One Step at a Time: Harper Supports the Incremental Approach

The Conservative Party's agenda isn't hidden. It is, however, incremental and progressive, and it starts with getting elected.

On unveiling his party's platform on January 13, Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) leader Stephen Harper explained, "I'm basically a cautious person. I don't measure progress by the level of emotion or the intensity of the sales pitch. I measure it by achievement, one step at a time. I believe that it is better to light one candle than promise a million light bulbs."

Sounds reasonable. But what does he hope to achieve? Toward what goal will this first step take him, and the country he hopes to lead?

We can discern an answer in the words of Harper's speech to a group of conservatives on April 25, 2003, reprinted on the Christian Coalition International (Canada) website. Of course, the Liberals have tried to hold this speech against them, but in their desperation to be shocking, they grasped one of Harper's few attempts at humour and neglected a deeper, and more significant, analysis of his arguments.

His speech, which preceded the merging of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance, concerned how to build a conservative coalition between economic and social conservatives. At the same time, his idea of a unifying program for conservatives with a goal to winning elections and achieving real power bears directly on his electoral ambitions today.

Harper was talking to a friendly audience, so he did not have to cloak his thoughts in the careful, focus group-tested language of an election campaign. Therefore, we can reasonably conclude that Harper spoke his mind, and regard his speech as an honest insight into his philosophy and his plans.

"In the 19th century," Harper explains, economic and social conservatives represented two distinct political philosophies in opposition. Harper describes the former as "a liberal party in the classical sense - rationalist, anticlerical but not anti-religious, free-trading, often republican and usually internationalist."

The latter was associated with Burkean ideas of conservation: "traditionalist, explicitly or implicitly denominational, economically protectionist, usually monarchist, and nationalistic."

At the same time the Whigs and Tories were contesting for political power, a new political movement emerged that threatened both: radical socialism. "In the 20th century," Harper argues, economic and social conservatives "came together as a result of two different forces: resistance to a common enemy, and commitment to ideas widely shared."

When Harper describes the common ground that allowed classical liberals and conservatives to unite against socialists, he is describing the foundation on which he believes today's conservatives must build their coalition:

Both groups favoured private property, small government and reliance on civil society rather than the state to resolve social dilemmas and to create social process. Domestically, both groups resisted those who stood for public ownership, government interventionism, egalitarian redistribution and state sponsorship of secular humanist values. Internationally, they stood unequivocally against external enemies - fascism, communism and socialist totalitarianism in all its forms.

Harper celebrates the triumph of the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions at rolling back the threat of socialism and demonstrating the superiority of the conservative coalition's common ground (neglecting to mention, of course, that Reagan ran up massive government deficits, vastly increased the federal debt as a share of GDP, and left federal fiscal affairs in disarray).

He believes the very success of the conservative coalitions led directly to their more recent failures. "The fall of the Berlin Wall," laments Harper, "signalled the collapse of Soviet Communism as a driving world force, depriving conservatives of all shares of a common external enemy."

This repeated emphasis on the value of a common enemy hearkens to the sentiment of classics professor Leo Strauss, an intellectual hero of the American neoconservative movement, who wrote, "Because mankind [sic] is intrinsically wicked he has to be governed: Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united - and they can only be united against other people."

Harper bemoans the collapse of the conservative consensus, arguing that it represents a failure not of the coalition between economic and social conservatives, but their abandonment of conservatism itself. Consistent with the conservative notion that people must unite against the common enemy, Harper argues, "we must rediscover the common cause and orient our coalition to the nature of the post-Cold-War world."

However, he just finished arguing that conservatives defeated socialism, so he has to invent a new enemy. He calls it "corporatism," which he defines as "statist economic policies and people dependent on big government," and describes as "the use of private ownership and markets for state-directed objectives. Its tools are subsidization, public/private partnerships and state investment funds."

If that sounds suspiciously like the "radical socialism" of yore, then so be it. After this awkward attempt to recast the "common enemy," Harper reverts to form and uses the epithet "modern Left" through the rest of his speech.

The sins of the "modern Left" are chiefly social, not economic, and represent the "moral relativism, moral neutrality and moral equivalency" that he believes are becoming normalized in intellectual and policymaking circles. If you've been thinking Harper sounds pretty moderate these days, consider how he casts the "modern Left" in his rallying cry:

It has moved beyond old socialistic morality or even moral relativism to something much darker. It has become a moral nihilism - the rejection of any tradition or convention of morality, a post-Marxism with deep resentments, even hatreds of the norms of free and democratic western civilization.

This withering analysis of a political philosophy that believes government can do good through public program spending is nothing if not extreme, and I've seen nothing to suggest that Harper has abandoned it in the two and a half years since he spoke these words to his peers and allies.

Clearly, Harper's not actually moving to the centre. He believes, and a great many of his supporters agree, that if conservatives are to have any chance of transforming Canadian government, they must exercise "careful political judgment. ... [T]he issues must be chosen carefully" to cross denominations and draw in a wide range of conservatives and libertarians.

Harper has simply taken his own advice to be patient and take "the incremental approach" to reapplying the "conservative agenda" in Canada. Near the beginning of his speech, Harper said, "Whatever attraction a coalition of [conservative] parties may have, we need to concentrate on what is actually doable. That is, we need to form a coalition of voters and, to attract them, a coalition of ideas."

Harper's goals have not changed in two and a half years. An ideological policy wonk does not seek power so he can fail to exercise it. Here's an example: many voters are comforted by the Conservative budget platform, which offers tax cuts out of the surplus and holds spending increases to inflation and population growth, but makes no cuts to spending.

However, Harper clearly regards his party's spending freeze as the first incremental step toward implementing a more conservative approach to how the government collects and spends tax dollars. He significantly points to the limits of simply cutting taxes "if conservatives cannot dispute anything about how or why a government actually does what it does."

Balanced budgets are not good enough, because they still "accept all legislated social liberalism," leaving "no differences between a conservative and a Paul Martin." Harper explains what he sees as the real goal: "We do need deeper and broader tax cuts, further reductions in debt, further deregulation and privatization, and especially the elimination of corporate subsidies and industrial-development schemes."

But Harper's learned not to get ahead of himself. Step one: get elected on January 23, preferably with a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

(Thanks to Adrian Duyzer for drawing attention to Harper's speech.)

Ryan McGreal
January 17, 2006

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