Conservatives should pay attention to this week’s defeat of Stephen Harper’s government in Canada after a decade in power. Despite presiding over genuinely solid economic performance – it weathered the 2008 recession far better than the U.S. – and job-creating tax cuts, the party went down to a crushing defeat. It won only 32 percent of the vote, way down from the 39 percent it posted in its landslide re-election victory in 2011.
Obviously, voter fatigue played a role. A party in power exhausts the public after several years and runs out of new ideas. The winning Liberal Party also had a charismatic leader in Justin Trudeau, the 43-year-old son of a famous prime minister, as the face of its campaign.
But the Harper government’s loss went beyond the normal cynical nature of politics. Andrew Coyne, Canada’s most distinguished political commentator and a conservative respected in the way George Will is in the U.S., has penned an important column in the National Post blasting the Harper government for cynicism unbecoming to conservatives. It’s worth reading in full. Few conservatives in the U.S. will argue that elements of the Republican Party don’t include the weary cynicism, policy exhaustion and contempt for open government that Coyne dissects.
Here is is an important excerpt from Coyne’s column.
Unless the culture (of the Conservative party) changes, it should not count on being returned to power any time soon.
We should be clear where the roots of that culture lie. The nastiness of Tory politics under Harper, the mindless partisanship, the throttling of backbench MPs, are not outgrowths of conservatism. They were born, rather, of its repudiation: of the decision to sterilize the new party of any ideological convictions, the better (it was supposed) to remove any obstacle to its electability.
Politics fills a vacuum: in the absence of substantive differences with your opponents, partisanship takes its place. If, what is more, a party no longer stands for much as a party, then its policies will default to whatever the leader decides. And the leader, having been given that power and that assignment — win at all costs — can tolerate no deviations from MPs still under the impression that the party harbors some lingering principles.
There has been much talk of how Red Tories were made to feel unwelcome in the party. But the truth is no sort of conservative could really feel the Harper government represented them: not fiscal conservatives, $150 billion in debt later; not social conservatives, forbidden even to say the word “abortion”; certainly not old-time Reformers, the sort of people who went into politics to make governments and leaders more accountable, not less.
The only party faction that was really served was the yahoo faction, the “toxic Tories” as a friend calls them, to whom this government truckled and whose loyalty was rewarded in turn. MPs who were willing to say the opposite of what they believed, or believe the opposite of the facts, were promoted; those who were not found themselves out of cabinet, or indeed out of the party.
The people around Harper, always convinced of their own cleverness, grew drunk on their own cynicism. Having made the initial compromise with their principles — on policy — they found the next much easier, and the next, until they became contemptuous of anything resembling a principle, or anyone still able to discern a line — political, personal, ethical — he would not cross.
It has been so long since Conservatives put forward any bold or radical policy ideas, they have gotten out of the habit; not having heard ideas from that quarter for so long, the public may be forgiven for concluding either that they don’t exist, or that they are so far beyond the pale as not to be worth considering.
Conservatives need to rediscover what it is they stand for, and having done so, stand for it. At the same time, they need to sever themselves from the bullying, sneering culture of the Harperites, of the low brow and the lower blow.