What is Conservatism?

Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper wearing a turban at the Golden Temple in India. Imagine domestic reaction to a U.S. politician doing this.

Taken purely from the definition of the word, the idea of being “conservative” is one which should technically appeal to most people around the world. Conserving resources, not taking massive unjustified risks, using reason and forethought; these are the ideas which in an ideal world one should be able to associate with “being conservative”, and ideally, subscribing to conservative politics. There is nothing in the definition of conservatism that promotes racism, ignores and demeans science, or advocates hatred and denigration of the working class. It seems like a logical and potentially meritorious alternative to liberalism, and a healthy choice in a functioning democracy.

HOWEVER  instead what you often find in the real world is that “conservative” politics are those which are most associated with reactionary, outlandish, fundamentally risky policies and ideas, and are also associated with a bevy of other negative attributes such as racism, warmongering and anti-intellectualism which should rightly have nothing to do with the concept of being conservative. GOP presidential nominee and former U.S. Ambassador to China John Huntsman recently made public his belief in man-made climate change and the theory of evolution, something which was somehow shocking to many people who should technically constitute his base of support as a Republican. Despite prefacing his comment by saying “call me crazy…” he has been roundly denounced as being an elitist for electing to believe in science and not in the superstition and bigotry which makes up the populist appeal of other “conservative” candidates. Besides his belief in science, charges of elitism have been levelled against him for his worldliness (he speaks Chinese) and his aversion to indulging in the type of lowest common denominator politics which are the bread and butter of his contemporaries. For these reasons he is not considered a viable conservative candidate, a sign that the right wing of U.S. politics is increasingly becoming the sole domain of individuals who appear alternatively radical and incompetent.

I typically do not subscribe to right-wing politics, but for a healthy, functioning democracy there needs to be a legitimate choice beyond one party whose sole qualification is “not being crazy”. In Canada there is a legitimately conservative party, and despite its many odious and regressive policies, it cannot today reasonably be characterized a crazy or dangerously radical party. In addition, it is generally a multi-ethnic party, far more so than its conservative counterpart south of the border. Imagine the reaction if the GOP candidate for president, or any major U.S. politician, was today pictured as current Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in the picture above? Canadian conservatives are not “small-c” by any standard, and Stephen Harper subscribes to many of the discredited, far-right ideas which motivated George W. Bush; but whatever you want to say about him he is at least an overty sane politician who one does not openly hint at wanting to turn Canada into a theocracy, dismantle the social welfare state for ideological reasons, or make intellectualism itself a crime against the state. There is a legitimate democratic choice in Canada, and in addition to being a viable right-wing party there are also an array of legitimately left-wing parties (whom the majority of Canadians support) which actually practice progressive politics in a way that is honest and open. To a far greater degree than in the United States, there is legitimate democratic choice in Canada and there are political parties which actually represent the positions one would expect them to represent. None of this is an apologia for the current Canadian PM, he does  (to a much lesser degree) engage in some of the destructive behaviours right-wing U.S. politicians engage in, but one cannot honestly say that he is an observable lunatic; something which amounts to a huge novelty among right-wing politicians these days.

No one in the world can shrug off U.S. politics. What happens there can cause earthquakes elsewhere, and as the sole superpower in the world it is in the global-interest that the political environment there stays, at minimum, sane. An ideologically driven, fanatic U.S. leader would have devastating consequences for many people around the world and the more that scenario seems to become a possibility the more people should take note.  It is easy to throw stones and more difficult to offer solutions. Right-wing U.S. politics will in time simply defeat itself as long as it continues to embrace bigoted, nativist, frankly crazy policies which will appeal only to an aging, uneducated fringe of society. A society where there is only one viable party, the party which is sane, is not really a democracy but an autocracy by default. It would not be such a great thing to see the Republican party fall apart, it would be bad for democracy and regardless of your politics you should want to see a viable alternative to the one-party system. The example of Canada is one that Americans who are serious about conservatism should at least look at as an alternative. Canadian conservatism is multi-ethnic, does not engage in overt bigotry, and is not so radical that it is a non-option to youth and minorities.  It would be in the interests of the world that a future U.S. president, if Americans are going to continue to vote right-wing, be less Michelle Bachman and more John Huntsman. The idea that so many people in the largest democracy in the world consider intellectualism to be somehow antithetical to how politics should be done is disturbing. If the U.S. sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold, so let us hope that individuals on the U.S. right who are at least sane will make up the future of the Republican Party. The prospect of a President Bachmann or Cain is far too terrifying for America or the rest of the world, and while still remote, it is looking like it is increasingly possible one day in the future. Conscientious Americans, regardless of their political leanings should try and change the rapidly deteriorating political climate in their country and turn their political parties back to sanity, at the very least. Look to the Canadian system, and speak out for the right of people like John Huntsman to at least have a voice in a healthy democracy.

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5 Responses to What is Conservatism?

  1. TJM says:

    The people who reacted at all, let alone negatively, to Huntsman’s statements represent about 5% of the voting electorate, if that. They just happen to be the loudest, most talkative bunch. They are the people in your twitter feed, on the political blogs, watching cable news, and commenting on the newspaper websites. The vast majority of Americans don’t know – and probably will never know – who Huntsman is (hell, most Americans probably can’t even locate the state that he governed if they were given a color-coded US map).

    The perception of a significant portion of people believing fringe things is due to 1) their aforementioned noise level and persistence, and 2) their opponents. Who benefits most from the nutjob reactions on the right? Why, the left benefits. It stirs up their base. It gives the left’s base something to fear and be angry about. Both sides do this to each other. Nothing gets out the vote like an energized base. And nothing energizes the base like highlighting most fringe elements of the opposition and characterizing them as broadly representative of anyone who leans even slightly to the other side of the center.

  2. mazmhussain says:

    You’re right, it does galvanize the other side when they see the other party as being caricatured in a certain way, and the fringe on that other side assists in that to a large degree. I highly doubt that Bachmann or anyone resembling her will be the nominee, but it would be nice to see a legitimately conservative candidate be the Republican nominee, someone like (not necessarily endorsing him just saying) John Huntsman whom a lot of people could identify with and who likely has ideas which would be a valuable contribution to the political discourse. Political conservatism would appeal to a lot more appeal that way, outside of its traditional base.

  3. Debbie(aussie) says:

    Does Canada really have mainstream left alternatives party/ies. In Aus our two sides just keep moving further and further to the right. Our Labor govt is what the liberals/nationals used to be. The alternative now is the greens. Bur they are far from mainstream, and are vilified by both ‘sides’ of govt. The western world( at least those with power and a voice) seems to be moving to the right, even though most of people really don’t think that way. Money and fear seem to be the motivating factors.

  4. mazmhussain says:

    I think you nailed it in the shift rightward and what the motivators are. Canada does have a legitimate left-wing party, we HAD the Liberal party which was basically a soft conservative party and they were swept out of opposition by the NDP which is legitimate left

  5. whydoesitmatter says:

    American conservatism is like the elder grandparent who was just diagnosed with Alzheimers — the aggressive, delirious-type.

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