4.3 Conservatism Today and Tomorrow: An Ideology Without a Party, or a Party Without an Ideology?

Dr. Tyler Chamberlain

This chapter has highlighted some of the many varieties of conservative political thought. There is not one form of conservatism, but many. Multiple groups and perspectives lay claim to the label, and although there are some commonalities there are also deep political and philosophical differences. Moreover, it is of little use to group them all under the category “right wing,” since some ideas that have been espoused by conservatives bridge the left-right divide that currently shapes political discourse in advanced democracies; this is especially so with classical conservatism. As noted above, Canadian classical conservatives have advocated for policies that are recognizably left-wing, such as support for labour unions, government regulation to reduce economic inequality, and stronger environmental regulations. Eugene Forsey and George Grant, two influential writers in this conservative tradition, strongly supported the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the precursor to today’s left-wing New Democratic Party. This is not just a Canadian phenomenon; classical conservatism generally prefers a more activist state than do many of today’s right-wing parties.

There are differences and tensions within today’s conservative parties, too. A major fault line divides libertarians from both social conservatives and neoconservatives. Libertarians prefer limited government involvement in the personal affairs of private citizens and are thus more willing to support, for example, the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage. Social and neoconservatives, on the other hand, feel that it is the government’s duty to preserve traditional values and hence are more likely to oppose these practices. The conservative split over social issues can be seen in the level of support for Bill C-7, an Act to amend the Criminal Code (medical assistance in dying) that was passed by the Canadian House of Commons on December 10, 2020.[1] This bill would relax some of the safeguards around medical assistance in dying, including the requirement that a person’s death be reasonably foreseeable in order to be eligible. There was almost complete unanimity within all parties except for the Conservative Party of Canada, which saw almost 13% of MPs (15 of 118 MPs) break from their colleagues to support the bill. The Liberals, by way of comparison, voted 142-2 in favour of Bill C-7.[2]  The relative diversity of the Conservative Party, at least on some social issues, reflects the differences between the varied political outlooks that have come to call themselves ‘conservative’.

The future of conservatism is likely to be very different from its past. The rise of populism has been particularly influential among conservative parties in many advanced democracies. Populism itself is not a new political attitude, but it has reshaped the political landscape in recent years. There are competing definitions of populism, but most accounts agree that it is based on a core distinction between the elites and everybody else. Cultural, political, and business elites are working against the interests of the common people, and populists seek to restore political power and influence to ordinary people. Donald Trump’s presidency was largely a populist phenomenon, as is the Brexit movement in the UK. In both cases, much of their public support arose out of frustration with the failure of political elites to understand and serve the needs of the common people. For a more detailed analysis of populism, see chapter 7 in this book.

For our purposes, the relevant questions are the following: Does the populist turn represent a lasting change in mainstream conservatism, and, if so, how does it differ from classical conservatism and the New Right? These are complex questions that cannot be fully answered here. However, whatever becomes of populism within conservative parties in the future, it will probably be one of multiple factions competing for influence alongside libertarianism, neoconservatism, and others. From our current vantage point, we can safely say that right-wing populism is here to stay. Its many differences from other conservative outlooks may create difficult problems for conservative parties. Populists do not see eye-to-eye with libertarians or neoconservatives on important issues like the role of the state in regulating the economy, the importance of global military action, or the value of adhering to traditional norms of constitutionalism and liberal democracy. It is not clear how the Conservative Party of Canada or the American Republican Party will manage this emerging perspective or whether they will be able to agree on a consistent set of policy proposals, but this dynamic is likely to be the defining feature of conservative politics for the foreseeable future.

Discussion Questions

  1. Classical conservatives believe that political reform should always take existing traditions and institutions into account and should not reject them out of hand. How do you think they would respond to the claim that a certain institution, modern police forces for example, is structurally racist and beyond reform?
  2. Given the many differences between classical and modern conservatism, does it make sense to call them both conservative? Are the many perspectives currently called conservative bound together by any commonalities?
  3. Many classical conservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives have argued that right-wing populism is not really conservative at all. Do you agree with this claim? If right-wing populism is deserving of the label of conservative, on what grounds? If not, why not?

[1] At the time of writing, the Senate has passed the bill with some amendments. The House of Commons must now consider the amended version of the bill before it can receive royal assent and become law.

[2] More information on Bill C-7, including the text of the bill and voting records, can be found on the “LEGISinfo” section of the website for the Canadian Parliament: https://www.parl.ca/LegisInfo/Home.aspx?Language=en&ParliamentSession=43-2.


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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Tyler Chamberlain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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