GINNY ROTH: It’s a good question. I think I partially lean into describing myself that way because I have a tacit strategy, which is to demarginalize social conservatism. Because I actually think in practice, most of the conservatives I know, while they may start by saying what is acceptable at Toronto cocktail parties, which is that you’re a fiscal conservative, not a social conservative, they actually are social conservatives. The issues that matter to them are not just balancing budgets. They’re defunding the CBC. They might be gun rights. They might be that they want to be able to buy a house. They want their peers to buy a house because they want their peers to have big families and more kids. All these things, I think, are socially conservative. They’re certainly not just purely fiscally conservative. These issues are interconnected.

When the party is weaker in Canada, I think it’s factioned. Social conservatives tend to hone in on one or two issue areas that are really important to them. For years, it was gay marriage, and then it’s been abortion or matters of life. Actually, one of the issues I think a lot of people care about right now is euthanasia, or as it is euphemistically described as Medical Assistance in Dying at the other end of the spectrum of life. You’ve got regular Canadians who wouldn’t describe themselves as any kind of conservative, let alone the social conservatives, who are deeply disturbed by the direction that the government policy is taking on that issue.

I think part of why Poilievre was so successful is that he spoke about a really broad range of issues that included culturally conservative issues and, in some cases, socially conservative issues, but in a language that appeals to regular people. I have the desire to do that how I talk about myself and how I speak to my peers. I think the conservative movement will be more successful if it creates room for that.

SEAN SPEER: Let me take up that point directly. One way that I’ve observed you trying to insert some of these ideas into our politics is by aiming to retake the language and ideas of feminism. There are similarly some high-profile female conservative intellectuals in the United States who are pushing back against the prevailing conception of feminism that’s ultimately pretty one-sided: that takes for granted that the goals of feminism ought to be full freedom and autonomy for women to pursue their professional goals in order to, in effect, separate themselves from the patriarchal norms and institutions that have held them back. My sense from a lot of your writing and commentary is that you see the potential for a different kind of feminism. Do you want to elaborate on that a bit?

GINNY ROTH: I think that’s right and I think there hasn’t been a label for some time on this intellectual movement. Just in the last couple of weeks, a couple of leading intellectuals in the U.S. and the U.K. have launched an online magazine and they’re orienting it towards what they call “sex-realist feminism.” They all come at it in different ways. Some people come at it through the women-in-sports angle. Some people come at it through the role-of-the-mother angle.

What they all have in common is they’re reacting to what they perceive as a small-l liberal approach to feminism, where the only goal is to maximize the ability of women to act as GDP contributors in the market economy. Of course, that doesn’t come anywhere near speaking to the actual real wants and needs of women or, frankly, the real wants and needs of men, and in many cases, their shared children.

They are trying to articulate a view of feminism that puts the equality of the sexes at the forefront, but also is very realistic about the differences between the sexes, both the physical differences and the emotional differences, and what that means about how public policy should create an environment, a culture, an economy where everyone can live their best lives and fulfill a purpose-driven life for women, although also for men.

I also like to talk about this issue from the perspective of we have institutions that are not well-set up to have boys and men succeed in our economy, in our culture. Talking about it in those terms and those terms of sex differences and family, I think, is really positive and creates all sorts of room for interesting public policy discussions.

SEAN SPEER: Just in parentheses, for those listeners interested in Ginny’s comments about our economic and social conditions for men, I’d encourage you to listen to our previous episode of Hub Dialogues with the American scholar, Richard Reeves, about his highly-regarded book Of Boys and Men.

Ginny, you mentioned the role of public policy here. Let me ask you, how might your conception of a conservative feminism manifest itself in public policy? What might be some ways in which Poilievre, or conservative premiers for that matter, might nod to this burgeoning movement through the use of public policy?

GINNY ROTH: It’s a good question. There are a few. There’s one note in Reeves’ book that you just mentioned when it comes to boys, which I’m contemplating myself. I have a two-year-old son and he has some traditionally boy sex characteristics, namely his attention span, which is very short. Envisioning him starting kindergarten at the same time as, say, his four-year-old female counterparts is a bit concerning.

I don’t know that he could sit still through a full day of classroom activity. Reeves actually recommends that some jurisdictions consider giving the boys the option to stay back a year because we know that on average—this is, of course, not true in every individual case—but on average, boys tend to develop a little more slowly when it comes to things like their attention span early in life, and that you might get way better outcomes on the back end coming out of elementary and high school if you did that.

There are little things like that that speak to real sex differences that can make a big difference. When it comes to women, I sometimes worry more about our existing public policy and where we have inadvertent penalties. I think, for instance, we have to avoid marriage and childbearing penalties at all costs even when they’re hidden in the tax code and how we fund programs, that kind of thing.

If we say we think it’s good for people to form families early and stay together as families, which we know that success sequence results in better outcomes for everyone, we shouldn’t have public policy penalties for them. I think we should prioritize choice and not presume what choice looks like. A childcare model, for instance, that’s a lot more like the version Stephen Harper came up, with doubling down on the child benefit model that gives parents money back when they have kids.

In fact, when they have more kids, to create the circumstances at home that they think is best for their family and more conducive to them growing in their families is, I think, far superior to a universal one-size-fits-all childcare model that I think doesn’t reach people in the environments that they want to be in. We know the data tells us people are having fewer kids than they want. Certainly, women are having fewer children than they’d like to have. They’d like to have more. They tell pollsters, but for whatever reason, they’re not. Investigating through a public policy lens how we can remove those barriers and do more to support that is tough, but I think it’s worth pursuing.

SEAN SPEER: Final question. As a close observer and even occasional practitioner of politics, what are some of the issues, topics, or developments that you’re following for the current year? Is it the Alberta election and its implications for Canadian conservatism? Is it the political economy consequences of an expected recession? Is it growing concerns about the Trudeau government’s pretty dogmatic left-wing agenda with respect to criminal justice? What, in other words, Ginny, are the issues that you think our listeners ought to be tracking over the coming months?

GINNY ROTH: I think crime and its attendant issue set. I think addictions and mental health and crime all fit into the same bucket because, of course, they’re interconnected. I think that’s one of the issues that the commentary is sleeping on and the public is living firsthand. We’re seeing the U.S. is a little bit ahead of us on this. You’re seeing the mayor in New York, a Democrat mayor of New York, mind you, taking a totally different approach to crime. They’re now in a situation where their subway ridership is so low because people feel so unsafe that the public transit model’s becoming unsustainable.

I think you see some of the early roots of that or shoots of that in Canada, in our big cities, and so I think big city policy when it comes to crime and mental health and addiction treatment is the issue to watch for this year. There are all sorts of ways to come at it. The federal Liberals and Justin Trudeau have chosen to try to fight a culture war on guns that punishes legitimate gun owners and does absolutely nothing to tackle or beat back the crime that’s arisen under their tenure.

The Conservatives now have a leader who’s actually willing to articulate a counter-message as opposed to cower and hope that he doesn’t have to talk about that issue. I think it’ll be defining, particularly if more people feel unsafe taking public transit to take their kids to school, for instance. That becomes salient really quickly if the things we take for granted like safety in our own community start to erode.

SEAN SPEER: Well, Ginny, we’ll have to have you back later in the year to talk about that issue amongst others. Ginny Roth, national practice lead for government relations at Crestview Strategies, occasional Hub contributor, thank you so much for joining us today at Hub Dialogues.

GINNY ROTH: Thanks, Sean.