Saturday, March 10, 2007

Defining Conservatism in Alberta

Discussions from the media, to the water cooler, in classrooms, bedrooms, and in coffee shops are displaying a disturbing lack of understanding about the various dimensions of "conservatism" and "Conservatism" in Alberta. Stories and arguments that align Harper with Klein, Morton with Manning, Stelmach with Clark, and so on, are glossing over many of the intricacies of the parties and the movement.

What follows are broad strokes aimed at trying to flesh out the various dimensions of "conservatism" and "Conservatism" in Alberta. While of use in other provinces -- perhaps in other countries -- nowhere are the various dimensions of conservative thought more visible than in Alberta. The following is intended as the first-draft of a primer for discussing the right in Alberta. As always, your comments are welcome, along with permission to incorporate them into this work-in-progress.

Perhaps the simplest way to conceptualize an ideology like conservatism is to divide it into a series of functional dimensions. In this case, six seem especially pertinent (dramatic oversimplifications of each term are given in parentheses):

(1) MORAL CONSERVATISM* (a.k.a., NEO-conservatism; emphasis on traditional family values; often, but not always, tied to religious beliefs)

(2) SOCIAL CONSERVATISM*^ (opposition to social engineering, including affirmative action; emphasis on law, order and security)

(3) FISCAL CONSERVATISM^ (a.k.a., neo-liberalism; emphasis on fiscal orthodoxy, including balanced budgets, deregulation, privatization, debt repayment, and tax relief)

(4) POPULISM~ (a belief in grass-roots democracy, often in opposition to political partisanship and other top-down institutions like Parliament; often, but not always, mixed with libertarianism; see: Thomas Jefferson)

(5) HIGH TORYISM~ (a belief in parliamentary sovereignty, often in opposition to direct democracy and judicial activism; often accompanied by a communitarian/patriotic view of the state; see: Alexander Hamilton and Edmund Burke)

(6) LIBERTARIANISM (a belief in the sovereignty of the individual and the limitations of government in the moral, social, and economic spheres)

*The distinction between #1 and #2 is no doubt the trickiest. In every-day language, both moral and social conservatives have been lumped under the "SO-CON" label. While there is a correlation between the two sets of values, it's important to distinguish between the two. Logically, a person could be a moral conservative without being a social conservative (and vice versa).

^Both social and fiscal conservatism often favour limited state interference in the economy, and a guaranteed but limited social welfare system.

~This is where there is often a direct conflict within conservative ranks, between those who favour a grass-roots style of politics and those that favour an elite-driven version.

People do not have to conform to any one of these labels. In fact, few, if any conservatives are members of only one 'camp'. As mentioned, people with moral and social conservative tendencies are often referred to as "SO-CONS". People with moderate fiscal conservative leanings and tendencies toward "high toryism" -- without a touch of moral or social conservatism -- are often called "RED TORIES". In the United States, the "NEW RIGHT" consists of "neo-cons" and "neo-liberals". And so on. The point is not to pigeon-hole people into one class of conservatism. Quite the opposite.

Tracing the contours of conservatism in this way helps us make sense of Conservatism in places like Alberta. Some of the province's leading Tories have made strange bedfellows over the years. The media and public have either failed to notice these tensions or have failed to link them to the underlying ideological frictions. Let's have a look at some of the major players....

WILLIAM ABERHART -- Alberta's first Social Credit premier, his "vision" blended religious moral and social conservatism with an anti-system, populist outlook and a 'quirky' view of public finance. In reality, Aberhart's control over the party and the legislature was the polar opposite of grass-roots democracy, and his province-building strategy used the full capacity of the public purse. Ernest Manning is widely considered the heir to Aberhart's image.

PETER LOUGHEED -- Often called a 'red tory', Lougheed was a communitarian conservative who put Alberta first. In this sense, his battles with Trudeau resembled those fought between Aberhart and King decades earlier. Lougheed, too, had a loose grasp of fiscal conservatism, but, unlike Aberhart, tended to keep social and moral conservatism out of official government policy. This, along with his penchant for social welfare spending, has earned him the label "Pink Peter" (a reference to his possible 'pinko'-socialist ties), particularly popular among Ralph Klein's followers. Lougheed's son is currently in the running for president of the Alberta PC's, by the way.

JOE CLARK -- "Joe-Who" has become synonymous with red-toryism in Canada. His view of the country as a "community of communities"; his firm stance against social and moral conservatism; his willingness to relax the rules of fiscal orthodoxy; and his support of parliamentary sovereignty have earned him the admiration of red tories and the hatred of the New Right.

PRESTON MANNING -- It's not difficult to see the ties between Preston Manning's Reform movement and his father's Social Credit legacy. While the religious fervour with which Aberhart campaigned was missing from Preston's speeches, the latter attempted the same blend of populism, moralism and social conservatism. To this, Preston added a firm stance in favour of fiscal orthodoxy.

RALPH KLEIN -- Where to start? King Ralph is very difficult to pin-down in terms of his conservative beliefs, largely because he seldom spoke in ideological terms, and because his actions were often contradictory. Without a doubt, though, he was a social and fiscal conservative, with morally conservative tendencies. While his image was certainly one of a grass-roots politician, in touch with the 'real people' of Alberta, his iron grip on the Party spoke otherwise. (This is a common theme among populist Conservative leaders, from Aberhart to the Mannings to Klein: once in power, they often end up being more tory than grass-roots. This speaks more to the iron law of oligarchy than to their personal integrity, in my opinion.)

STOCKWELL DAY -- Wet-suit aside, Stock was a moral, social and fiscal conservative.

TED MORTON -- Ted is a conservative's Conservative. He promotes moral, social and fiscal conservatism, with a populist/republican concern for the little-guy, and a high tory aversion to judicial actism. I fail to see any libertarianism in Ted's beliefs, but I am bound to be corrected. If he has them, he's the ideal, pure conservative. (As a side-note: Ted Morton's great at promoting each of the conservative dimensions, but his willingness to leave hard edges is proving more divisive than Harper's approach, as outlined below. Some may fault Ted for being too uncompromising; others may fault Harper for being too compromising. It all depends on your perspective.)

JIM DINNING -- Liberal. Period. Someone tell me where Dinning fits in any of these categories of conservatism and I'll be glad to post it here.

ED STELMACH -- It's still too early to tell, but Ed's style and his team have heavy connections with Peter Lougheed's red tories. He seems a little less tied to fiscal conservatism than Klein, and has yet to display the same image as a social conservative. Moral conservatism? Not likely. The pressure to 'go green' while remaining close with business and putting Alberta-first may force Stelmach into the red tory mold.

STEPHEN HARPER -- I know, I know. Harper's not really from Alberta. But I can't leave him off the list, precisely because his persona (since becoming Conservative Party leader) has proven itself the most moderate mixture of all six forms of conservatism. As a strategist, his ability to interpret and frame policy in each of these areas is remarkable. As the person charged with uniting the old PC's and Alliance, his manoevering has been impecable.

Harper boldly put same-sex marriage back on the table, framing it in terms of a free vote in order to appease libertarians, and accepting its outcome to the relief of red tories. His law, order and security agenda has social conservatives on-side, without offending too many populists. His tax policies are strong enough to please fiscal conservatives, while his creativity on issues like income trusts and income-splitting are surprising many red tories and moral conservatives. His specific proposals for Senate reform -- while still in the works -- offer a little something for tories and populists, alike. Libertarians? You may have to wait for your piece of the pie, but Harper's proving better than the guys on the other side of the aisle. In short, Harper is proving himself as one of the best at balancing the various demands of conservatism.

The purpose of this discussion has been to highlight how not all C/conservatives are created equal, particularly in Alberta. The next time you hear someone painting us all with the same brush, think twice.


Civitatensis said...

Good post. I agree that Dinning's a liberal, but there are aspects of fiscal conservatism in him.

Dylan said...

Great post! I would agree with many of your summaries of the different shades/factions/types of conservatism.

However, you give too much credit where credit is not due.

Harper is not responsible for uniting the PC and Canadian Alliance parties. He shouldn't be charged that, because it simply isn't true.

Peter MacKay would be the one to do that. And in saying that, we're denying the idiocy of David Orchard to believe that a signed agreement would be enough to keep the sovereignty of the Progressive Conservative party.

Without MacKay and billionaire Belinda Stronach, the merger would never have happened. Also, without the thousands of Canadian Alliance members buying PC memberships before the electronic vote, the merger probably would not have been favourable to a united party.

As for Harper being the master manoeverer of the new party, it is well known in Calgary that former Progressive Conservatives have been denied the chance to represent the new CPC in up coming elections.

Progressive Conservatism is being stiffled within the CPC and many nominations (with exception of ridings in Ontario) are given to Canadian Alliance and Reform loyalists.

Secondly, to say that Harper "boldly" put SSM back on the table as prime minister is a gross exaggeration of what actually happened. It was a pathetic attempt to uphold an election promise to his base of social/moral conservatives in the West. The SSM vote that Harper put forward in the House was to re-open the debate of SSM not to overturn the SSM legislation passed under PM Martin - which is what his social/moral conservative suporters really wanted and or thought that is what they were going to get.

On that note (being more free votes by MPs) Harper has whipped his MPs into voting along the party lines on issues like the environment (more specifically Kyoto) - which are clearly moral and ethical votes that should be free for MPs.

Thirdly, if by "creativity" regarding his flip-flop on Income-Trusts you mean "broken promises" then you're right. Care to clarify?

And lastly, real Senate reform under Harper will never happen. Too bad, because that's the one thing that I actually agree with from the Reform party.

Beyond your apologies for Harper's broken promises, your assessments of other conservative politicians is well done and I would recommend anyone who is interested in the dynamics of conservatism to read it!

DeepRedTory said...

Thanks for the note, civitatensis.

I don't want to confuse fiscal conservatism with fiscal responsibility. Even left-wing, 3rd Way politicians in Canada (e.g., Dinning and Gary Doer), the U.S. (e.g., Clinton), and Europe (e.g., Blair and Schroeder) have displayed commitments to balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility. I guess I should clarify that fiscal 'conservatism' involves an aggressive belief in the entire system of fiscal orthodoxy (tax relief, deficit reduction, debt repayment, deregulation, privatization). Thanks for the help.

whichwaysthegym said...


I disagree with you when ponder the Kyoto vote. I'm fairly certain that every single Tory would have voted the same way regardless of whether Harper whipped them or not. The Tories are far more unified on issues than the Liberals are.

Also when you say former PC's are being stifled in Calgary, you may be correct, but that has more to do with the success of the Reform/Alliance in Alberta than anything else. Why would the party want to change any members in Alberta when they swept the province last election?

DeepRedTory said...

Thanks, Dylan.

(1) I should have clarified that Harper was charged with pulling the Alliance and PC parties together post-merger. As for the forces that led to the merger, your interpretation is as valid as many others. Once the deal was done, however, he was put in the difficult position of trying to balance the 6 competing dimensions of conservatism in one party. That he has been able to do so with such success is due, in large part, to his leadership abilities. (And the fact that power is an amazing adhesive.)

(2) Re: SSM -- Your assessment speaks directly to my point. His strategy was "bold" in that it went against public opinion and against the interests of the moral conservative wing of the party. In the end, neither the electorate, nor the party seems to have turned on him for it.

(3) Creative strategy sometimes means breaking promises. We'll see whether he pays for the flip-flop. It may have won him as many supporters as it lost.

(4) Senate reform will happen. Not dramatic constitutional reform, but after Britain does it, we'll have little choice. Wait until the second term.

Thanks for the comments.

Alberta Born said...

The old Progressive Conservative party is dead, dead, dead, no matter how hard the libs try to resurrect it.
The way Bob Stanfield and Joe Clark tried to run the party you may as well have called it the Liberal-Conservative Party of Canada. Mulroney tried to rule from the left side and killed the party.
Manning and Day, because they were westerners, were smeared and taunted as they tried to bring fresh ideas and fairness to government.
Alberta conservatives only want a fair and balanced government, no more, no less.
No more liberal judges, no more payoffs to provinces, no more robbing from the west, no more special interests with their hands in the cookie jar, no more patronage, no more unelected inefficient senate, no more second rate provinces, no more crooks, in other words no more liberal dictatorships.
Alberta conservatives want to change the federal government into a more equal body for everyone, a concept of fairness and equality that libs and dippers refuse to learn from their years of playing the same old crooked game.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a wonderful post: thoughtful and insightful. Sadly, the pedant in me will not be still, and so I must quibble with your equation of "moral" and "neo-" conservative. Though the latter term is now used promiscuously--particularly by Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, who like to incorporate it into every public utterance--it most properly and historically refers to a specific, and American, by and large, phenomenon--namely, the shift of longstanding "liberals"in the American sense of the term to the other side of the spectrum on the basis of a limited government (at home) and more activist and rights- and interests-centred foreign policy (both in fact sustained by a classical liberal commitment to individual and human rights at home and abroad). In short, it's a label for a widespread phenomneon of leftist activists discovering belatedly that the left is no longer--if indeed it ever was--liberal, or interested in personal liberty and individual rights.

OK--I'm over my anal moment now. Apart from that, thanks for a good post.

All the best.

Anonymous said...

Considering that 3 of the 4 main political parties in Canada are leftists. I fail to see what is accomplished by liberals pretending to be conservatives and then whining why the conservative party is not liberal and how that is a crime.

shlemazl said...

Neat classification. Neocons aren't really about religion or family though. They are about moral foreign policy. On other issues they overlap with categories 1...100.

There are also "real" conservatives like Pat Buchanan who are not conservatives at all.

Aeneas the Younger said...


Count me as a Tory who does not support Harper and the CPC. And ... I hate the LPC and have never voted for them, and will never vote for them.

There is a difference between Canadian Conservatism and the "new" Conservatism of the CPC. The sobriquet "tory" does not really fit the CPC. Hence the reason I sit outside the tent.

I have lived in Manitoba for eleven years, and am moving to Edmonton in June. But, I am an Upper Canadian Tory with a lineage that goes back seven generations to a Loyalist and Conservative people. I will not sell that inheritance out for all the American gold in the world.

My conservatism predates this classical liberal nonsense you Albertans call "conservatism." What Albertans call "conservatism" is really 19th Century liberalism conjoined to modern communications technology and media. With some evangelical shite thrown in for optics.

East of Winnipeg, "toryism" is mainline, moderate, protestant, practical, and loyalist for the most part. That is why the classical liberal programme is a harder sell in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, and the reason why most Ontario MPs are to the left of the Alberta caucus.

Have you ever heard of Richard Hooker, Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Randolph Churchill, Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Robert Borden, RB Bennett, Arthur Meighen, John Farthing, E. Davie Fulton, George Grant, and Robert Stanfield?

These men were Tories.

Ron Anders ain't one of us.

Finally, "tories" are "loyal" it is true, but they are NOT blindly loyal to a/the party.

They are loyal to Her Majesty the Queen. That is what is meant by "loyalism" in the grand Canadian tradition.

btw, I am placing your Blog on my Blogroll as you are one of the more thoughtful BT's.

That is a compliment.

DeepRedTory said...

I appreciate all of the feedback, everyone. This is great.

I will be adding a separate neo-con category to clarify its stress on foreign relations (as distinct from domestic moral conservatism).

I would also invite Aeneas the Younger (and anyone else) to help me flesh out the definition of loyalist tories... I had thought that my definition of "high toryism" was broad enough (Burke and Churchill were of the same family, no?), but I welcome any suggestions. Perhaps my label is wrong?

Thanks again. I'll be posting an updated version of the typology in the coming week.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion! As an Albertan I've sometimes felt that our progressive conservative party is just a combination of Liberals and conservatives. Sometimes Center sometimes right depending on the time and leader.

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