Since losing the 2019 election to Trudeau’s liberals the conservative movement has been thrown into disarray. Media personalities and politicians alike have been trying to explain the loss, and trying to gain political benefit from the fallout. One very common argument in the past few months is that Scheer’s social conservatism was too far outside the current consensus to be palatable to voters. But it is unclear how Scheer could be described as a socially conservative candidate when he explicitly refused to talk about social issues whatsoever.
It seems that the CPC leadership has taken this criticism to heart. Richard Décarie and Jim Karahalios were both barred from running in the CPC leadership race for taking positions on social issues that were deemed too extreme. This is strange considering the actual positions of these two men are widely held by many average Christians and conservatives. What makes this situation absurd is that the CPC is now banning people for holding positions that were normative in the Conservative party just 10 years ago. How is the left so totally dominant that it has succeeded in making the Conservative party leadership enforce progressive ideology?
To understand modern politics, it is best to think of a ratchet. It can only move in one direction by design. The mechanism works something like this: the left will begin by taking a radical position on an issue. This is usually done in a liberal university by a liberal academic. At first, the right will reject the position because it is a radical break from social norms. But the left will continue to push it, the media will promote it, and left wing politicians will slowly begin arguing for it. Not all left-wing people will fall in line at first. For example, US President Obama opposed gay marriage during his 2008 presidential campaign. But gradually, the radical left-wing activists will prevail and unite the left behind their new position. Conservatives will laugh and scoff as the issue becomes a hot topic of debate. Conservative media figures and politicians will rack up views by calling out and debating the left for their extreme positions. Crucially, however, they provide no alternative worldview in which to ground their positions– the basis of their argumentation is an appeal to the status quo. The left and all their institutions will work in concert to continue ratcheting up the pressure. When Antifa riot in the streets, everyone sees the black-clad militants. What few people see is the National Lawyers Guild defending Antifa whenever they are taken to court.
And then something strange happens: the leading voices on the right begin to compromise with the left. They are only a few at first, but the trickle progressively becomes a flood. The structure and tone of the conservative arguments change. No longer do conservatives argue that the left-wing position is unthinkable, immoral or laughable. They begin to say things like “I personally disagree with it, but I don’t believe the state has a right to stop people from doing it”, or “I don’t have a problem with the thing as such, but only with the left’s attempts to force it on people”. The left keep up the pressure, and push to get laws changed to match their stance. If they can’t get the laws changed, then they will try to get the courts to re-interpret the law to fit the new leftist stance. Little by little, almost imperceptibly, the left have succeeded in making their issue the new consensus.
Take any two decades from the past, and you’ll find that the later one is more liberal than the earlier one.
There will still be some conservative holdouts believing in the old consensus. But by now the leadership of the conservative movement will avoid the issue altogether. Many of them now agree with the left, and many more are not concerned with social issues in any case. Eventually there will be calls for the right to officially accept the left-wing position on the issue. The rationale for this is that conservatives are being intransigent in their desire to remain behind the times. The right will be pressured to adopt the new social consensus in order to remain relevant. Eventually, the right-wing will adopt the left-wing position. Given enough time, the original social consensus which the conservatives were meant to uphold becomes unthinkable, immoral and laughable.
To see how the mechanism I described above functions in the real world we need only look to our own recent history. Take any two decades from the past, and you’ll find that the later one is more liberal than the earlier one. Many people in the conservative movement have caught on to this, which is why so many of them describe themselves as socially liberal and fiscally conservative.
Implicit in the modern conservative’s desire to become socially liberal and fiscally conservative is an admission of defeat. The conservatives have tacitly admitted that the left is destined to win on every social issue. Thus, they have pre-emptively tried to become the fiscally responsible wing of the ruling liberal mono-party. Consequently, all right-wing political discourse has been boxed into the discussion of fiscal issues. The modern conservative engagement with Canadian politics can effectively be described as “the narcissism of small differences.”
It is worth examining how this situation came about. A strong argument can be made pointing to Edmund Burke, an eighteenth-century Irish statesman. Burke is known as the intellectual forefather of modern conservatism for good reason. Burke’s intellectual contribution was to put forward a general political attitude that still shapes conservatism today. Burke’s conservatism was based on his belief that societies were the product of centuries of evolution. People always seek to make the best life for themselves possible, and over time the ways of living that are best become ingrained in the culture as traditions. Thus, Burke argued that a responsible political actor has to engage in politics with a certain degree of caution and respect for the wisdom passed down to us by previous generations. This does not mean that one must reject innovations or progress, but merely that if they are to be instituted, they must be instituted slowly. And if we are unsure of how to move forwards, it is best to err on the side of what has been the social norm until the present. This outlook is what has come to be known as a conservative attitude.
Before continuing, it is important to acknowledge that from a classically conservative perspective, Burke is much more principled on the issues than any modern Conservative. Burke, after all, opposed the French revolution because it led France into bloody anarchy. However, it is not Burke, the opponent of the French revolution, but Burke, the supporter of the American revolution, with whom we are today concerned. Unfortunately for us, Burke’s schema injects a poison pill into the core of conservative thought. Burke accepts the liberal narrative that human societies have been progressing throughout history towards more liberty. However, this narrative creates a dissonance: Burke’s schema is seemingly a defense of tradition, yet it also relativises tradition. The traditions of a society are not said to be directed at something true or intrinsically good; they are social constructs that exist in a historical state of flux.
The early conservatives like De Maistre were opposed to liberalism because it is not true: it tears asunder the bonds which keep societies together.
In Burke’s telling, it is not the traditions that are central, but rather the evolutionary process by which societies progress. While the traditions are relative, the process of change in Burke’s argument is universal and eternal. It applies to all human societies throughout history. All traditions are but transient and contingent elements within this broader process of change.
Burke has bequeathed to modern conservatives a flawed understanding of tradition. Conservatism emerged in Europe as a response to liberal revolution. The early conservatives like De Maistre were opposed to liberalism because it is not true: it tears asunder the bonds which keep societies together. The most successful conservatives of the era were men like Otto Von Bismarck and Sir John A. MacDonald– men who could by no means be compared to the passive and vacillating leaders of the contemporary conservative movement. These were men who succeeded by seizing the moment and actively shaping the future. They were nation-builders who used every means at their disposal to achieve victory.
Being on the right is fundamentally about recognizing that time exists within the realm of the eternal and that the transient is ultimately subordinated to the transcendent. Tradition, in this view, is the temporal manifestation of a people’s being. It is valuable insofar as it promotes the vitality of an organic community. A people’s music, art, history and habits all come together to shape their character. Tradition, as it manifests in a particular society, is a variation on universal themes. This is what grants local traditions a truth value.
Particular traditions must always be judged in light of that universal order which must decide the fates of men. Modern intellectuals will often mistakenly say of Jesus that because he attacked the established authority, he was a man of the left. But Christ came to fulfill the law and not to destroy it (Matthew 5:17). He gave the people the true interpretation of their tradition; in doing so He gave it, and them, new life. The Pharisees were not the upholders of tradition merely because their power had been long established. Over time they had warped and corrupted the interpretation of the tradition. Thus, Christ, in his radical attack on the dominant classes in society, was more traditionalist than any status-quo Conservative.
Burke was a man who wished to uphold the cultural standards of his time. But the question is precisely whether anyone can defend those cultural standards against any other cultural standards. If the burkean cannot answer this then we must conclude that burkean conservatism leads to cultural relativism. If we do not have the unchanging Truth, then our traditions are meaningless.
Indeed, in speaking to Burkean conservatives about the constant leftwards drift of our societies, one often hears them confidently assert that the current leftist position is absurd or extreme and society cannot last in this state for long. The implicit assumption here is that good sense will prevail, and presumably after being exposed to facts and logic, the left will meekly back down. Of course many conservatives do indeed believe this and will point to how radical the left is compared to the majority of people, hoping that eventually the silent majority will prevail.
Burke expressed a similar sentiment: “Because half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that of course they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour.”
Indeed Burke may have found it difficult to see how a country full of Anglo-Saxon Protestants could ever throw away its ancient culture to descend into radicalism. And indeed, maybe a country full of such people would not surrender so easily, but what about their children? Who writes the media they consume throughout their lives? Who educates them in school? Who runs their workplaces and government?
While the Conservative only exits his confident slumber to occasionally cast his vote, the radical left is organizing and taking over institutions to push forward their agenda. Moreover, in a prosperous society that accepts relativism, the social inertia is towards the infinite deconstruction of social norms.
In the conservative narrative of progress, liberals are the vanguard of inevitable historical change. In the liberal narrative, conservatives are speed bumps to be overcome.
There is also the question of who exactly creates the social consensus. Cultural creation is not a process in which everyone participates; for every musician or actor, there are thousands of people whose sole contributions are to be silent consumers. And when it comes to artistic creation, the radical idealism of the left is simply more inspiring than any appeal to social consensus can ever be. Of course, being artistically inspired by leftist ideals is much easier when the entire elite of your country has been given a highly liberal education throughout school and university.
This type of thinking had resulted in conservatism being a passive toothless movement. Conservatives, by following Burke, have painted themselves into a corner where their own ideology tells them their historical role is to lose. In the conservative narrative of progress, liberals are the vanguard of inevitable historical change. In the liberal narrative, conservatives are speed bumps to be overcome. This is why conservatives fixate so much on maintaining the process of politics while liberals care only about the results.
The conservative attitude towards politics best summed up by William F. Buckley Jr.: “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling 'Stop!'”. History in this description is a powerful force, like a train. But a man who stands in front of a train gets crushed. Perhaps this is why much of the conservative establishment prefers to passively watch the train from the sidelines.
A truly principled opposition to the decline of community and the family in this country is not that it's happening too fast, it is that it's happening at all. For those on the right who want to win, it is important to remember we don’t have to accept the conservative ideology of losing. If recent political developments in the United States and Europe prove anything, it's that history has not destined liberals to win. If we realize that the old consensus of politics is designed to make us lose, then we must fight against this consensus. Perhaps most importantly we must articulate a worldview that is purged of all liberal assumptions, one that is utterly coherent and grounded in the truth.