Americans tend to make fun of their northern neighbour – that is, when they think of Canada at all. “Blame Canada!” Kyle’s mom sings in the movie South Park. And the American political writer Michael Kinsley once challenged readers to suggest a more boring headline than “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative”. None of this, however, deters former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper. In his new book, Right Here, Right Now, Harper has some advice for American conservatives struggling with how to deal with populism and Donald Trump: be more like us.
Harper’s argument is that the forces underpinning populist sentiment are real and here to stay. Conservatives in America – and by implication, elsewhere – must either adapt or cede power to the “liberal Left”. I’ve long admired Harper, and have argued for nearly a decade with my fellow American conservatives in favour of the very points he makes. Yet, as he notes, American conservatism continues to look on Canada’s less doctrinaire conservatism as lukewarm socialism.
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Two years after Trump easily swept aside 16 Republican primary opponents and blasted through the Democrats’ vaunted Midwestern ‘blue wall’ to seize the White House, conservatives remain in denial about why he won – and largely refuse to acknowledge the moral legitimacy of his supporters’ demands. Trump’s desire for a large infrastructure building program has gone nowhere, and Republicans otherwise supine before him roar with dismay at his deviations from free-trade orthodoxy. Now Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggests that cutting pensions and government-funded health care are next on the agenda, notwithstanding the President’s clear campaign promise that he would not do that.
Harper’s calm and reasoned arguments against this narrow Republican position present an entirely different notion of what it means to be conservative. Edmund Burke is Harper’s intellectual lodestar; he subscribes to the argument that conservatism is as much a disposition as a set of ideas. As a result, Harper sees a way to respond to current concerns and challenges that seems to elude most American conservatives.
Populism and Trump arose, Harper suggests, because “the world of globalization is not working for many of our own people”. Trump is right to contend that mass illegal immigration and poor trade deals have reduced many working people’s incomes and cost millions of jobs. At the same time, Harper heartily agrees with Goodhart’s ‘Anywheres’ versus ‘Somewheres’ analysis that elites who are economically and socially connected across the globe have lost touch with their fellow citizens whose worldviews and lives remain highly dependent upon the nation state. Conservatives, he argues, must back the Somewheres in this struggle and “be the champions for working men, women, and families in the twenty-first century”.
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To do that, American conservatives need to be more like the Canadian Conservative Party Harper led – less beholden to ideology. He notes that Canada experienced levels of immigration as high as America and signed a host of free-trade deals during his tenure, but Canadians have not suffered income declines or massive job losses like Americans, nor have they turned against immigration. Indeed, Canada stands out as perhaps the only major advanced economy that does not have a significant populist movement, either of the Corbynite Left or the Trumpist Right. That, he says, is due to his government’s choices.
Those policy choices combined support for free markets with targeted interventions to ensure that the gains from those markets are spread evenly throughout society and the nation. Harper touts his government’s support for increased vocational education and apprenticeships, and their continued subsidy for higher education to keep it affordable for average incomes.
On immigration, he notes that his government made Canada’s system more focused on the skills an immigrant could bring and less reliant on family relations. He also ensured that immigrants had to learn more about Canadian history and values in order to become citizens. The result is that migrants are better equipped to integrate and natives feel less threatened. No wall, but no open door either.
Harper most consciously breaks with American conservative consensus on the issues of trade and regulation. He says with pride that Canada did not follow America’s path in financial deregulation, and as a result did not see its banks collapse in the wake of the 2008 crisis.
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The trade deals his government struck took care not to bring down barriers without considering which Canadian interests would be harmed or advanced by the details of the deal. He specifically praises Canada’s supply management system that regulates agricultural production, which ensured that thousands of communities were not devastated by the flood of cheaper, imported goods, as happened in America. His government also provided for both ample funds and ample time to those sectors that would be hurt by freer trade enabling them to adjust to the new competition. America’s failure to do likewise simply baffles him.
His time in office was also marked by making Canadian government smaller. He cut taxes 14 times in nine years, reducing the national goods and services tax from 7% to 5%, lowering the corporate income tax rate, and delivering a panoply of targeted credits and deductions aimed squarely at helping Canadian families keep their after-tax incomes high. For him, keeping demand high is as economically important as encouraging supply.
As a result, Canada’s unemployment rate might be slightly higher than America’s today, but its middle-class prospered as America’s stagnated – during Harper’s term, median income in Canada grew, far outpacing that in America. There also are many fewer devastated regions and towns in Canada; most Canadians still live in areas that don’t have the shuttered stores and abandoned mills which characterise so much of the American Midwest. Canada is not perfect, but it’s a pretty good place to live and raise a family.
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Politically, Canada has been dominated by the Liberal Party since the Great Depression. The ‘Grits’, as they are known up north, are a party of the centre, swaying Left or Right with the wind to hold power at all costs. And yet, Harper steered his Conservative Party to three straight election wins, earning him the unremitting hatred of Canada’s academic and media elites.
He also earned the votes of millions of Canadian immigrants, votes that returned to the Tories in the most recent Ontario elections when Tory leader Doug Ford ran on a very Harper-like platform. Harper’s nine years as prime minister were the longest of any Conservative since the great Sir John McDonald in the late 19th Century.
Harper’s Canada was prosperous, peaceful, and conservative. So why aren’t American conservatives flocking north to learn from the master of principled victory?
The trouble is, American political culture, especially conservative political culture, is shaped by two historical documents that remain very difficult even for fellow Anglosphere conservatives to understand: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Both Revolutionary period documents favour individual rights above government power in a way that has no comparison in the British, Canadian, or Australian experience. Both state that government’s powers must be limited to ensure those rights are protected. As a result, much conservative thought and action is predicated on the idea that the modern state runs contrary to America’s ideals, and even the nature of man. Interventions and prudential decisions such as Harper made are often considered by conservatives to be either wrong or unconstitutional down south.
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The American Left responds to these pressures with a very different view. It implicitly contends that the notion of rights trumps the notion of limited government. Thus it is entirely American to intervene in private life – whether economically via taxes, spending, and regulation or socially via anti-discrimination laws and the like – in order to uphold every American’s right to live a freely-chosen life. This in turn has made American political debate a lot less about policy and a lot more about rights, which by definition cannot be the subject of political debate. Much of the increasing anger and hostility that characterises American politics can be traced to this underlying dispute.
This rights-based view of politics explains why American conservatives remain resistant to Harper’s views. Protecting farming communities or regulating the Canadian banking industry to ensure social harmony is viewed down south as illegitimate; doing this abrogates the rights of those who would win if the government allowed unfettered competition.
America’s trade deals hollowed out the Midwest because protecting Rust Belt workers would have meant limiting the rights of American business people to make contracts with anyone they want. In this view, the gains accruing to the winners are theirs by right, and the losses accruing to the others are deserved. But even Republican voters, much less average independent voters, do not share the Republican old guard’s extreme rights-based view of American liberty.
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Which was why Trump won. He was not schooled in American conservative thought and thus was not blinded by it. But he remains woefully unsophisticated in the governing arts and has failed to develop the sort of comprehensive governing agenda that could refound American conservatism.
Every American conservative should read Harper’s book with this in mind. Romney’s defeat and Trump’s victory should be seared into their consciousness, as together they show how Americans want a principled response to the challenges in their everyday lives. Harper’s book provides a blueprint for that response. The person who grasps this first can reshape the Republican Party, and in the process become Trump’s heir.