In tribal identity — if not necessarily on policy and tactics — modern Canadian conservatism has always been in close communion with its U.S. counterpart. The performance of the Republican Party in Tuesday’s midterms accordingly demands partisan analysis not just as a U.S. story but as a lesson for conservatives across the continent.
Their loss of the House of Representatives notwithstanding, the Republicans continue to occupy a position that Canadian Conservatives deserve to envy. They control half the legislature, and the party’s capacity to hold the White House seems less tenuous than even a week ago. Part of this is due to institutions unique to the United States, particularly an elected Senate, which offer electoral opportunities not present in Canada. But much is also undeniably due to the GOP’s sheer retail skill at selling itself to a large chunk of the electorate with obvious Canadian analogy.
Republican dominance of the rural United States reflects the GOP’s ongoing success at presenting itself as the party of non-urban culture — the latter end of the country’s “Prius or Pickup” polarization. Such a cultural cleavage is equally present in Canada, which actually has a slightly larger percentage of the population living in rural areas than the United States does, with more than 6 million Canadians dwelling outside the country’s urban centers. Yet Canada’s Conservatives have not weaponized this fact into a comparative political advantage for themselves.
In 2015, the magazine Maclean’s sought to answer “Who won Canada’s rural vote” in that year’s general election. They found that the Conservatives won only 46 percent of Canada’s rural districts for a total of 70 parliamentary seats, while the left-wing parties took the majority with a combined 82 rural seats. In “rurban” ridings, or rural districts whose boundaries “dip into heavily urban or suburban areas,” the Conservatives lost, six to 12.
Given that their opponent is a prime minister who aggressively exudes the sensibilities of urban progressivism, Canada’s Conservatives should have a natural cultural alliance with those rural areas of Ontario, Atlantic Canada and British Columbia that presently vote Liberal or NDP. Yet in practice, the Tory Party’s urbanite leadership seems more interested in pursuing gains in exactly the sort of suburban areas that turned sharply against Republicans on Tuesday.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is no President Trump, and many in his brain trust will no doubt dismiss the GOP’s House loss as the logical revulsion of the United States’ educated middle class toward a vulgar president. Yet as politics becomes more cultural and less transactional, rejecting Conservative politicians is an increasingly nonnegotiable outgrowth of a particular sort of geographic, class and gender identity. A deliberate effort to distance themselves from the White House provided little safety to the suburban Republican legislators who were among Tuesday’s biggest victims.
In a climate of culture war, policy remains a powerful motivator, but the stakes are grander — more moral and civilizational. When Trump and Republicans prioritize the importance of judges and immigration in their partisan pleas, they’re asking voters to consider fundamental questions about the character of their country — will it be ordered and predictable, or permissive and experimental? Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made no pretense about what side he’s on. Scheer’s Conservatives, forever petrified of seeming nasty or offensive, come off considerably less clear.
Another question for Canadian Conservatives after Tuesday’s aftermath is the degree to which their party’s extraordinarily liberal position on abortion — no regulation under any circumstances — is sustainable, given ongoing Republican success campaigning against the practice. The GOP has not moderated on the life question, with opposition to abortion continuing to be the default for virtually all Republican candidates at the federal level and largely at the state level, too. The incoming Republican Senate may well be the most pro-life ever, given that Republican gains in the chamber have robbed the party’s two pro-choice outliers — Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) — from holding the balance of power.
Should a Supreme Court with a Republican-approved majority overturn Roe v. Wade, the United States will enter a new era in which abortion is regulated at the state level with varying degrees of strictness. The ensuing policy discussions will be serious and substantial, and Canadians will participate in them, as is their vicarious habit. Such high-profile reexamination of abortion law will undermine the pretense that has long been used to exclude pro-life conservatives from Canadian political life, however — namely that the abortion debate has been permanently “closed” on pro-choice terms.
The most pressing teachable moment for Canada’s Conservatives may come from Democrats, however. The two share a status as their respective countries’ out party, and both have rationalized that fate in similarly self-pitying ways. Just as Democrats are prone to blame all sorts of outside variables for their lack of power — Russia, gerrymandering, the structure of the Senate, etc. — Tory partisans have accumulated their own list of externalities to justify their losses, including a hostile press and expansive theories of foreign-funded political operatives. Absent from both is any concession that their electoral strategies have failed to adapt to changed circumstances, or that the public is rationally unmoved by an unattractive partisan agenda or brand.
Politics is supposedly the realm of life that most cleanly distinguishes Canada from America. As Trudeau begins his bid for a second term, Canadian Conservatives must decide whether they wish to be complicit in this fate.