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Examining paleoconservatism and “modern social conservatism” in Canada

By Mark Wegierski
web posted August 22, 2022

There is now occurring a big debate in Canada, as to what “conservatism” means. The author believes it is important to reach back into history to consider this question thoroughly.

On October 15, 2003, the prospects of the broader right in Canada brightened somewhat for the first time in decades. Overcoming years of negativity, the Canadian Alliance (which had emerged out of the Reform Party of Canada in 1998-2000), and the federal Progressive Conservative party agreed to unite themselves (pending the approval of their memberships by December 12, 2003), as the Conservative Party of Canada (the former name of the Progressive Conservatives from several decades ago). The “progressive” adjective had been precipitously dropped. The merger was approved by over 90 percent of the respective memberships.

In today's Canada, there is, unfortunately, little attention paid to fine distinctions on the Right side of the political spectrum. It was therefore refreshing to see an attempt at distinguishing between such right-wing factions as paleoconservatives, neoconservatives, and “modern social conservatives”, in political commentator Michael Taube's very important article from twenty-two years ago (“There's more to a conservative than meets the eye”, Calgary Herald, 26 August 2000). The Calgary Herald is located in what is considered to be the capital of Canadian conservatism, and it is somewhat open to more nuanced approaches in describing the Right.

There are many different, broadly right-wing factions in Canada, however most of them have a comparatively minor influence on the public scene. The perennially ruling Liberal Party has a “right-wing” which has embraced a degree of fiscal sense, but remains thoroughly socially-liberal. The federal Progressive Conservative party, which had 15 MPs in 2003, has often had “ultra-moderates” or “centrists” or “Red Tories” exerting the most influence on it. The Progressive Conservative parties in the various provinces are of varying ideological complexions. Mike Harris, the former Premier of Ontario (elected in 1995 and 1999) was able to drag the provincial Progressive Conservative party in a right-wing direction, although his activism was mostly confined to economic and fiscal issues. Doug Ford was able to win a strengthened majority in Ontario in 2022 by appealing to lower-middle-class and working-class voters. The Canadian Alliance (which elected 66 MPs in the November 2000 federal election, all but 2 from Western Canada) (and which existed solely at the federal level) was probably the main home for so-called small-c conservatives at the time it existed. The term “small-c conservative” arose in Canada as a result of the fact that the Progressive Conservative party -- or “big-C” Conservatives -- had almost entirely abandoned conservatism, especially under the so-called “strong leadership” of Brian Mulroney. In the 1980s, more ideological conservatives were often derided as “cashew conservatives” – and Mulroney had snidely declared that all the ideological conservatives in Canada could fit into a telephone booth.

In the United States, there clearly had been much more of a sense of space and debate within the generalized right-wing, between such groupings as paleoconservatives, social conservatives, neoconservatives, libertarians, paleolibertarians, right-wing Greens, “social conservatives of the Left” (such as Christopher Lasch), classical liberals, religious conservatives (sometimes called “theocons”), and so forth.

To most people, paleoconservatism and social conservatism would appear to be almost coterminous. The central point of Taube's article, however, seemed to be to drive apart the positions of paleoconservatism and so-called modern social conservatism. Some would argue that the differences between the groupings are matters of emphasis, rather than of substance. A proposed definition embracing both paleoconservatism and “modern social conservatism” is those outlooks upholding and valuing traditional nation, family, and religion, as well as a real work-ethic, and strict law and order.

In his article, Taube finds the paleoconservatives' emphasis on nationhood too robust, yet it is really of the same type as the much milder “modern social conservative” criticism of the excesses of multiculturalism, excessive Aboriginal claims (a major issue in Canada), and uncontrolled immigration. The paleoconservatives are usually more willing to say and write openly what most modern social conservatives believe.

Taube also accuses the paleoconservatives of being tied to “a conspiracy-oriented theory such as a managerial class”. However, there is much accumulating evidence of a “managerial-therapeutic regime” in current-day Western societies. One could look to Paul Gottfried's After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (Princeton University Press, 1999), or any more recent issues of the eclectic scholarly New York-based journal Telos for analyses of the situation. There can be perceived a constant pre-empting of discourse against social conservatives, in the mass media and mass-education systems, the state bureaucracies and social services, and the courts. Modern social conservatives are quite aware of the various powerful structures arrayed against them.

Thirdly, although some paleoconservatives may tend to define themselves in terms of culture and politics, rather than religion, this does not mean that they are hostile to religion. And many are in fact very strictly religious. One can also uphold religion very strongly for cultural and political reasons. The notion that “most Canadian social conservatives” would somehow be placed far outside paleoconservatism because of their religious faith, is ridiculous.

As for the opposition to capitalism and globalization, there indeed paleoconservatives differ from most modern-day conservatives. However, it could be argued that the exaltation of globalization, internationalism, and capitalism, has grown increasingly prominent among the more generalized right-wing as a result of the ascendancy of the neoconservatives. Surely, modern social conservatives are also aware of many negative aspects of capitalism. Most of the mass-media cultural industries often criticized by social conservatives (for example, Hollywood, television, advertising, rock and rap music, pornography) usually operate on a strictly free-market, for-profit basis. And the huge, bureaucratic, transnational corporations can simply be seen as part of the "managerial-therapeutic regime," which are also at war with what social conservatives esteem. There is today the unfortunate tendency to label the most carefully-voiced criticisms of out-of-control technology, capitalism, and globalization as Marxist, fascist or neo-Luddite.

Taube, while by contemporary standards a highly respectful critic of paleoconservatism, finds that outlook rather unsatisfactory.

The sharp political point of his article comes at the end: "Modern social conservatives are not, have never been, will never be, and should not aspire to be like paleoconservatives. And in truth, why would they ever want to join them?" It could be argued that paleoconservatives and modern social conservatives, united by the principles of upholding traditional nation, family, and religion, as well as a real work-ethic and strict law and order, do indeed have much in common. These two similar outlooks are clearly comparatively weak in Canada.

Regardless of their comparative weakness in Canada today, the outlooks of paleoconservatives and modern social conservatives are clearly not coterminous with those of neoconservatives, libertarians, or “Red Tories”. To paleoconservatives, neoconservatives are gung-ho capitalists who disdain the true common good; libertarians are libertines; and “Red Tories” are seen as opportunists within the Progressive Conservative party who have largely adopted left-liberal outlooks. Admittedly, the term “Red Tory” can certainly have a more elevated meaning, as in the thought of Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant, where it becomes what could be called a “social conservatism of the Left” -- but on the other hand, it can also be used to describe some of the opportunist Progressive Conservative party activists, who had earlier inveighed against the supposed “bigotry” of the Reform Party.

It cannot be expected that the paleoconservatives' and social conservatives' distinct identity is to be entirely melded with and into neoconservatism, libertarianism, or Red Toryism. For example, because of their appreciation for “the truly social”, paleoconservatives are unlikely to unqualifiedly embrace capitalism. The desire for upholding some kind of “true Tory” welfare-state in Canada would, in fact, also be more popular than the economically strident, but socially flaccid outlooks of many free-market boosters. Paleoconservatives should also be able to see much that is worthwhile in the passionate attachment of the Quebecois nationalists to Quebec, and in their visceral disdain for federal state centralism.

It could be argued that paleoconservative and social conservative philosophical outlooks, despite their reputation of obdurate reaction, contain within them various aspects that allow for some degree of coalition building with various other outlooks -- some of them perhaps unexpected, such as ecology, or trade-unionism.

It may be that trying to solidly define oneself, and to engage in reflective thought as to what one represents, is more conducive to true coalition-building, than the attempt to embrace everything. The sensitivity of paleoconservatism and social conservatism to “the truly social” mentioned above offers a certain nuance to their views that is lacking in the usual neoconservative boosterism of unrestricted capitalism and unlimited technology as panacea. There are many aspects of capitalism today that are harsh and ugly. And profound concern for the environment should not be written off as tree-hugging lunacy. At the same time, paleoconservatives resist the dogmas of political-correctness, and do not wish to be associated with those tendencies in “the official Right” (typified by Canadian “Red Tories”, many neoconservatives, and some libertarians) that heavily defer to these.

Paleoconservatives and social conservatives are very likely to remain in critical opposition towards late modern society. However, some of their critiques might begin to have an impact on the thoughts and actions of a significant number of persons. It could be argued that keeping one's outlook in coherent, uncompromised existence, makes it far more likely that at some point it will indeed influence people's hearts and minds, which might then lead to substantial shifts in public policy. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based, Canadian writer and historical researcher, published in Alberta Report, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen, and The Hill Times (Ottawa), among others. His article about Canada was reprinted in Annual Editions: World Politics, 1998-99 (Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1998).


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