A know-nothing strain of conservatism

COYNE: The PM once was viewed as rigid but upright; doctrinaire, but with a certain integrity

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Every week another Ekos poll comes out, and every week the media hyperventilates over whatever tiny incremental change in federal voting intentions it reveals. But in addition to party preference, Ekos asks Canadians two more questions. One: whether, in their opinion, the country is “moving in the right direction.” And two: whether the government is moving in the right direction.

In every poll, week after week, more than 50 per cent of respondents tell Ekos they think the country is on the right track, as they have for more than a year. Yet since January, nearly as many respondents—in the high 40s, most weeks—have said they think the government is on the wrong track. That’s up from about 40 per cent last year.

It’s highly unusual to see such divergence. Pollsters will tell you the “right track” question is generally a very good predictor of party preferences. Yet here the Tories are, with more than half the public happy with the country’s direction, bumping along at 30 per cent or less in the polls. Clearly, it’s the way they govern, rather than the results—their tail-gunner style of politics, notably—that is the issue.

That trend was clear even before the census debacle. But this latest outbreak of Tory truculence has accelerated the decline. Others have tried, without success, to puzzle out what on Earth the Conservatives could have been thinking. Playing to the base? But what evidence is there that anyone, outside of a small hard core of libertarians, holds any hostility to the census? A plot to starve lefty activist groups of factual ammunition? But census data is presumably of equal use to all causes, left or right.

I think my colleague John Geddes came closest in his piece last week. It isn’t just that the Tories habitually ignore the expert consensus on a wide range of issues—crime, taxes, climate change—it’s that they want to be seen to be ignoring it. It’s the overt antagonism to experts, and by extension the educated classes, that marks the Tory style. In its own way, it’s a form of class war.

You can see it in the sneering references to Michael Ignatieff’s Harvard tenure, in the repeated denunciations of “elites” and “intellectuals.” In the partial dismantling of the census, we reach the final stage: not just hostile to experts, but to knowledge.

It’s an old game, in some respects. There are echoes of the Republican “NASCAR dad” strategy, mixed with the High Tories’ instinctive distrust of new ideas and technocratic monkeying about. Not for nothing did the British Conservatives once glory in the title of the Stupid Party, and the Harper Conservatives seem content to wear the label as well.

But there’s something different going on here. The intellectuals that conservatives generally rail against are those they disagree with. But the Harper Conservatives are just as hostile to the interventions of experts on what one might suppose to be their own side. The decision to cut the GST, rather than income taxes, was made in defiance not of radical economists, but of the orthodox free-market variety. Having jettisoned principle for expediency, the Tories came to regard the “purist” in their own ranks with every bit as much disdain as any lefty egghead—more, actually.

The result is a uniquely nasty, know-nothing strain of conservatism. The Thatcher Tories, unlike their forebears, weren’t anti-intellectual: her cabinet contained some of Britain’s most fertile social and political minds. Ronald Reagan, though hardly an intellectual, did not demonize expert opinion, or pit the educated classes against the rest. Even today’s Republican party, as know-nothing as it sometimes appears, relies heavily on a network of think tanks to provide it with intellectual heft. Only in Canada have expertise and ideas been so brutally cast aside. On the level of principle, this is appalling. A society that holds education and expertise in contempt, no less than one that disdains commerce or entrepreneurship, is dying. To whip up popular hostility to intellectuals is to invite the public to jump on its own funeral pyre.

The good news is, it hasn’t seemed to work: class war is no more a winning political strategy when practised by Tories than its left-wing variants, and for much the same reason. The general public do not see the world in such stark, us-and-them tones as their would-be svengalis might hope. Their experience of society is more complex and ambiguous. People might envy “the rich,” but they also hope one day to join them. We might tell pollsters we dislike lawyers, but they’re the first people we call when we’re in trouble. We all detest “the media,” but we all consume it. More broadly, we can sense that our interests are bound up together, however much we might divide and subdivide on cultural, ethnic or other lines.

Where, then, does this leave the Tories? Without convictions, to be sure, but also without a strategy: neither principled nor expedient. And the Prime Minister? Consider how his image has changed over the years. Once he was viewed as rigid, but upright; doctrinaire, but with a certain integrity. Over time that gave way to a more Machiavellian cast. Perhaps it was true, it was said, that he would do anything and say anything to hold onto power, but you had to admire his cunning.

But now? After so many miscues, unforced errors, too-clever tricks and utter botch-ups, does anyone still cling to the “strategic genius” view of Stephen Harper?

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