THE CONSERVATIVE DILEMMA: Moral Victories or Political Victories?
This weekend is the annual Manning Networking Conference. Conservatives from across Canada gather in Ottawa to talk about the issues, opportunities, and challenges facing the conservative movement. One of the biggest questions is, what will it take for a conservative party to form the federal government once again?
As Preston Manning has noted for years, there is no one type of conservative. Among the many shades of blue are libertarians, social conservatives, law and order conservatives, green conservatives and fiscal conservatives. Party activists and movement activists do not share the same goals. Movement activists want moral victories. Politicians need political victories.
At INNOVATIVE, we decided to look at our ongoing research into Canadians’ values and ask a core question – when it comes to values, what does a winning coalition look like for conservatives?
CANADIANS ARE COMPLICATED.
There is no value consensus in this country.
The key values that organize our political beliefs are economic values. Conservatives can take comfort that a majority of Canadians embrace free enterprise values. They want the government to give priority to creating opportunities over redistribution and they believe you can be anything you want to be if you work hard enough. However, only a minority believe government spending should be based on ability to pay and most Canadians prefer the government actively intervene in the economy.
In some ways, Canadians believe in the values underpinning the “Canada is back” meme. Most Canadians share a free-thinking, pro-globalization, feminist mindset.
On the other hand, Canadians share a populist point of view, concerned that government is wasting money following the views of experts and special interests.
Populism often gets a bad name because it is associated with other values that can have darker meanings. However, we find populism is distinct from some of these other attitudes.
Nativism, the view of “our country first” that sees immigrants and trade as economic and cultural threats, is one of those distinct dimensions. Canadians are divided on nativist attitudes. It is not a minority perspective.
Three other sets of values are linked together in an alienated or angry dimension.
Political alienation. The attitudes in this dimension relate to a sense of powerlessness. Most Canadians score low on this index.
Economic alienation. Canadians are divided on how hard it is to get ahead and whether things will be better or worse in the future.
If you feel hopeless and powerless, you want a strong leader to save the day. Over 4 in 10 Canadians score on the high side of this index.
The environment polarises Canadians. Canadians are worried about the environment, but they don’t want to rush into policies that might cause more harm than good.
Canadians are moderates when it comes to law and order. Only 29% prefer to treat illegal drug use as a crime rather than an illness. Only 33% want to get tougher on crime rather than focus on the causes of crime.
Canadians are strong social liberals. Only 19% of Canadians scored on the high side of our social conservatism index.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR CONSERVATIVE POLITICIANS?
Conservative politicians face three tough challenges ahead:
1) How do they manage their relationships with minority conservative groups?
Take Social Conservatives. Only one in five Canadians gave social conservative answers in this survey. Taking strong social conservative stands would alienate many of the voters that Conservative politicians need to win. Yet Social Conservatives can’t be taken for granted. They are disproportionately swing voters. The challenge is to find policies that will inspire the minority without alienating the majority.
2) How should they deal with polarizing values?
Populism and the environment are good examples. The focus on populism and the national question in the early 90s broke apart the previous PC coalition. More conservatives give priority to the economy over the environment, but a large minority do not. Emphasising pocketbook over environmental concerns aims at pulling over materialists from economic liberal value groups but risks losing green conservatives. Emphasising populist issues aims at pulling over populist moderates at the risk of losing deferential conservatives. Those are high political stakes.
3) Is there a less risky road?
The answer may lie in the 2011 election. This was Stephen Harper’s only majority. One key element of success was outside the control of Conservatives – the split on the centre-left. Jack Layton’s Orange Wave gave non-Conservatives a viable alternative to the Liberals. But another key element of the Conservative success was their decision to go after economic liberals. As noted above, there is a free enterprise majority in Canada. However, that free enterprise majority is divided over economic activism. Enter the Canada Jobs Plan.
When we look at Canadians’ values, we see many traps and pitfalls for Conservative politicians. However, if Conservatives can find a set of policies that will bridge the gap between small government free enterprisers and interventionist free enterprisers, they can become a real alternative for a majority of Canadians.
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