Debunking the postmodern musings of Professor Matthew McManus (Part 3): Can a grassroots populist movement save Canadian conservatism?
By J.R. Werbics
So, you might be asking, what could a Canadian conservative possibly learn from the fabricated ideas of a died-in-the-wool progressive? Especially after recognizing, as the previous essays have shown, the mythical perspective Professor McManus has espoused on the role of postmodernism in the populist zeitgeist of our times, while simultaneously demonstrating a complete lack of understanding as to who has had the greatest influence on the American conservative movement from the 1960s right up until to today.
It is telling that Professor McManus has virtually nothing to say about the conservative movement in Canada. Is there anything valuable to be learned by examining his pseudo-intellectualism, wherein this concept he calls “postmodern conservatism” is honed, and which anyone can then wield as a cudgel to bash conservatives with?
Canadian conservatives might begin their search for an answer by re-evaluating their own knowledge of postmodernism. At minimum, Canadian conservatives need to question what they have been told by certain conservative commentators about postmodernism. And if they do, they will see the truth: Postmodernism has a positive role to play in conservative politics in Canada.
Exposing ProfessorMcManus’s motives and his postmodern “research,” shows thatpostmodernism—but more importantly populism—can have a positive influence on the Canadian conservative movement. And it is populism and its many iterations within the sphere of conservative thought that I will focus on in this essay.
Many Canadians who call themselves conservatives do not realize that without postmodernism there would be no populist revolution in the Western world. Postmodern intellectualism was not only an influence on progressive thinking, but it found a home in conservative thought as well. It aligns perfectly with the intellectual framework on the right side of the political spectrum, as seen in the work of academics like Peter Lawler. It bequeathed to us the need for postmodern truth as well as the need to question the knowledge of so-called experts, but not science.
Populism, the practical side of this revolution, gave us things like the #MeToo movement, and Brexit. It also blew up the old Left/Right political alignment that had served as the political framework in the West for over eighty years. And with populism came a new political organizational principle that affects all, liberal or progressive, libertarian or conservative. A new political principle that preaches sovereignty over solidarity, local production over globalization, a belief in deliberative politics that includes such ideas as direct digital democracy (D3).1
Another Federal Election, Another Day as Canada’s Official Opposition
The opening of Canadian conservatives’ minds to postmodernism and populism is not the only plot twist that conservatives must recognize and confront. As the only political and intellectual alternative to progressive politics at the federal level, the Conservative Party of Canada once again showed that it is a political dinosaur that does not yet realize it has gone extinct.
During the federal election of 2021, the Conservative Party of Canada tried harder than ever to define itself as the only credible alternative to The Green Party, NDP, and Liberals. They attempted to sell themselves as a true and credible alternative to progressive politics. And once again, the majority of Canadians disagreed.
It’s kind of like the beginning of Braveheart, where the King of England announces a great insight: “Do you know what is wrong with Scotland?” he bellows. “It is filled with Scots!” The Canadian remake may as well be: “Do you know what is wrong with the Conservative Party of Canada? It is filled with conservatives!” And it is this barrier within the Conservative Party that is the biggest hurdle for the majority of us who want to participate in Canadian politics. For us, the forgotten who do not see ourselves as progressives, there is no political entity to whom we can turn.
I Was Born a Populist
I was never a conservative. Nor, for that matter, a liberal or progressive.
Louis Riel was my idol, growing up. While most of the mainstream media in the 1970s considered him a traitor, I did not. His grave is located in the cemetery of the Basilica in St. Boniface, Manitoba, one block away from my grandparents’ home. I visited the site often. My uncles’ farm was less than an hour away from where a battle was fought by Riel at Cut Knife, Saskatchewan on May 2, 1885.
I never used to think that any modern ideology was worthy of my time, effort, or intellect. The closest I ever came to participating in mainstream politics was a short period of activity I engaged in at age 17, when I was drawn to the mid-80’s appearance of the Reform Party in Western Canada. Having grown up on my uncles’ farm, I had firsthand knowledge of the unequal treatment the West receives from those east of the Manitoba/Ontario border.
It was Reform’s stance on wanting a more equal relationship with the rest of Canada that first caught my attention. But then I heard about their demand for more direct democracy in our elections. That got me to go to one of their meetings. However, after a very short time at this gathering, I realized that the idea of direct democracy was just a talking point meant to bring people in. I never attended another meeting or gave the party another glance.
Canadian conservatives find themselves in the same political wilderness today that other conservatives in the Western world found themselves in just after the Great Economic Collapse of 2008. Proof of this intellectual cul-de-sac can be found in the party platform released by the Conservative Party of Canada during the most recent federal election. This document in no way reflects what the majority of Canadians—the electorate—believe. In fact, there are three specific items that have been left out of this document that show just how far off the conservative mind is when it comes to addressing or comprehending the General Will of Canadians today.
First, conservatives in the Western world have embraced a new line of thinking, a philosophical disposition that sees the Great Economic Collapse of 2008 as a failure of self-regulated free markets. Canadian conservatives still cling to this economic myth. Further, Canadian conservatives refuse to see the outrageous injustice that compounded this economic tragedy, whereby the mountains of debt racked up by European banks were then forced upon millions of ordinary citizens to somehow try to pay for.2
The second lesson lost on Canadian conservatives is the rise of populism in many Western countries, and with it, the destruction of the old Left/Right political divide that has underpinned politics in the West since the end of the Second World War. Canadian conservatives continue to see their battle as one of “us” versus “them”—capitalism vs. socialism, or Conservative vs. Liberal.
But this is no longer the correct definition of “us vs. them.”
No, the real battle is between the haves and have nots. Between those who have wealth and those who do not. Between those who see progress in their lives, and those who do not. Between those who have social mobility and those who do not. And between those who wield power over their lives and those who do not. Today’s political fight is between an out-of-touch elite and everyone else. And the definition of everyone excludes no one, regardless of ethnicity, race, class, age, or gender.
The third and final missing link involves the consequences of and injustices exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, all the inequalities of our society that this global tragedy has laid bare: from an inadequate welfare system to the neglect within long-term care, and the abject poverty faced by many when there is no job to go to when they become sick. Each demands an increase in government spending. And how do Canadian conservatives respond? By stubbornly maintaining their core economic belief of balanced budgets, circa 2007.
So why have Canadian conservatives not followed their fellow conservatives into this intellectual revolution? Simply put, Canadian conservatives have not made the intellectual leap of faith to recognize that they are a spent intellectual/political force. Yes, the movement has millions of followers, and yes, it garnered over 5 million votes in the last federal election. But the sad truth is that no federal conservative party can win more than 36% of the popular vote, as was once again proven on September 20, 2021.
This fact reveals two important points. One, that today’s conservative movement is not accepted by a majority of voters in Ontario and, more importantly, in Quebec. Two, it inadvertently shows that those who call themselves conservative in Canadian politics cannot be the lone anti-progressive choice.
In an attempt to counter these two well-known facts, the conservative intelligentsia can be heard murmuring that Stephen Harper proved that the Conservative Party of Canada can win a majority government, that with the right messaging, the right leader, and proper vote-splitting in key ridings, Canadians will vote them into a majority government.
Now, for the reality check.
The truth is, that episode of federal political power came not because people were drawn to conservatism, but rather because the complete disarray of the Liberal Party forced Canadian voters to take a chance on the Conservative Party of Canada to run the country in the midst of an economic collapse.
Canadian voters may be many things, but they are not, in general, risk-takers. Nor do they feel any affinity to modern conservatism. So what happened to that majority conservative government? As soon as the Liberal Party of Canada had routed their internal political divisions, the Liberals were once again the party of choice for a majority of Canadians.
Wanted: A New Intellectual/Philosophical Foundation
For too long, Canadian conservatives have viewed the Liberal Party and their left-of-centre policies as their sole opponent, when it is, in fact, the entire progressive movement and its agenda that is their true nemesis. Even during this past election, those who are considered the intellectual “brain trust” at the core of Canadian conservatism showed once again that they cannot shed their political tunnel vision. With a campaign that overtly singled out Liberal policies instead of focusing on the big progressive takeover steamrolling across Canada,3 the brain trust around Erin O’Toole chose to pit policy against policy.
It is the stubbornness of those at the top of today’s conservative movement, those who are resistant to change, who reinforce my suspicion that there is no intellectual substance left in Canadian conservatism. Just listen to party insiders like Michael Taube who continue to live in self-denial and continue to work within a set of foolish and unrealistic assumptions, like the assumption that blue-collar workers are the secret to their return to power.4
Seriously now, can Preston Manning be described as an intellectual, or for that matter, Stephen Harper? Does any ordinary person under the age of 40 (especially women), really care what people like Chris Shelley, Matt Gurney, John Ivison, or Conrad Black, et al have to say? And it doesn’t help that all their verbiage can be found within that defunct paper called the National Post, or as I call them, the lost from coast to coast?5
Election bylines like “Erin O'Toole's platform proves he is ready to govern, unlike Trudeau the child,” or “NDP's immigration plan is a fairy tale, just like the rest of its platform,” or “Canada's fantasyland health-care debate will not go to sleep,” and “Partisan heroes don’t help in an election held for no reason,” and “It was an election about Trudeau's vanity and people in tinfoil hats,” are proof positive that those currently guiding today’s Canadian conservative movement are not to be taken seriously. And that is why once again the Conservative Party of Canada could only attract 33% of the popular vote. But that outcome is very misleading, because it was only 33% of a total voter turnout that tallied a paltry 62% of the electorate!6
The problem of a static and petrified right-leaning intelligentsia was on full display for all to see during this recent federal election, amplified to new heights by the fact that there is no alternative (to the only alternative in town) because Post Media owns most local newspapers across Canada. Instead of the usual cacophony of debate revolving around new ideas and policies, during the most recent general election, we were treated to the echo of political silence across the country.
This perspective is further confirmed by the academic writing from progressive professors like Matthew McManus. Not once is there any mention of the conservative movement in Canada in The Rise of Post-Modern conservatism. And why? Because progressive minds in Canada know that the Conservative Party and the conservative movement in general, is not a threat, either intellectually or politically. With progressives once again in the federal driver’s seat, how many more examples do conservatives need to realize that they need to change intellectually?
The pandemic caused by COVID-19 has changed everything in the Western world forever. It forced this inescapable conclusion, the greatest truth of our time: when reality and ideology clash, reality wins.
Under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, the governing Liberals in Ottawa have spent over $400 billion since the beginning of the pandemic. And the most amazing thing is that there is even more spending and borrowing on the way, as witnessed in the Liberal budget brought in on April 19, 2021. Because of this, it is now all but impossible to see the Conservative Party of Canada finding its way into power in this country anytime in the near future…if ever.
Because Canadian conservatives cannot see anything but the word’s deficits, debt, and taxes when they hear about such spending. But there is much more to the pandemic than economics, a point that most conservatives are unwilling to admit, that a majority of Canadians have embraced this new level of spending. But what the Trudeau Liberals are really doing with this outbreak of progressive economics is to offer a new vision of Canada. And at the federal level of Canadian politics, it is that vision that wins elections.
The Liberals are saying to the country, “We know that you want to see a new progressive social agenda!” And they have created just that. From new laws that fight climate change by placing a price on carbon, to addressing equity within the workplace with The Pay Equity Act7, to policies that police the internet for hate speech, to taxing Big Tech—each checks a box that brought with it millions of votes in the 2021 federal election.
The scary thought for those who do not call themselves progressive is that this just scratches the surface—what else might this new minority government do? Bigger government, higher taxes, more regulation, and bigger licensing fees are here to stay. And if you are a conservative and do not agree with this new vision of Canada, then I suggest you open your eyes.
Canadian conservatives need to embrace the new revolutionary intellectual spirit that has already taken hold of other like-minded conservative movements in the West. For starters, Canadian conservatives must open up their political parties and help build a uniquely Canadian populistmovement. This also means real access and power must be given to forging policy and adopting ideas that can bring in all those who today find themselves in the political wilderness.
Simply put, if wealth or economic power is going to be redistributed in Canada—and it is a fact that we are already headed down this path—Canadian conservatives need to help build a populist firewall that protects individual freedom while also having as its ultimate goal the redistribution of political (democratic) and social power.
A new and exciting Canadian populism can easily steer clear of the far right politics, far right language, and xenophobic policies that Professor McManus details in his book The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. He and others see Trump in America, Orban in Hungary, and Salvinni in Italy as all being cut from the same conservative cloth. But that is a tale that many progressives spin to hide their own hypocritical biases that this new era of postmodern thought has exposed.
A Canadian populist movement embraced by conservatives, centre-right liberals, red Tories, independents, libertarians, sovereigntists in Quebec, and those populists who live on the prairies, can easily keep out far right leaders like Maxime Bernier and Ezra Levant. If in doubt, all you need to do is look at the reception and revulsion that ordinary Canadians have directed at this small group of vocal and sometimes violent protesters. Based on this overarching response by ordinary Canadians, reinforced by polling numbers and nonexistent electoral seats, it is absolutely clear that here in Canada there is no room in the Overton Window for them.
Furthermore, this grassroots populist movement does not necessarily need to embrace a concept like ethnic or economic nationalism, which was required when leaving the European Union. It can embrace a populist philosophy that envisions a more direct, digital, and democratic (D3) governing style at both the local and provincial level. Think 5 Star movement in Italy. Or direct democracy in Switzerland. Not a Trumpian lie like “They stole the election!” Some conservative parties are dabbling with populist ideas at the provincial level already.
The Progressive Conservatives under the leadership of Doug Ford have started down this new path with their 2021 budget. In Alberta, the United Conservative Party brought forward a referendum on the issue of equalization payments that went to the electorate on October 18, 2021. But, as with everything conservative in this country, it seems to be two steps forward, one back. In Manitoba, the conservatives just shelved their province-wide reform of the educational system that would have made it more responsive to parents and local authorities.
Truthfully, these are just minor adjustments to traditional Canadian conservative thinking. And if you look at the current polling numbers in the provinces where conservatives hold power, it is evident that without a more robust, populist-based message, they will be out of power come the next provincial election, further proof that there needs to be a more coordinated intellectual alignment within Canadian conservatism if there is to be a true alternative to progressivism in Canada.
A Postmodern Conservatism: A Made-in-Canada Solution
Canadian conservatives have a unique opportunity to shape the second phase of the populist revolution that began in earnest in 2016 with Brexit in the United Kingdom. A Canadian populism that embraces a postmodern philosophy would allow conservatives to challenge the entire agenda that progressives are dramatically implementing from coast to coast to coast. To understand what this postmodern populist philosophy looks like, let’s look at a few examples from the recent federal election, wherein Canadian conservatives struggled to offer a credible alternative to the progressive policies and programs provided by Trudeau’s Liberals and Singh’s NDP.
At the very top of the list is Climate Change.
What did conservatives provide in their election platform instead of an alternative policy plank? They aligned themselves with the ideas and policies of the progressive. For example, everyone on the left of the political spectrum announced that they were part of a “green” agenda. Even Erin O’Toole, the leader of today’s Conservative Party of Canada, says he is part of the “green” agenda… Really?
First, I ask every conservative, right-leaning liberal, libertarian, and populist out there, what defines “green?” Furthermore, is there something more to the Green Party of Canada’s recent internal chaos over accusations of anti-Semitism than we were lead to believe?8 Given that this episode was visible for all to see, does it perhaps give Canadians a clue to the origins and founding philosophy of the Green movement and Green politics,9 both here in Canada and Europe?
Second, if the scientific theory of global warming (which I personally believe in) represents the best scientific position we have of the problem as of today, and is underpinned with a moral imperative to act… what is the moral imperative underscoring this concept of being “green”?
Is there much more to being “green” than simply banning plastic bags and mandating the need for us all to drive electric cars? Is there a hidden agenda within “green”? And finally, for those who place faith above anything else, can “green” be shown to begood in all respects? If not, is it evil?
The “green” laws that the progressives want to enact are not trivial in nature. In the past, governments limited their power to regulate based upon a belief that a light touch was the best policy. But today, in the wake of a global pandemic, it has been shown that politicians have far too much power and say in the running of the daily lives of every Canadian. Populism is the vehicle that can reverse the soft tyranny that is part of representational democracy. And don’t think for one minute that the power, laws, and regulations that were used during the pandemic will not be used again when the so-called climate emergency requires that tough decisions and actions be taken.
Progressives, and yes, even some conservatives, see no limit to their legislative power to control and regulate anything, anyplace, and anyone, in the name of expert knowledge. The light touch that once existed has become a transformative hammer. The legislative power to reinvent reality stretches from industrial design on one end of the Green political spectrum, to curtailing individual human rights at the darkest end of the Green agenda.
A populist approach that ameliorates this problem is one that conservatives can easily embrace— these transformative laws must pass through a referendum for them to be recognized as being accepted by the Canadian people. And for it to be democratically legitimate, each new piece of legislation needs to pass the threshold of 50% +1. If it does not, the law then would not be enacted into the Canadian Rule of Law.
The populist position in regard to climate change or “Green Politics” is one that ignores playing a political game with your adversary’s rules, but rather revolves around a truer form of democratic legitimacy. Considering that today’s governing Liberals were elected with only 32% of the popular vote, a more democratic course of action is demanded if they wish to achieve their goal of enacting new and transformative climate legislation.
This brings us to the second major progressive issue that confounds and confuses the mind of a modern Canadian conservative: how to counter and roll back progressive restrictions around the issue of speech. Introduced for the first time only in the latter half of the 20th century, this rhetorical and philosophical argument is better known as Hate Speech.
Conservatives fail to understand that freedom of speech has various avenues all intrinsically linked in innumerable ways. The fight for the right to say what you want on a street corner involves the same right to text, meme, email, post, and podcast on platforms formed and existing in the “digital estate.”10
There is a third and even more serious issue involving speech, and it is found in all levels of our institutions of learning. It involves the freedom or right to debate, define, and investigate any form of speech (idea), without coercion or censorship. We know it today as Cancel Culture, though really it is nothing more than an updated definition of the hate speech laws that have been pushed by the progressives for decades.
As shown in earlier parts of this series, Professor McManus takes the restriction of speech to new heights within academia; his canceling project is geared toward modern conservatism in his creation of a postmodern conservative. For many ordinary Canadians, the issue that surrounds the work of Professor McManus is new. But others have already heard about it, and no story better explains this fundamental power shift within our post-secondary institutions than the story of Lindsay Shepherd.11
Each of these three avenues regarding the freedom of speech fall within a postmodern construct. And that is where the postmodern musings of Professor Peter Lawler, expressed in his work Postmodernism Rightly Understood, are a perfect fit for today’s modern Canadian conservative.
Professor Lawler exquisitely describes the problem—and conservative liberals, of course, are repulsed by what’s going on our campuses and, to a lesser extent, in our workplaces: Free men and women shouldn’t rely on anyone but themselves for protection against the slings and arrows of micro-aggressions and so forth. The replacement of “academic freedom” with “academic justice” is an offense against the highest form of individual freedom that is associated with Socrates and John Stuart Mill. In academia most of all, individuals should be relentlessly judged by the quality of their choices, choices that have to be defended and judged with arguments.12
These foundational polemists and their need for academic justice also exist in Canada. Professor McManus and his followers see and evaluate everything through the prism of their progressive ideology, their limited definition of Truth, and a self-righteous hubris they equate with Justice, which is really nothing more than a misplaced understanding of their own place in history. With a little creative writing, and incorporation of a twisted and manufactured understanding of the work of those who wrote about postmodernism in its infancy, they intend to show that one day there will no longer be a need for an “alternative” debate regarding ideas and policy.
To counter this entrenched intellectual environment that includes ideas like Critical Race Theory, identity politics, and political correctness (all existing without a shred of scientific merit or evidence13 to back it up), an alternative needs to be invented, debated, then implemented. From this intellectual starting point, or postmodern conservative intellectual foundation, it then becomes politically possible to confront and dismantle restrictive hate speech laws, de-platforming, “wokism”14 and the issue of “restricted speech” online in the digital estate.
Yet, in Canada today there is no political platform to implement this alternative that will eventually emerge from the intellectual battle in today’s academic coliseum. Those trying to do so today, whether libertarians, blue liberals, or populists like myself, need a political vehicle that can be used to bring these new postmodern alternatives to Canadians who do not identify as progressive.
It is this reality that Canadian conservatives must accept: there is a desperate need for a populist movement that embraces some form of postmodern thought, which in turn will lead the revolution to take back our constitutional right to say what we want, when and where we want, and offer a measure of relief to those academics in our educational institutions who are unable to exercise their right to freedom of speech. By creating a fully postmodern conservative construct that defines and defends free speech everywhere, by developing an online/offline environment that promotes all forms of speech, we can begin to foster a healthy Canadian society for us all in the future.
In conclusion, it must be remembered by Canadians, and in particular by those Canadians who see themselves as conservatives, that populism has always been a driving force for change in this country. From Tommy Douglas and the CCF in Saskatchewan, who eventually brought free healthcare to the country, to Rene Levesque in Quebec and the Parti Québécois in the 1960s and 1970s who called for a referendum on Quebec Sovereignty, to the Reform Party in the 1980s that began in the West with their rallying cry that “the West wants in,” and finally to the drive for Indigenous self-government—all can be firmly described as populist to their very core.
Populism, when coupled with a postmodern philosophical foundation, has shown elsewhere that it can be a force for positive change. As in Italy, with the 5 Star Movement and their use of direct digital democracy (D3), or the introduction of free speech legislation that applies to all post-secondary institutions in the United Kingdom,15 and the use of postmodern natural law to create a new set of rights to defend freedom of speech online16 in the digital estate, there exists today a new and exciting atmosphere that has all the impetus it needs to counter and neutralize the radical progressive and their ideas.
Sadly, Canadian conservatives have yet to embrace this new reality.
If within this work you sense a feeling of inevitability, you are correct. With the elite once again in firm control of the levers of power across much of the Western world, it is just a matter of time before their incompetence, ineptitude, and selfishness will mark a return of the populist to centre stage. And why not?
It was the expert and professional classes that did not see the fall of Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan to an advancing Taliban army. Had this not been enough for the common people to once again question the capabilities of the elite and their so-called experts, there are plenty of other problems out there upon which the elite can fall on their sword.
What will be the response of the elite when the lab-created COVID-1917 virus finds a way around our vaccines and passports? More lockdowns? More bans on community activities and indoor gatherings? Already the elite have carved out a double standard in regard to vaccine passports, with those attending COP26 in Scotland exempt from having to use them.18 What about our skyrocketing debt at every level of government in every Western nation? The elite will be fine with their wealth and global economy, but the rest of us will have to live with out-of-control inflation and sky high interest rates that will eventually decimate our local economy and our simple lives.
And finally, how will the elite sell the “greening” of our entire economy as the only answer to global warming? What happens when an overtly sceptical public one day comes to the rational conclusion that “green” is nothing more than a totalitarian project to be enforced by the police and military.19 As the elite demand ever more strict compliance with carbon lockdowns, community quarantines (carbon budgets), and product rationing in Canada and the rest of the Western world,20 how long before the average person says “Enough!”
These are only three scenarios that might or might not play out as described. There are endless problems both here in Canada and though out the rest of the Western world that have the potential to expose the elite for who and what they truly are. And when the right circumstances come together with the wrong solutions provided to us by the elite and their experts, who will the people of Canada turn to?
This second phase of the postmodern populist revolution has already crossed over the horizon and is fast approaching. As evident in France today, the offline and online public square is consumed by talk of a civil war.21 If there is anything that Canadian conservatives should take away from these three essays, it is that the only check on the power and aspirations of Canada’s globetrotting progressive elite rests with those who do not consider themselves a part of the privileged class.
Here’s hoping that the second phase of this populist revolution is as successful as the first.
J.R. Werbics is a filmmaker, author, and member of the Canadian Philosophical Association
1 The Thoughts of a Peasant Philosopher, Vol. I, Politics Anniversary Edition, 2014, p.138
10 The Thoughts of a Peasant Philosopher Vol.I, Politics Anniversary Edition