Flipping the Line: Conservatives can't be shocked that populists are among them
Dale Smith is not impressed to see conservatives suddenly worried about the landmines they themselves carefully laid beneath the soil.
The Line welcomes angry rebuttals and responses to our work. The best will be featured in our ongoing series, Flipping the Line. Today, journalist Dale Smith replies to Ken Boessenkool’s recent essay on the threat populists pose to modern conservatism.
By Dale Smith
In Ken Boessenkool’s column “The populists are the problem,” there is a sense of shock that things have gotten so bad, that the very people that small-c conservatives in this country have flattered over the years have gotten away from them. The “Martha and Henry” model of “severely normal Albertans” that were once the seen as the backbone of conservative politics — people who “favoured individual responsibility, strong families, a helping community and a responsive government that largely stayed out of the way,” in Boessenkool’s words — relied on a certain amount of magical thinking, and a certain amount of wilful blindness to what was actually being said.
Simply put, Martha and Henry were generally not the nice, genteel people that conservatives imagined them to be. It’s not that they have “gone a bit nuts,” as Boessenkool worries, but rather, they were always a bit nuts, and they generally had their bigotries pandered to in subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, ways.
For someone who played senior strategy and policy roles for four federal elections for the Conservatives, and in numerous conservative federal and provincial leadership contests, Boessenkool’s piece comes off like someone is ignorant of their own actions and surprised to find that they created a monster — like the joke about how the woman who never thought the leopards would eat her face when she voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party.
The not-so-subtle undercurrent of pandering to Martha and Henry and the “severely normal Albertans” was that this was also loudly winking and nodding to homophobia and subtle forms of racism in the province, because “severely normal” meant white, and rural or suburban — and as a gay nerd growing up in rural Alberta at the time, let me tell you that some of us heard this message loud and clear. Pandering to populism came at the expense of marginalized communities, and even when the federal Conservatives made an effort to reach out to certain socially conservative ethno-cultural communities through Jason Kenney’s buffet dinner tour, the underlying message was always to target other marginalized groups, oftentimes asylum seekers whom he differentiated from “legitimate” immigrants, as well as gays and lesbians.
Boessenkool was at Stephen Harper’s side when the party thought that buying into the American culture war wholesale was a winning ticket, with the notions of the “pure” people and the “corrupt” elites to rail against. For him to be shocked that the people whose bigotries were nurtured went on to fully embrace the “culture of contempt” and radical individualism seems to be a case of wilful blindness to the consequences of his actions.
There was one particular line in Boessenkool’s piece that really stuck in my craw as I read it: “There are two approaches to dealing with modern populists on the right,” Boessenkool wrote. “And sadly perhaps, the burden does fall on conservative leaders to deal with them.”
Perhaps? Conservative leaders created this problem, so why the reluctance to acknowledge that they need to fix it? And this wasn’t just pandering to Martha and Henry — in recent years, it has accelerated to a complete embrace of “shitposting,” social media posts designed to derail discussions or cause the biggest reaction with the least effort possible. Lying to the Canadian public in order to make them angry is now a daily occurrence.
According to Boessenkool, the first and dangerous way to deal with these populists is to foment their anger — but his construction of the sentence implies that this is a possibility that may eventually be attempted, rather than what is going on right now, and has been happening for years.
In Alberta, Jason Kenney’s modus operandi is to foment irrational anger toward his perceived enemies to ensure that nothing is ever his fault, particularly when it comes to the province’s financial situation. It was Rachel Notley’s fault, or Justin Trudeau’s, but not his, no sir (while ironically preaching “personal responsibility”). For Kenney and others to profess shock at seeing people bringing nooses and signs reading “Trudeau for Treason” to their rallies, or for “Lock her up!” chants to become commonplace, is galling. Likewise, with Kenney stoking separatist sentiment in his province through mechanisms like his rigged “fair deal” panel, while at the same time denouncing the separatists, shows he thinks himself clever enough to be the arsonist who sets the fires and then puts them out so that he can look like a hero.
The weapons for stoking that irrational anger tend to be the very shitposts that @martha79453 and @henry83795 gleefully share on social media, and both Jason Kenney and Erin O’Toole have professional shitposters on their payrolls. When Boessenkool notes that “the tendency of @martha79453 and @henry83795 to believe in odd conspiracies and dangerous declarations means that we can’t expect them to act in traditionally conservative ways,” he ignores that these very same leaders have been promoting conspiracy theories as part of their arsenal of shitpost fodder (such as Pierre Poilievre winking and nodding to conspiracy theories about the “Great Reset”), and he shouldn’t therefore be shocked that some of those conspiracy theories start veering toward age-old anti-Semitism. Recall Conservative MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay’s shock that Chrystia Freeland once interviewed George Soros, and her declaration that Canadians should be very alarmed by this — comments for which she eventually apologized, saying, "I thoughtlessly shared content from what I am now learning is a source that promotes hateful conspiracy theories. I have removed the tweets and apologize.” No explanation was ever offered to go with the apology.
As Boessenkool does point out, this tactic is unsustainable because it does nothing to address the underlying problems, and they often stoke resentment with grandiose promises (like bringing back another oil boom), but he misses the fact that the lies that are inherent in this kind of fomenting of anger also have a corrosive effect on the very trust these same leaders hope to build.
So while it’s commendable for Boessenkool to recognize that “only those on the right can call out these tendencies on the right,” his soft-peddling of his ideological fellow travellers in creating the problem, and his reluctance to put any responsibility on those same conservative leaders for this state of affairs that he now decries — let alone to try to fix it — undermines the impact of the argument that he is trying to make. If the conservatives are really about personal responsibility instead of radical individualism, then perhaps they need to take some responsibility for the mess they created, and the flames they continue to stoke.
Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and author of “The Unbroken Machine: Canada’s Democracy in Action.” He can be found on Twitter @journo_dale.
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