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J.J. McCullough on the Conservative convention, the return of Parliament, and Canada’s (North) American identity

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Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features writer and YouTuber J.J. McCullough about the recent Conservative Party convention, the imminent return of Parliament, and what it means for Canada to have a North American identity.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski 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 J.J. McCullough, who’s a writer, political commentator, and successful YouTuber. He joined us a few times last year to talk about, among other things, the Trudeau government’s internet bills, as well as the state of conservative politics in Canada. I’m grateful to have him join us again to discuss last week’s Conservative Party convention, the imminent return of Parliament, and what it means for Canada to have a North American identity. JJ, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

J.J. McCULLOUGH: Great to be back.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with the convention. There are various entry points for this part of the conversation. One thing that struck me, though, was how clean, smooth, and professional it was. There were no gimmicks gone wrong, no infighting or misfired policy proposals. This looked like it was put together by a team that’s ready for a general election campaign. Why don’t you respond to that observation and the other big takeaways for you?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: I would agree with that assessment. I would describe it as being orthodox but safe. In watching the speeches and assessing the general vibe of the thing, it felt very on-message, very disciplined, very controlled. All of the major speeches hit the same notes, which were largely the notes that were articulated by Pierre Poilievre himself. It was a message of a pretty orthodox conservatism, a pretty standard, unsurprising message that I think would be very familiar to anybody who came of age during the Harper years in terms of what the Conservative Party stands for. There were consistent messages about being tough on crime. “We’re going to cut spending, but we’re also going to cut taxes. We need to curb inflation.” Maybe that’s a somewhat novel argument that wasn’t as prominent during the Harper years, but it’s become somewhat of an orthodoxy unto itself. “We’re going to stand up for gun rights. We’re going to be very pro-energy, pro-oil, pro-natural gas.”

There were even a few hits of the past that I feel haven’t been as prominent, perhaps, in recent years. Going after foreign aid was an interestingly common thing that I noticed came up a lot. “Giving money to dictators when our people back home are suffering” and that sort of thing. Pierre’s speech, in particular, I just found to be extremely—it was well-written, but it was also very deliberately written, it felt like.

It felt like every word and sentence had been planned in a very careful way to be resonant with the kind of voters that the Conservative Party is clearly making a priority to target. Going after this very consistent message that the middle class of this country is suffering in a very measurable, material way as it relates to two key signifiers, which is the cost of housing and the cost of groceries. Incredible message discipline on that.

Then, if I can add one other thing, I think it’s worth noting as well what issues that both Pierre and all the other people that were speaking at the convention did not choose to emphasize or highlight or speak at any great length of it, which was the trans issue did not come up, even though that seems to be gaining, frankly, some resonance as a conservative issue across the country, particularly as it relates to children in schools. There was no talk of COVID, which I thought was interesting, despite Pierre arguably using that issue as one of his causes that he’s risen on. The truckers, which had been such a rallying cry for conservatives in the last year, was very rarely mentioned or mentioned only in a passing, oblique sort of way. Then, climate, which I think continues to be an issue of some sensitivity for this party, is again, not really mentioned except in the context of, well, “We’re going to support all of our energy industries and the Canadian energy industry is the best at doing everything. Therefore, to be pro-Canadian oil is in some sort of convoluted way also being pro-lowering emissions because we just do everything so well here that we can’t help but fix climate change while supporting the oil industry.” Those are my main takeaways.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll pursue many of those over the course of the conversation, but I want to stay for a moment on your observation, J.J., that there was a kind of underlying orthodoxy reflected both in Poilievre’s own remarks and the convention itself.

Conservatives in other parts of the Anglo-American world are going through something of a chasm or a schism when it comes to the Freedom Conservatives versus National Conservatives, some voices challenging conventional conservative economic orthodoxy, and others arguing that conservatives need to subordinate economic arguments in favor of cultural ones. What do you think explains the extent to which the Poilievre-led Conservatives have by and large eschewed some of these deeper fractures and major debates occurring within the world of conservatism?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: That’s a very excellent question. It was certainly something that was at the front of my mind as I was listening to Pierre’s speech and some of the other speeches as well, because I think that there has been, certainly among Canadian conservative intellectuals, an idea that there is an opening for Canada’s conservative movement and Conservative Party specifically to eschew some of the orthodoxy that, I think, in Britain and America is now believed to have been a obstacle to those conservative parties’ electoral successes. Yet, there was just very little of that. I was even trying to note where there was possibly any rejection of standard Reagan-Thatcher era orthodoxy.

The only thing that I could hear, at least in Pierre’s speech specifically, was there was a single line where he was denouncing the corrupt big medical corporations. The idea that the big medical establishment, the corporate medical establishment, has in some way been complicit in the opioid crisis. Maybe to the extent that a conservative politician attacking a corporation using that language suggesting that its corporate character is somehow part of its wickedness, okay, maybe that, but that’s thin gruel compared to some of the anti-orthodox things.

To answer your question specifically, I guess I would just say that Pierre Poilievre himself is, I think, just a real creature of a certain orthodox conservative upbringing. He’s a man who’s been in Parliament, what, since he was in his mid-20s. I know this because I interviewed him and I asked him some questions about this. He defined himself as someone that grew up in the Reform tradition and his conservative beliefs informed by a lot of the political debates of the ’90s, which again was also something that came up in his speech.

He got some praise for suggesting that Liberals and NDP governments during the ’90s were fiscally responsible in a way that the Trudeau government isn’t, that they were good at balancing budgets and keeping spending under control and that kind of thing. That’s a very orthodox opinion of a certain kind of conservatism that was very mainstream in the ’90s and up through the Harper years. I just don’t think that Pierre as a man is necessarily all that curious about new strains in conservatism. I think he feels that he knows what works. He knows what the country needs. He’s obviously a deeply confident and self-possessed man who, I think, is very confident of his own abilities and his own insights and his own observations. I don’t know, in Canada, we do have a very sort of like leader-centric system, a very hierarchical political system in which the people at the top have a great deal of influence. If we’re looking for unorthodox or creative-minded conservative figures, I’m not exactly sure where we should be looking.

Again, like all of the other speeches that were being given at the convention were largely in line with Pierre’s take as well. It seemed like a convention, if I can characterize it again, just broadly, it seemed like a convention that was ready for an election and in that sense was very disciplined and was ready to fight on very set terms and was not really interested in displaying a buffet of all the different options of conservatism that people can pick and choose from. It was like, no, this is what conservatism stands for under this leader, this man, and this is what we’re going to fight on. Maybe if Pierre goes away someday, if he loses the next election, which seems unlikely, but let’s say if he does, then maybe there’ll be a little bit more reckoning. As long as he’s in charge, I think that this is what Canadian conservatism is going to be.

SEAN SPEER: One exception may be that the speech alluded a couple of times to the so-called “woke wars”, including references to the treatment of Canadian history and the perceived apologism of the Trudeau government for Canadian values. What do you think of that line of argument, J.J.? Do you think so-called “anti-wokeness” is good politics for Canadian Conservatives?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: I think it is, but I think that the party is a little bit nervous about it. I think that it’s seen as one of these divisive issues like online with LGBT stuff and abortion and social policy more generally. It was interesting because, yes, a number of people did talk about wokeness, but they did in this oblique way. They used this line where they say like, “Oh, Trudeau likes to turn Canadians against one another.” That seems to be the preferred language that they use when talking about these woke-type issues, which is just like, well, Trudeau shouldn’t really be talking about race and gender and sexuality. That’s unpleasant.

It’s not, whereas if you imagine a Republican convention, people would be banging the stage and saying like, “Men are men and women are women and how dare they tell us otherwise?” That kind of stuff. There’s an appetite for that thing in Canadian conservative circles, certainly. Even when it comes to some of the race stuff involving racial discrimination and even the history of the Indigenous people, there are lots of Conservative commentators that are willing to push back against some of the “woke narratives.”

The Conservative Party proper doesn’t really seem interested in going down that path, I think because, like I said before, it’s seen as divisive. It’s seen as perhaps freaking out some of the more nervous voters that have certain stereotypes about Conservatives being racists or bigoted. I think that the idea is that you give the base just enough to feel that you’re on side in these culture war issues, but not really go particularly strongly beyond that.

Actually, if I can say one other thing, too, though, I do think there are times when listening to conservative big shots of this sort speak that you become aware of some of the division between the conservative elite in Canada and what the conservative base cares about. It’s not always just like who’s more conservative. Sometimes it’s just there’s a fixation on some things that I think don’t matter as much to rank-and-file conservatives.

I do think that some of the stuff involving history just doesn’t resonate that much with rank-and-file conservative people and conservative voters. I think even broadly like voters more generally, some of the stuff about the passport and it’s like, we don’t care enough about, oh, the Vimy Ridge Memorial is not on anymore, that kind of thing. I think that matters a lot to conservative intellectuals who know Canadian history very well and often venerate aspects of Canadian history, particular stuff involving the world wars and all that.

I don’t know, to other people, I just think that these are pretty low-importance issues when compared to cost of living things and crime and all that. There’s a degree to which I think that in addition to just being a little bit instinctively nervous about going down this path, I think that perhaps there’s a strategic wisdom to it as well.

SEAN SPEER: To the extent to which there were contentious issues taken up at the convention, as you mentioned, J.J., the party membership voted pretty overwhelmingly in favour of banning so-called “gender-affirming surgery” for those under age 18. Do you foresee this being an issue that spills out into the mainstream, or is it mostly a priority for activists on either side of the issue?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: It’s an optical challenge, as they say, in the sense that it’s something that Pierre will presumably have to answer for. They’ll say, you might say this, but the Conservative base or your party voted that. Then Poilievre will have to sort of clarify that what the convention says is just a suggestion, blah, blah, blah. I remember once someone who had worked for Harper once telling me that, in all the days of working on Conservative policy and helping direct the government’s priorities, never once did it occur to anyone in the Prime Minister’s Office to be like, “Let’s go and see what the policy resolutions from several years ago were and let’s use that to determine the priorities of this government.”

I think that as long as Pierre is able to emphasize that he’s the leader, he’s the guy in charge, he makes the decisions, I think what was or wasn’t passed at the Conservative Party conference of 2023 is a story that’s only really relevant now in the immediate aftermath of it. Because we don’t think about this in relation to any of the other parties, do we, right? We don’t think like, “Well, what did the Liberal Party Convention pass? What did the NDP Party Convention pass? Is Justin Trudeau or Jagmeet Singh accountable for those resolutions?” Yes, I think this is a sort of short-term thing. It does, in fairness, I think, reflect a little bit of what I was just saying earlier, which is the divide between the elite of the party and the grassroots of the party.

Because to the extent that these resolutions represent issues that are cared about by the rank and file activists who mobilize and attend the meetings of their EDA, and all this kind of thing, and then get this stuff percolating upwards, that’s stuff that I guess the Conservative Party elite has to take seriously. And that’s why then you get these speeches that at least throw symbolic bones in that direction. It’s always been a challenge, I think, for Conservatives, to keep a base that I think they often view as being somewhat of a liability in line. I think that the resolution side of these party conferences is one of the ways that presumably some of this theme is seen as being able to be let off in a way that’s not too damaging.

SEAN SPEER: If I may ask a follow-up, is there reason to believe that the slow yet steady adoption by conservative premiers of changes to educational practices or curriculum with respect to gender and trans issues suggests that conservative politicians may be starting to read the politics of those issues differently and prepare to lean into them more?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: I think that it’s something that we’re going to have to continue to watch. The way it reads to me is that the conservative provincial parties have an instinctive sense that maybe some of the stuff with trans issues, as it relates to children, is going too far, but they’re also cautious of the consequences that could befall them if they’re seen as going too far in the other direction. I think there’s been a gingerly effort to find the sweet spot on this issue. I think that the polling suggests that they may have found it in terms of parental consent for children changing their preferred pronouns or names or gender identity in the class.

The polls seem to suggest that is a pretty safe spot to be because it doesn’t go after trans adults or transitioning in general. It doesn’t seem like you’re demonizing the existence of transgender people as a class. It seems much more of a familial rights thing. This actually feels like an unusual moment in Canadian politics in general, where you have the provincial parties taking the lead. Then now all eyes are going to be on Pierre Poilievre to see if he is able to incorporate this consensus that’s emerging at the provincial level and if he’s going to be comfortable embracing that as a federal leader.

This is obviously not a matter of federal policy, but it’s something he’s going to be asked on and presumably, it’s something that he’s going to feel a need to either defend or denounce. I think if he does denounce it, that would be very odd, because then you would really have a schism between a leader who, like I said, is seen as a champion of a relatively orthodox conservatism and provincial parties, which I think have traditionally been seen as somewhat more kind of a little bit more wishy-washy. Actually, I’m quite legitimately curious to see if Pierre ever gets to the point where he’s comfortable explicitly articulating where he stands on this and on trans rights more broadly.

SEAN SPEER: I would just say in parentheses that I agree with your observation that what appears to be the sweet spot for many of these Conservative premiers and provincial politicians is to effectively subordinate issues of gender or trans issues and instead elevate a bigger debate about the relationship between the state, parents, and children. One gets a sense that they think they can win that debate. That may be where Pierre Poilievre enters into that conversation.

Another major theme within the convention itself and conservative politics more broadly in recent months has been something of a generational change within the ranks of elected Conservatives, including our mutual friend, Jamil Jivani, who’s recently won a party nomination, as well as among the voting public. What do you make of that, J.J.? Why have Canadian conservatives recently had more success with reaching younger generations than conservatives elsewhere?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: It’s a good question. People ask me this a fair bit, I guess, because I’m seen as having something of a connection to the youth because I’m a YouTuber or what have you. When I am asked this, one qualifier that I often put on it is that, it’s important that conservatives don’t overread this. In our three-party system, to win any demographic very often just means that you have a plurality, that you don’t have a majority, and that seems to be the case now. Conservatives are doing better in the plurality. They are the most preferred party of the youth when compared to the others, but overall the youth do by majority support the parties of the centre-Left, and definitely when you get to the very young, it tends to be the strongest there.

That said, when we think of somewhat younger people, people in their mid to late 20s or early 30s, yes, the Conservatives seem to be doing well. The closest explanation that I can offer would just be that the Conservatives are speaking specifically about issues that are very resonant with that demographic, which is housing and affordability issues. If I may beat the drum of an issue that I’ve been very outspoken on, some of the censorship stuff with the internet, some of the regulation of the internet. People recognize me as a famous YouTuber on the street a fair bit, and it’s quite striking how often people want to bring up internet-related stuff.

Not just Bill C-11, but Bill C-18, the thing that’s taken so much news off of people’s social media feeds. I find that a lot of young people are very animated by that issue, and for a lot of young people, that is their entry into politics. They can see very visibly that the policy passed by Justin Trudeau has affected their ability to enjoy a free and uncensored internet. That bothers a lot of people. You hit people where they live and people respond. I think that that’s probably—I might be overreading this just because this is the world that I inhabit, but I don’t know, people bring that up and blame Trudeau specifically in a way that I think they don’t for maybe some of the other issues.

When it comes to the price of housing and the cost of living, in general, I think people can be relatively forgiving on some of that kind of stuff or to believe that it’s the result of forces beyond any government’s control. When it comes to things like internet regulation and that, it is very obvious that there’s one man responsible and that if you don’t like him, then you know what to do.

SEAN SPEER: The other fascinating difference between some of these bigger macro issues like housing or inflation or whatever, and the internet bills, is that they’re the consequence, not only of conscious choices on the part of the government, but ones that the government has essentially leaned into. That is to say, while you get the sense they’re self-conscious about housing and inflation, you don’t get the sense that they’re self-conscious about these bills. They see them as essential winners. It’s fascinating to see, because only one party can ultimately be right on that judgment.

It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out, which may be a good segue, J.J., into a conversation about the return of parliament, and in particular, the political challenges facing the prime minister and his government. There’s not a lot of positive history for them of previous incumbents overcoming double-digit gaps, particularly if it doesn’t involve changing the person at the top. If you were advising the government, what should it be doing? Does it need to consider personnel changes or new political tactics or some big idea to try to recapture political momentum? How can the Liberals essentially forestall the freefall that they found themselves in in the past several weeks?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: Yes, it’s interesting because I definitely remember near the end of the Harper years, that there was a lot of focus on like Question Period in particular. Thomas Mulcair had just become head of the NDP. I remember he got a lot of praise for his like prosecutorial style and that he was very firm. He made these good viral clips that is like the stuff of how we spread political news these days. Maybe not these days now that social media is under lock and key. That kind of stuff matters a great deal.

When a government is near the end of its life, I do think that like stuff like the Question Period that we normally think of as being somewhat frivolous can start to do some real damage because it reinforces the idea that the government is tired and on its last legs and people that excel at question period like Thomas Mulcair and I think like Pierre Poilievre really start salivating at the opportunity to use the return of Parliament, to use any setting of Parliament, to just endlessly hammer the government on their preferred terms.

As a result, the challenge, I think, for the Trudeau government when we think of Parliament in this very literal sense is do they have a strategy for combating what is going to be a relentless several months of just non-stop hammering of a very competent and, I think, skilled opposition leader who enjoys humiliating this government, teasing this government, joking about these things with this government, bringing up all of the various missteps that they’ve made. I think that at this point Pierre is really been in the driver’s seat when it comes to defining himself and I think that the best strategy for the Liberals is to start to attempt to redefine him.

It’s interesting, when I’m looking at some of the left-wing commentators on YouTube and on social media from this country, a lot of them have a narrative that Pierre has gotten a soft pass, that he hasn’t really been held accountable, that the press is in love with him and is giving him a soft treatment and that as well that the opposition parties have not done enough to curb his rise. I think that the Trudeau Liberals, I think I’m not going out on a limb where I say that it doesn’t seem that they have a ton of new initiatives that they’re really champing at the bit to start unveiling.

It seems like a government that in its own way is ready for an election and is avoiding having an election mostly for self-preservation tactics. If that is indeed the case, and I think that probably the best self-preservation that they can do in the lead-up to an election is really prioritize attempting to change the channel on Pierre Poilievre, go after him when he seems to be on an ascendancy. Because the best advantage that the Liberals have is that they still, in theory, have a year or more before their deal with the NDP is set to expire, and that gives them a lot of opportunity to change the channel.

If they were having an election tomorrow, they’d be cooked. The fact that they’ve got this much time suggests that they have a lot of opportunity at their disposal to make Pierre a much more controversial, contentious, unliked figure because I do think that at this point, the election is shaping up to be basically a referendum on him as opposed to on the Trudeau record.

SEAN SPEER: We’ve talked a bit about the Trudeau government’s internet bills, which of course, loomed so large over the last parliamentary sitting. What are some of the sleeper issues you think may manifest themselves, J.J., over the coming weeks and months as Parliament returns to normal sitting?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: Well, I definitely think actually the thing that we were just talking about before, I think that the trans issue could be a very explosive and nation-consuming matter. You get the sense that it’s on the low boil right now and people like you and I who follow this stuff very closely care a lot about it. I definitely think if conservative parties across the provinces continue to poke at this, if it becomes anything resembling a consensus policy among the Canadian Right, if there continues to be litigation about it, if there are protests, if it becomes like a cause célèbre for progressives in this country, then I definitely think that that’s something that the Trudeau government would be very happy to lean into and very happy to make an issue of great division in terms of the political binary.

I don’t necessarily that the public would be on their side, but it’s interesting because it reminds me of when Justin Trudeau was running for election in 2015 against Stephen Harper. One of the big issues that Justin Trudeau was actually out of public opinion with was the issue of the Syrian refugees. He basically said we should open our doors and let as many Syrian refugees as they want to come to this country. It was not an issue that polled well, but what somebody said to me was that was an issue that Justin Trudeau liked talking about. That was an issue that put Justin Trudeau in his full form. It was when he was at his most confident and most persuasive and most charismatic and most passionate.

In that moment, he would exude a lot of the characteristics that people liked from him even if necessarily the issue itself maybe they weren’t so hot on. I definitely think if issues involving minority rights in any way come to the fore, I think that gives Justin Trudeau an opportunity to be his best version of himself. Beyond that, I don’t really think that this is a political atmosphere in which we’re really going to be having robust conversations about public policy one way or the other. I definitely think it’s going to be these big marquee divisive issues that can be weaponized in the context of a polarized electorate. Yeah, the trans issue is what I think would be the biggest one to watch.

SEAN SPEER: Let me try to elevate the conversation here a bit. There was a recent debate on Twitter about Canadian identity and the common view that we lack a shared sense of citizenship or national identity. I should say it strikes me as quite an old debate, actually. You have an interesting take. You think what makes Canadian identity distinctive is not what juxtaposes it with the United States, but what we uniquely share with the U.S. vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Talk about what it means to belong to a North American identity and why so many Canadians, including conservatives, resist it.

J.J. McCULLOUGH: I appreciate you asking that question because that was actually something that came up actually at the Conservative Party conference a number of times as well. I noticed that this talking point that “Trudeau thinks we don’t have an identity” was a hot issue. I appreciate that because, I think, that’s a dopey thing that the prime minister said and I don’t think it’s actually even something that he agrees with. The interesting thing, though, is that in practice, what is the alternative to that? If you say that we’re skeptical of Trudeau for saying that we don’t have an identity, or mainstream progressive intellectuals like to say that kind of thing, well then, do people on the centre-right have a good answer to what that identity is?

What I definitely disagree with, and this is actually even something that you saw at the partisan convention, is this idea that the Canadian identity is solely defined by Vimy Ridge and John A. Macdonald, and the Famous Five, and Terry Fox, and these like high-minded political, or not political, historical figurehead moments. That stuff’s important, but I definitely think that when we’re talking about the Canadian identity, we have to think of it in terms of well, what defines the rhythm of daily life for your average Canadian? In the videos that I make, I like to talk about the American cultural identity.

I include Canada in that because I think that Canada is part of a larger North American civilization, not even North American civilization, American civilization. A civilization that was largely built by the United States, which Canada is in many ways a regional extension of. The great innovations that have been made on this continent over the last 200 years or so have been primarily driven by innovations in science and food and technology and fashion and entertainment. These are things that have largely come out of the United States, but they define our life as Canadians as much as they define life in the U.S.

I think there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that that way of life as defined both by material things and some sort of more amorphous values when we talk about our particular conception of freedom and individual liberty and a right to live a life as you choose it and an embrace of an entrepreneurial culture and the valorization that Pierre mentioned at the end of his speech of the small businessman in the suburban home with the white picket fence and you have your drink in one hand and your paycheque in the other and the flag is flapping gently in the breeze and this kind of stuff.

It is a very I guess we could say small-a American conceptualization of life and the things that define it. One thing that in my YouTube videos as well that I’ve really leaned into is the idea that we don’t have to demonize or be ashamed of, I think, some of the more material or even commercial aspects of life too. For example, I make a lot of videos where I talk about food and food history and some of the distinctive foods that we eat on this continent. I just made a video the other day where I talked about the fact that we eat a lot of steak, for instance, or sandwiches. I’ve made videos where I talk about how we eat certain candies and snacks and treats and stuff like that.

Then like there’s other stuff too. It’s like the fact that we like watching certain kinds of movies, that we go to certain chain stores, you go to the supermarket and it’s an experience, you watch a certain type of movie or play a certain type of video game. That’s a certain experience. Just all of these little things to me add up to what it means to live in this country, to be a Canadian. It doesn’t always have to be so high-minded. It doesn’t always have to be grand. It doesn’t always have to be about prime ministers and world wars. Sometimes it can be just about living your life with a certain degree of gratitude and looking around and finding all of these things are our inheritance.

It’s a great and special inheritance of centuries of development and economic growth and innovation in the realms of entrepreneurship and technology, and that’s pretty good. Actually, if I may bring it now to the political angle, it’s like, I think that is actually something that the conservatives have been relatively, even though they don’t quite conceptualize it the way that I’m describing it, they’ve been savvy at tapping into a little bit. Because when you talk about things like homeownership and the unaffordability of groceries and that stuff, you’re basically saying that the lifestyle that we have become accustomed to is under attack.

It’s not just that like the economy is bad in some abstract way. It’s no, it’s like the economy is bad and then that trickles down to you being able to live this conventional Canadian life. I actually thought that was like my favourite line. Jamil said it as well. It’s like it’s not just that Trudeau broke a promise. It’s like he broke the promise. The idea that he is in some ways threatening the Canadian way of life and that that is the biggest political damage that he’s done.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great answer. Very insightful. Staying on the topic of small-a American culture and in particular, its middle-class culture, there’s a new academic study out that finds the Olive Garden and other chain restaurants are the most cross-class institutions in modern society. As one article reporting on the study put it, “If a zip code has an Olive Garden, it’s also more likely to be a place where people in suits and people in landscaping uniforms know one another.”

J.J., talk about the importance of North American egalitarianism in your own worldview and why you think it’s underrated when we have these debates about Canadian identity and a common sense of citizenship.

J.J. McCULLOUGH: I saw that study as well. I thought that was fascinating because it’s true. There is an egalitarian nature to our civilization and it often does manifest at a commercial level. I talked the other day in this video where I mentioned how I made this video where I talked about steak, for instance. To eat beef at one time was this very elite sort of thing. In the old world, most peasants just ate bread. They would very rarely get to eat beef. Beef was something that was in the purview of the wealthy.

Then when we settled this continent, the Europeans brought over cattle and then the cattle thrived in the great open spaces of the American Midwest and the Canadian prairies. Thus we developed this huge, robust cattle industry. Then everybody can have steak. The biggest seller of steak to cite another great chain restaurant in America is Waffle House. It’s the idea that you can go to Waffle House, that ordinary run-of-the-mill, middle-class chain restaurant and eat this food that was once reserved for the nobility in England, that’s a remarkable accomplishment.

There are just so many examples of that kind of thing where it’s like your average person—there are not these strong barriers between the material experiences that the wealthy can enjoy and the average people can enjoy. That’s something that can be lost when we live in this world of populism, where we’re very fixated, particular left-wing populism, that is very fixated on the wealthy and how much wealth is being accumulated and hoarded by the 1 percent and all of that. Because in many ways, that is true, but we are not living in a world where that seems visibly true and certainly not as visibly true as it has ever been.

To the extent of your average person and your super, super, super elite 1 percent type of person, the kind of foods that they eat, the kind of fashion that they wear, the places that they have to go to shop to buy things and fill up their shopping carts, by and large, it’s all very similar. There has been a evening of the playing field in terms of that stuff, in terms of just the rhythm of daily life.

Now, obviously, the hyper elite can go on safari to Kenya or whatever, but it’s worth noting that a lot of the ways that wealth now manifests is either in the form of ostentatious, conspicuous consumption that serves very little practical purpose, such as buying a yacht or living in like some super, super, super elite mansion in the middle of the hills or something, or in the sense of buying experiences, such as going on travel and having perhaps more servants or something like that. These kinds of experiences that to a lot of normal people, they don’t aspire to it. It doesn’t interest them.

What they aspire to is a stable, middle-class lifestyle that has never been in many ways more satisfying. You’ve never had a greater abundance of luxuries that satisfy the needs to such an extent that the wealthy now basically have to invent new needs to signify their elevated status because their base ones have just been met and having your base needs met is no longer a meaningful distinction between the classes, if that makes sense.

SEAN SPEER: Let me just say that one of the reasons I think the “promise of Canada” narrative is so powerful and why it’s so resonant is precisely the point that you’re making. One of the reasons people are so offended about the current state of the housing market is a sense that those with means are able to help their children or other family members enter the market. That represents, in a way, an undoing of the leveling that you’re talking about and something that people have grown so accustomed to in our society and culture, which goes back to your point of the meta way in which
“the promise of Canada” narrative works both as a conceptual discussion about the state of our culture and society and then quite a practical, materialistic one.

J.J. McCULLOUGH: It’s interesting because when you hear say the speeches at the Conservative convention, a lot of it is based on the premise, probably sometimes overstated, that Canadians are struggling financially at an almost like Dickensian level. There are a number of speeches that call attention to very real and very heart-rending stories of people who can’t afford enough food, then they have to take a fifth job and they’re living in a tent and this kind of stuff. These are very lachrymose stories. Again, I don’t mean to understate them because there are people in this country that are suffering.

I think that the bigger problem when we talk about the financial struggles of Canadians is just the disconnect between certain experiences that were expected and what they’re able to afford in the year 2023. The idea that you’re able to afford all the steak you want, having steak dinner is perhaps not the big thing, but housing even as a reasonably high-earning person has become this preposterous expenditure. Then you get into the point where you get into these weird situations where it’s like, a 35-year-old is still living like a college kid in a studio apartment paying like $3,000 of rent a month or whatever, just to live in the city.

Then like his other circumstances around him, like how he eats, how he dresses, the entertainment that he consumes, and that kind of stuff, that all seems to be in a different class, if that makes sense. It’s like people can feel when their material circumstances seem disorganized or discombobulated or ununified. I think that is something that is weirdly destabilizing and is without precedent, because the idea has always been historically that we climb the ladder of social progress as we age. As we get older, we make more money, we opt into slightly more expensive day-to-day luxuries. The idea that you can opt into some but not others and have some of them seem so tantalizingly close, and then you’re also just very aware of what’s missing at any given time.

I feel, again, like that is something that seems to be unprecedented and is a unique source of self-consciousness I find particularly among young people.

SEAN SPEER: Final question: What’s the Olive Garden equivalent for Vancouver or Canada, or is it the Olive Garden?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: We’ve only got one Olive Garden in Vancouver actually, and it’s way out in Langley for some reason. I don’t know why it hasn’t infiltrated deeper. In Vancouver, the equivalent is my favorite restaurant, which is White Spot, which is the great middle-class restaurant in this city. I’ve been going there since I was a kid. I love to get burgers and shakes. I just went there last night, in fact, with a friend of mine that was visiting from Toronto. I had to show her White Spot. It’s remarkable. I go to these restaurants and sometimes I’m a little self-conscious. It’s remarkable just how often the other person is like, “Oh, I love White Spot, too.”

They almost say it like it’s a secret, like that it’s a great shame to admit that you just like basic burgers and fries at a chain restaurant. It’s like there’s no reason to be self-conscious about it because, in many ways, it represents the culmination of this great experiment that we’ve been conducting on this continent for centuries now. Being able to have a nice, comfortable dinner at a nice, comfortable middle-class restaurant ordering these foods that, through a long process of evolution, we’ve determined are some of the most popular foods, we’ve been able to devise recipes to make them as delicious as they’ve ever been, it’s a remarkable achievement, and it’s a great inheritance.

I have a personal conservatism that is all about appreciating those things and those accomplishments and what it means to live in a civilization that has allowed me to enjoy these small luxuries on such a consistent basis.

SEAN SPEER: Hear hear. Great insights in that answer, as there’s been throughout the conversation. J.J. McCullough, writer, political commentator, and highly famous YouTuber, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

J.J. McCULLOUGH: Thanks for having me.

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