On Monday, the Conservative Party of Canada took its first majority in its history. This was a victory on several levels. First, after a disastrous 1993 election in which the Progressive Conservative party was reduced to two seats after its base split off in the west into the Reform Party and rise of the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec. Now a reconstituted Conservative Party (note the absence of the word “progressive”) with a different geographic base and electoral logic is dominant. Second, the regionalism that marked that 1993, has been replaced by what could come to be a two party system. The “natural governing”, center-left Liberal Party has been reduced to little more than 10% of Parliament. The Bloc Quebecois Quebec nationalist party has been reduced to 4 seats, the minimum necessary to be recognized as a party. And now, for the first time in Canadian history, the New Democratic Party, a leftist social democratic party will be the Opposition party.
There are several lessons for American conservatives.
The first is something that I have been banging away at for a while. The left has lost the political debate throughout the industrial world. Austerity has won in Europe. Economic stability has won in Canada. In this election, the NDP called for raising the corporate tax rate to 19% from 15%, while the “centrist” Liberals only wanted to raise it to 18%. (recall that it is 35% in the US) The gains on the left in this election were about consolidating the vote of the left into more radical positions. The gains on the right were about winning an ideological and polarizing argument in the eyes of mainstream voters. Once again, in another industrial country, in a political battle of ideas, the right won decisively.
Second, polarization and ideological clarity can be a good thing, and we should welcome it. As it became clear that the NDP was going to be the Opposition party in Canada, things became simpler for the Conservatives, and their numbers started to grow. Prime Minister Stephen Harper could argue that there was a clear ideological choice. The NDP wanted to raise taxes and increase spending. And the Conservatives wanted smaller government and restraint. The voters of Canada went with smaller government and restraint. People on the right of the Liberal party fled to Conservatives fled to stop the possibility of a left-wing government.
Third, and this will be harder for many American conservatives: immigrants. The conservatives made an unprecedented effort to reach out to “ethnic” voters. Go watch the ads. Each one ends with “finally vote your values.” And they worked. The Conservatives won 60% of the Chinese vote. They won 7 of the 10 targeted “ethnic” ridings. This message of “finally vote your values” was a critical message in getting Indo-Canadian voters, Chinese voters, Italian voters, etc. It was also an important message for driving turnout among more religious voters in places like rural Ontario, where my family is from. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is getting a tremendous amount of credit for this success as a critical component to the overall victory.
At this point, the key question will be how and when the Bloc and the Liberals disappear and how the Conservatives will benefit from that. One of the things that Harper campaigned on was ending public funding for elections. It is likely that both the Liberal Party and the Bloc disappear into bankruptcy: political, ideological, and, indeed, financial. In this election, the Conservatives got approximately 40% of the vote, the NDP got approximately 30%, the Liberals 20%, with minor parties getting the rest. Strategically, Conservatives have four years to turn that 40% to 50% by a variety of mechanisms.
Harper himself is acutely aware of that. Among his election night statements, was one that jumped out at me, “”And we accept that we have a lot more work to do to gain the true confidence of Quebecers. And we’re dedicated to doing that.” This is a plodding but ultimately effective strategy to building a national coalition on ideological terms.
Here, Canadians may be learning a lesson from the United States. On April 18th, the Sun News Network launched. Sun News Network claims to be a populist, small-c conservative media outlet, owned by the Quebec-based media company Quebecor which has a populist separatist/nationalist stance in Quebec. It has been compared to Fox, the New York Post, etc. Sun News can give some cultural coherence to Canadian little-c conservatism, helping to overcome significant regional and ethnic differences. This can help bring Conservatives, so-called Blue Liberals (Liberals on the right end of their party), and Quebec nationalists into a more coherent cultural and narrative alignment. We should never forget that culture, narratives, and ideology are strongly related.
I urge American conservatives to watch Canada over the next four years. Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada have much to teach us about building conservative majorities and consensus in a country that seems and sees itself as much more progressive than it really is.