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Is morality a conservative issue? Not in Canada

How the American and Canadian right wings took diverging ideological paths

Last year Stephen Woodworth, a member of Canada’s Parliament, introduced a motion to create an expert panel that would reexamine how Canada’s criminal laws define the beginning of human life. The point was clear: He wanted to open a debate over abortion, currently handled as a purely medical matter in Canada, and consider whether it might be redefined as a crime.

Woodworth is a member of the Conservative Party, and his motion drew a strong response. The four liberal opposition parties, not surprisingly, immediately condemned it. But so did many of his fellow Conservatives. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, an evangelical Christian and arguably the most right-wing Canadian leader in history, declared the motion “unfortunate” and made clear he would be voting against it. The Conservative responsible for maintaining government discipline in the House, Gordon O’Connor, went further, declaring, “This should never happen in a civilized society....I cannot understand why those who are adamantly opposed to abortion want to impose their beliefs on others by way of the Criminal Code.”

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Much as Americans may joke about it as an outpost of Europe to our north, Canada is the nation most similar to the United States in the world—not just culturally, but in its politics. Its Conservative Party, in power since 2006, has been steadfastly pro-Israel, ended diplomatic relations with Iran, rolled back gun control, reduced the size of the federal bureaucracy, minimized environmental regulations to encourage resource development, and offloaded responsibilities for the welfare state to the provinces. A mainstream Republican who ended up north of the border would find Canadian conservatism, in many respects, a perfectly congenial political home.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C.

AP Photo/Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C.

But not in every respect. As the response to Woodworth’s motion indicates, a striking difference has arisen between the conservative movement in the two countries on social issues. Though Canada has seen some argument over same-sex marriage and abortion, it almost totally lacks America’s charged partisan debates over social issues such as school prayer, the teaching of evolution in schools (even as many religious schools receive government financial support), or religious exemptions to our publicly funded health care system. There are groups concerned with these issues, but they aren’t seen as bread-and-butter conservative principles.

Why this divergence? Why are social issues so much less contentious in Canada than in the United States? A comparison of conservative parties in the two countries illustrates how the modern slate of conservative issues came together in each country—and how easily it might have gone a different way. And at a time when many are suggesting the American GOP needs to find a new consensus to prevent the kind of national defeat it just suffered, their story suggests how much “conservative” principles can shift as coalitions change—and that conservative positions may look very different in a decade.

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In the United Statestoday, it seems automatic that one party would be on one side of a whole menu of social issues—abortion, gay rights, sex education in schools, divorce, and the role of women—and that these would sit cheek-by-jowl with the other bedrock conservative issues of military strength and pro-business economic policies. The Republican Party has embraced its social agenda so fervently over the past several decades that it’s easy to forget a point that some of the party’s more libertarian members make: that a political interest in people’s morality doesn’t fit particularly well with a belief in limiting the power and reach of the government.

Former President George H.W. Bush and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1999.

AP Photo/CP, Paul Chiasson

Former President George H.W. Bush and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1999.

Canadian conservatives tend to agree with American conservatives when it comes to economic and foreign policy, so why the difference on social issues? While many factors make politics in the two countries different, a crucial one is the historical evolution of conservative ideology—particularly in the late 1960s, when social issues like abortion, homosexuality, the public display of religion, no-fault divorce, and the role of women became contentious in both countries.

Initially, it was policy makers, judges, and political elites who struggled with how to adapt laws and public policy to quickly changing social mores. But, by the early 1970s, these were becoming political issues: Both progressives and conservatives were mobilizing powerful grass-roots organizations that made social issues the centerpieces of their political appeal.

At the time, however, exactly how positions on these issues would fit into existing ideologies was not obvious. Was being “pro-life” giving voice to the disenfranchised and voiceless, and so a progressive cause, like welfare for children? Or, was it a defense of traditional notions of the family, and thus a conservative position? Was homosexuality a moral failing, or was it perhaps a disease like alcoholism that ought to be treated therapeutically (a stock progressive argument at the time against sodomy laws)?

Both Canada and America had to sort out these issues in their politics and, as they did, conservatives in the two nations arrived at markedly different perspectives.

At the start of the 1960s, the Republican Party in America was a coalition between liberals like Nelson Rockefeller—who promoted a growing welfare state, generally supported the UN, and were friendly to the “Northeastern consensus”—and libertarian or free-market conservatives like Barry Goldwater, who opposed the growth of the welfare state, sought a militantly anticommunist foreign policy, and mostly hailed from the West and Midwest.

Goldwater’s wing of the party grew quickly, and as it did a group of conservative intellectuals was waging a self-conscious campaign to redefine American conservatism, as an ideology and a movement. They saw it as a fusion between libertarians, who emphasized freedom, and traditionalists—often religiously motivated—who emphasized order and public virtue. Chief among these thinkers and writers was the late William F. Buckley, who embraced both small government and a religiously motivated moral traditionalism. He and his cohort were so successful in engineering this fusion that even libertarian conservatives like Goldwater made the restoration of public virtue a part of their political appeals. The success of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in 1968-72 gave the Republicans an influential new mass of morally conservative voters, and Republican conservatives had all but driven liberals out of the party by the time of Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980.

As issues like gay rights, divorce, and abortion emerged, conservatives found, in their concern with public virtue, political reason to oppose change. Then, as the religious right mobilized in the late 1970s, it was able to identify its activism as “conservative” on these grounds, and supported traditional-value Republicans. Once established as a legitimate part of American conservatism, social conservatives benefited from the ability of religious groups like the Moral Majority to mobilize voters and from the openness of American institutions to influence by interest groups. But it was the ideological legitimacy that came first.

The Canadian situation was different. In 1960s Canada, conservative ideology was not a movement in search of a party but the property of a single party, the Progressive Conservatives. At its core were libertarian pro-business conservatives. But to a much more significant degree than in the United States, this core was modified by the influence of another ideological tendency—Toryism. Tories saw themselves as heirs of the Loyalists who had fled the American Revolution two centuries earlier. They were fueled by an almost aristocratic sense of noblesse oblige, a sense that community came first and that a strong, interventionist state was necessary to preserve it. They also believed firmly that public virtue was not a matter for politics, or legislation: That was the responsibility of churches (Canada was still a markedly religious society in the 1960s) and society’s elites. They drew on statements by British Conservatives that it was important to differentiate between sins and crimes.

When the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau introduced changes to Canada’s criminal code in 1968 that allowed access to abortions in hospitals (subject to approval by a committee of doctors), allowed no-fault divorce, and decriminalized sodomy, the Progressive Conservative leadership offered very little opposition. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, still under the influence of the Tories, the party kept American-style social conservatism at arm’s length. A series of court decisions in the late 1980s striking down the reforms to abortion law of 1968 forced the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney to attempt to fill the legal void; Mulroney made two attempts to pass a bill that would have enshrined a gestational approach in Canadian law, intending to make abortions progressively more difficult to obtain as pregnancy progressed.

Both of them ultimately failed, sunk by politicians on both left and right who couldn’t agree on a compromise, and many of whom believed abortion shouldn’t be up for debate at all. As a result of this ends-against-the-middle outcome, abortion in Canada is subject to no legal regulation, governed instead by prevailing medical codes of ethics and its definition as a medically necessary procedure under Canada’s health care funding law.

When gay rights emerged as a political issue in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was Mulroney’s conservative government that allowed openly gay Canadians to serve in the military and placed some antidiscrimination provisions in the federal human rights code.

Today the Tories have vanished from Canada’s political life as a separate group: The modern Conservative Party is the result of a mid-1990s reshuffling in which the Progressive Conservatives were shouldered aside by a new wave, more economically conservative and significantly more populist. To this day, Canada’s conservatives have never taken a clear position on abortion, and the party tries to minimize discussion of the abortion issue. Though it did take a clear stand against same-sex marriage, strikingly, it did almost nothing to try to undo marriage rights for same-sex couples once they were passed in 2005.

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Using Toryism as a prism to understand the difference between Canada and the United States goes a long way in explaining what differentiates the political pasts of the two countries. Canadian elites and a substantial part of the population long sought to maintain an ordered and hierarchical society on the British model. Canada’s 19th-century frontier was a highly regulated one compared to America’s; its manufacturing sector protected by heavy government involvement; its society (until after the Second World War) significantly more socially stratified. Canada has always been more open to state intervention in the market, something at least partly attributable to Tory influence, and citizens are significantly more deferential to authority. Though Tory power was already fading by the 1960s, the way in which Canadian conservatism approached social issues means the Tories’ fingerprints still show on Canadian politics.

In understanding the future of the Republican Party, it is important to remember that the libertarian-religious right alliance that now defines the Republican party and American conservatism is not automatic: It was largely determined by conservatives sorting out how to respond to a new set of issues in the 1960s. Under a different set of pressures and influences—such as Canadian conservatives experienced—the interaction between ideology and party politics can fracture in different directions, creating a future that neither party has yet imagined.

Today, on issues such as gun control, immigration, trade policy, and fiscal policy, Republicans seem to be approaching a necessary reexamination of parts of their platform. The Canadian comparison suggests that conservatism has the intellectual resources to take Republicans in unanticipated directions, and yet also that the party’s history may make it surprisingly difficult to break with the past.

James Farney is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Regina, and author of “Social Conservatives and Party Politics in Canada and the United States.”
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