What the right does right

Learning from Canada’s conservative revolution


Progressives in Canada today have no shortage of ideas. What we lack is movement — any movement. There is no women’s movement, no labour movement, no peace movement. The antiglobalization movement fell apart in the wake of 9/11. Copenhagen notwithstanding, even the environmental movement has become more an exercise in individual consumer choice than a demand for systemic change.

This isn’t to say there aren’t many gifted and hard-working people fighting for women’s rights, labour rights, peace, environmental justice and other issues of interest. But there is no shared sense of purpose-filled momentum on the left, no sense of common struggle that connects one set of activities to another. Any “movement” in Canada today, in fact, is occurring at the other end of the political spectrum. Conservatives today have the numbers, the momentum and just about everyone’s attention. Why is that?

Conservatives are doing well in several tasks vital to movement building. They raise money. They do constant outreach. They appeal to people from every demographic and region. They reinforce messages that make people feel like their concerns and interests are being acknowledged and acted upon. Most importantly, they target their messages at you: You know best how to spend your money; governments don’t represent your interests; taxes are a burden; etc.

What the right understands so well is that even the most politically disengaged citizen has a set of values that form their personal ideology. Those core values influence what we think should or shouldn’t be happening, and will always shape our political choices more than loyalty to a party label. The conservative movement has never shied away from framing their thinking in ethical, moral, even religious terms — the things that should happen, if only the decision-makers in public life shared their convictions.

For the past 30 years, conservatives have focused on a few key messages: government regulations are the enemy; destroying the tax base is a “relief”; corporations should be permitted to do whatever they want. Progressives, meanwhile, have responded with policy prescriptions, attempting to formulate the perfect list of actions for the government to take.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with policy formulation. The problems we face are increasingly complex, and require bold thinking to solve them. But voters expect to see themselves in every frame, and big policy ideas like reducing poverty, investing in infrastructure or leaving Afghanistan are often about places or people they don’t know or, worse, don’t want to know. With fewer progressive intermediaries explaining why these things should matter to you, progressive policies and active governments appear increasingly irrelevant.

It isn’t that large numbers of Canadians have become inherently conservative. Poll after poll shows that Canadians and Americans alike are longing for a movement that will articulate their concerns that corporations have far too much power and that the middle class is being squeezed. The moment is ripe for voices that can respond creatively to these concerns.

What we need to do is speak to people where they are, and tap into the progressive values they hold at the very same time as more conservative values. Values of fairness and pragmatism; of the shared need for sustainability and security; meaningful opportunity for each and every one of us, particularly the next generation; and time to enjoy life, not just work.

People turn to movements because their concerns are reflected in the movement’s core values, not just — or even primarily — in its policies. We’ve got our work cut out for us to inspire and energize our base, not just with a sense of confidence and clarity, but also with a way of talking about politics that integrates the me and the we. After all, none of us really likes to be told what to do — but where’s the counterpoint to conservative messages that appeal only to our inner five-year-old? Who’s reminding us that we all want the same things, that we are all in this together, our fates intertwined? Are these messages not as satisfying as the instant gratification of conservative politics? Or have we just not learned how to communicate them effectively?

Here’s an obvious fact that the conservative movement will never use in their messaging: focusing only on individual advancement actually impedes what most of us are going to get, as individuals and as a society. The winner-takes-all approach leaves most people by the wayside. It doesn’t provide us, collectively, with a road map to anywhere. The road ahead, consequently, is wide open. As the African proverb says — if you want to travel fast, travel alone; if you want to travel far, travel together. It’s up to us to show how far we can get, if we just go down the road together.

Armine Yalnizyan is a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and a contributor to the Progressive Economics Forum.

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