Ezra Levant, Ron Paul, Jason Kenney and the eternal conflict of the ideological mind - Macleans.ca

Ezra Levant, Ron Paul, Jason Kenney and the eternal conflict of the ideological mind

Sights and sounds from a weekend at the Manning conference

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Ezra Levant, the carnival barker of the conservative movement in Canada and the foremost heel to Canadian progressives, was trying to explain the problem with environmentalism.

“I have no problem with treating the environment on an issue by issue basis: we’ve got to fix this or solve that,” he said. “But environmentalism is a philosophy, like most words ending with ism. Socialism, communism… hinduism, it’s a faith. And so the question is if your true ideology is conservatism or libertarianism, and you also think you can be an environmentalism person, you may have a conflict there.”

***

Mr. Levant and Mr. Solberg were one of three short debates that preceded the arrival of the star attraction of this weekend’s Manning Networking Conference. After a short introduction from Preston Manning, the would-be grandfather of Canadian conservatism, Ron Paul arrived on stage to warm applause and what sounded like the theme from Star Wars.

The American libertarian, a whimsical little old man, is an icon of ideological purity. His answer to most any issue of social order and well-being is “liberty.” In a world of compromise and contradiction, he is a model of consistency. And consistency of thought has its appeal. Up and until the point you realize it means opposing the Civil Rights Act.

“The spirit of liberty seems like it’s alive and well in Canada,” he ventured upon taking the lectern, winning whoops from the crowd.

After explaining that he thought the world was undergoing profound change in the direction of liberty, Mr. Paul took a moment to discuss labels.

“This is a conservative group and I’m seen as a conservative, but even the term conservative has relative terms. You know, if you were in the Soviet Union, when it was starting to come apart, the conservatives were the ones who wanted to conserve Marxism and the Liberals were the ones who wanted to believe in liberty,” he explained. “The founders of the United States called themselves liberals and that term was in many ways destroyed and undermined. Today, you know, one of the terms that I used to always have sympathy for because it sounds good—shouldn’t we all be progressives, shouldn’t we want to look in the future and see new things. But progressives, I don’t know how the word is used up here, but in the States it’s a bad term, if you’re a conservative. But maybe that’s true here too. But then the term libertarian comes up and that has a controversial connotation. So you have moderates and libertarians and conservatives and liberals and progressives and socialists. And terminology is very tricky. So I’ve simplified my terminology for what I believe in to a simple term and that is interventionism. If you believe in interventionism across the board, that means you want the government to tell us what to do with our personal lives, you want the government to tell us what to do with our economic activity and you allow the government to tell other people around the world what to do. So guess what? I’ve come down on the side of saying, I am a non-interventionist.”

This pronouncement won more applause and more whoops.

By Mr. Paul’s definition, the government that is presumably supported by the vast majority of people at this weekend’s conference qualifies as interventionist. Indeed, were Ron Paul and Stephen Harper locked in a room together they would find many things to disagree about: drug laws, the value of central banking, the war in Afghanistan, government funding for snow-grooming machines and so on. By comparison to Ron Paul, Stephen Harper is a liberal. Maybe even a socialist.

But then libertarianism is most easily appreciated as an imaginary world. North American libertarians are generally free to argue for their ideology without any reasonable expectation that it will ever be wholly and fully embraced (except maybe on an oil rig off the coast of San Francisco). It is less a reasonable plan for the future of humanity than it is a useful counterpoint by which we might test our current practices. Indeed, Mr. Paul might’ve given the game away in this regard when he observed that his views have proven popular with 15-year-olds.

Of course, conservatism, even in less pure forms, is still itself a problematic governing philosophy. Mr. Paul prides himself on being a truth-teller. What this means is that he says things other politicians don’t say. And, in doing so, he can help to demonstrate the contradictions of others. On Friday morning, for instance, he advocated for the elimination of income taxes and was applauded for doing so. It seems to be a general principle of conservatism that taxes are bad. “I don’t believe,” Stephen Harper himself once said, “that any taxes are good taxes.” Except that he hasn’t gotten around to eliminating all taxes just yet. Conservatives, somewhat relatedly, don’t believe the government is a particularly efficient or trustworthy manager. But then some of their most recent leaders have been among the most eager to use military force. The government apparently can’t be trusted to manage anything except war—the most fraught and consequential endeavour any nation can undertake. In that regard, there’s something to be said for Mr. Paul’s laments for the military industrial complex.

At some point, thinking about such things, Mr. Paul starts to make sense. At least so long as you don’t then start thinking too hard about how he would order the world.

***

A few hours later it was Jason Kenney at the lectern. The theme of this session was “Advancing Conservatives Politically.” After a few pleasantries, Mr. Kenney proceeded with 80 seconds of attacks on Justin Trudeau.

Over the course of the ensuing speech, Mr. Kenney would variously scorn and lament all of the following: “the political elite,” “the nattering nabobs of negativism,” “the talking heads,” “the doubters among the self-appointed cognoscenti,” “the media,” “the critics,” “the clutter,” “the media coverage and commentary in newspapers and on TV,” “the self-styled experts,” “a coterie of left-wing activists and lawyers,” “our critics,” “the special interests,” “political correctness,” the “fashionable and politically correct views of a narrow class of lawyers, academics and journalists from the Plateau-Annex-Glebe axis,” “the soft on crime, hard on the wallet NDP” and “the arrogant and entitled Liberals.”

Every philosophy, of course, must be an answer to something and every hero needs a villain. Environmentalism has climate change. Capitalism has socialism. Catholicism has Satan. And the Harper government has the liberal elite. Seven years after forming government, it is still an underestimated underdog beset on all sides. Even if it also apparently speaks for the majority.

On that count, Mr. Kenney was here to say that 39.9%—the Conservative share of the popular vote in 2011—was not the best the Conservative party could hope to attract.

“Why do I believe we can not only hold 40% of the electorate, but actually win new voters in the next election?” he asked himself. “I’m confident that we can do it because I believe that our party’s priorities are closer to those of Canadians. Our values are closer to those of Canadians than any other party. That the values of Conservatives are mainstream Canadian values.”

And what are Conservative values? Mr. Kenney identified all of the following: “hard work and personal responsibility, a respect for tradition, a belief in family as the most important social institution, a respect for religious faith, a respect for law and order that ensures safe streets and values victims’ rights over those of criminals, a belief in entrepreneurship and initiative and risk-taking, the freedom to take chances and reap the rewards of initiative free of crippling taxes and red tape, a belief in an opportinity to succeed by playing by the rules without the over-developed liberal sympathy for those who refuse to do so, belief in a principled, democratic foreign policy that stands up for freedom and fundamental values and a pride in our Canadian armed forces and our history of military sacrifice and glory.”

For sure, a liberal might object here that these are not necessarily conservative (or Conservative) values, or that this is grossly over-simplified, or at least that there should be no inference that liberals necessarily take the opposite of these positions. Others in the self-appointed cognoscenti might compare and contrast these values with the Harper government’s record in office.

(“How conservative is the Conservative government?” is a fun game, likely played not only in the parlours of the Glebe, but also Red Deer. For all those who wish Mr. Harper’s government had more in common with Ron Paul, it is important to note that conservative governments get to do conservative things that wouldn’t be done by liberal governments. And on that count, Mr. Harper will have left his mark with any number of conservative victories. But then take this government’s approach to greenhouse gas emissions. Not just that its current position entirely contradicts its previous position, but that its current position advocates government regulation over a market-based approach. Never mind whether the Conservatives can reconcile their general ideology with environmental concerns, in this case they’ve chosen to reject a policy that fits with their political ideology in favour of responding to environmental concerns with a policy that contradicts their conservatism. Why? Because it allows them to malign Thomas Mulcair.)

Mr. Kenney surely has some grounds to assert that these conservative (or Conservative) values are in line with Canadian values. As noted, the party received 39.9% of the popular vote when ballots were last cast. It won at least a plurality in a majority of the country’s 308 ridings. A poll last month found that 37% of Canadians believed the country was moving to the right.

But then a poll in November found that 48% of Canadians self-identified as liberals, compared to 25% who identified as conservatives. According to Ekos’ research, that represents liberalism’s largest share of the Canadian population in 16 years.

Is it possible that Canadians misunderstand the finer points of these ideologies? Do many self-identified liberals not realize that, in terms of specific issues and values, they’re secretly conservative? Perhaps. But then when the Manning Centre asked Canadians to identify their partisan identification, 26% chose the Liberals, compared to 25% for the Conservatives (another 17% identified with the NDP). Meanwhile, when the Manning Centre asked Canadians to plot their ideology on a scale from one (“extreme left”) to seven (“extreme right”). The results were almost perfectly symmetrical, with 47% choosing 4 and 12% each choosing 3 and 5.

Add those numbers up and it seems like Canadians are mostly liberal centrists—perhaps fitting the classic “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” description.

None of which is to say that Jason Kenney can necessarily be said to be wrong when he says the Conservative party has found common cause with the common man. Quite the contrary.

In explaining how the party has succeeded and how the party can further succeed—and in between complaining about doubters and enthusing about values—Mr. Kenney humble bragged about how Conservatives have drawn the support of new Canadians.

“That project succeeded not by pandering like the Liberals used to do, not by running some kind of cynical Tammany Hall operation that was unfortunately the hallmark of other parties in the past,” he said. “We didn’t simply look for token issues. We took the time, first of all, to listen. To listen with respect to new Canadians and members of our cultural communities. And then patiently to explain where our values aligned with theirs. Fundamentally, we showed new Canadians that their values are our values, Conservative values.”

This apparently took “time, patience and a lot of hard work.” Which, coincidentally, Mr. Kenney also probably considers conservative (or Conservative) values.

“It took sitting down every day, weekend after weekend, with community groups, with small market ethnic media organizations, at gurdwaras and temples and churches and synagoes and at cultural festivals and holiday celebrations,” Mr. Kenney explained. “Not simply talking to new Canadians, but, most importantly, listening to them. Learning about their concerns and priorties and translating those into practical policies that reflect our shared values. And then going back to those same people and same groups and explaining our policies and earning their trust and good faith. The simple truth in politics is that you don’t win lasting support and you certainly don’t grow your support amongst people with just one meeting or with some kind of tokenism. It takes meeting the same people over and over and over again to demonstrate good faith to win that vote share.”

And not only were these new Canadians asked to vote for the Conservative party, but they were recruited as volunteers, campaign workers and candidates.

This much had less to do with ideology then with the practical work of politics. Indeed, it turns out that the key to winning elections is doing politics better than your opponents. And also possibly timing. (Can any discussion of the Conservative party’s success not include some discussion of the Liberal party’s miserable failures?)

(Later in the day, there would be a session on the state of conservatism in the United States. Despite some whining about Benghazi, the explanation for the Republican party’s defeat in the recent presidential election seemed to be this: the Democrats had a more popular leader, more popular policies and a more effective campaign.)

Mr. Kenney closed with a quote from John Diefenbaker about freedom and the role of government. And he held up the result for Mr. Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives in 1958—53.7% of the popular vote—as a goal to aspire to. Of course, four years later, the PCs were reduced to 37.2% of the vote and a year after that they were out of office. Between 1963 and 1980, the Liberals would win six of seven elections. Then the PCs would return to office with two sizeable majorities. And then the Liberals would win four consecutive elections. And now the Conservatives have won three straight.

All of which suggests that either Canada has undergone a series of profound and dramatic shifts back and forth in ideology over the last 60 years or that it is never quite as simple as ideologues might wish it to be.