Finding Your Inner Conservative

April 13th, 2004
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The looming federal election should raise the question – where do Canadians stand politically? It’s received wisdom among the punditry, the chattering classes and many political leaders that the broad mass of Canadians is centrist to slightly liberal. This view goes unquestioned even among some senior figures in the new Conservative party.

We Canadians tell pollsters as much. In a January 2001 poll only 22% of those surveyed said they considered themselves conservative, versus 32% liberal and 43% “neither.” In another poll, 31.4% placed themselves “on the right” – but 71% chose “the centre.” Big centre.

But are we really that mushy? Or is there something about labels like “conservative” and “right wing” that makes us uncomfortable? Answers to polling questions on specific issues suggest there’s a disconnect between where we place ourselves on the political spectrum and what we actually believe.

In 2002, back when the federal gun registry’s estimated cost was a mere $1 billion, 53% of respondents said the registry should be scrapped. Eighty-three percent told Ipsos Reid that spanking should not be a criminal offence. In a 2002 poll 82% said tax policies should be more family-friendly and 60% felt divorce should be harder to obtain. In a 2001 Leger poll, 53% favoured the death penalty. And in mid-2003, 55% still wanted marijuana use to remain criminal.

Several things stand out about these results. One is that Canadians appear far more conservative than they like to admit. And it’s not merely the trendy “metrosexual” variety – fiscally conservative, socially liberal. There appears to be a strong strain of social conservatism mixed right into the Canadian mainstream.

Nowhere is the disconnect starker than on abortion. In a November 2003 poll 52% said the law should protect life either from the moment of conception or after three months of pregnancy. Nearly two-and-a-half times as many Canadians hold a markedly to deeply conservative position on abortion as will even call themselves conservative.

The reasons for the disconnect probably include Canadians’ well-known self-image as nice, sensible and moderate coupled with our penchant for avoiding anything “extreme” or high-risk. Nor should we discount 40 years of Trudeaupian propaganda. Just as in the U.S. being called a “liberal” can be a slur, in Canada being “right wing” is not quite respectable. Meanwhile, agencies like the CBC have sought to re-define the political “mainstream” in their own terms, while many on the political left claim to be moderate and non-ideological.

For example, a significant majority – 60% – told pollsters that stopping illegal immigrants should be the top priority of immigration policy, while 53% consider Canada’s refugee policy lax. Ask yourself when was the last time any political leader even dared to say that in public.
If we’re right about this disconnect between self-identification and beliefs, it could mean big things for the new Conservative party. Large numbers of Canadians appear to hold certain views to the right of any federal party – including the Conservatives.

The right-leaning position is not always the majority’s view, of course. For example, 45% of respondents told pollsters that judges wield too much power, and 48% recently opposed amending marriage laws to permit same-sex marriage. But since only one party has spoken out against judicial activism and gay marriage, the bare majority holding the opposite views stands to split among the three other major contenders, plus fringe parties like the Greens.

So a conservative stance supported by even 35-45% of the public could represent a winning proposition – or at least a growth prospect for a party currently at 27% in the polls.

Foreign policy is another good example. A recent Maclean’s poll and cover story sought to convince readers how much Canadians dislike George Bush – it opened with a reference to the U.S. president’s “smug little smile”. But if you did the math on your own, you found out that 43% of respondents said they would at least consider voting for Bush. In Canada, 43% gets you a majority in the House of Commons.

An essential question is to what extent these various results form what sociologists call a “schema.” This is a coherent set of views that a person could logically hold at once. If shared widely enough, it could accumulate into a voting bloc attracted to the party adopting these positions. While we’re no sociologists, opposing the gun registry, gay marriage and illegal immigration while supporting George Bush’s decision to liberate Iraq sounds like a schema in the making.

Prominent commentators and party activists have wasted no time in warning Stephen Harper that he must move to the political centre and “reach out” to non-conservatives or face electoral oblivion.

The results above suggest something else – that Canadians could support a party proposing distinctly conservative policies, if the party and its leader came across as non-ideological and occupied the political mainstream.

That’s a decidedly different electoral strategy than dumping conservative policies and merely becoming a less dishonest version of the Liberals. This is the opportunity for the new party to frame the debate in its own terms, and to awaken our Inner Conservative.

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