Republican failure shows conservative parties must adapt, like Alberta PCs, or die

Psychological/political portraits of Stephen Harper and Barack Obama by Edmonton artist William Prettie. Used with permission.

This too shall pass…

Now and then throughout history, as with Whigs and Communists, international political-ideological movements of enormous influence wither and disappear, often quite suddenly. It is rarely their call.

Neoconservatives – or neoliberals, call them what you will – embodied in the modern American Republican Party led into Tuesday’s United States presidential election by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are now showing just such signs of fading into history.

It is said here that the Canadian neoliberals of Stephen Harper’s so-called Conservative Party of Canada – tied at the apron strings as they are to the American Republicans – will not be far behind them.

Out of tune with the demographic realities of the United States, dominated by an extremist “Tea Party” rump of racists, homophobes, misogynists and market fundamentalists enamoured of a deeply destructive economic program and a nihilistic political strategy of obstructionism, a strong case can be made that Tuesday’s reelection of Barack Obama, a very-small-l-liberal president with a weak economic record in his first term, may have been the last hurrah for this crowd.

Backed as they are by big money and deeply cynical strategic minds, there continue to be many reasons to fear the post-election defiance of the increasingly marginalized Republicans as they shout that they’ll be back, and with brighter and better leaders than the hapless former Massachusetts governor and his pathologically lying vice-presidential sidekick from Wisconsin.

And like a cornered rattlesnake, they will still be dangerous. As Jonathan Martin wrote in Politico a few days before the election, quoting an unnamed Republican backroom operative, the party’s loss of Tuesday’s main event means its candidate in 2016 “will certainly be a card-carrying movement conservative with a track record to match.”

But that would be precisely the wrong strategy for the American Republicans, certain to speed them toward the dustbin of history.

“If I hear anybody say it was because Romney wasn’t conservative enough I’m going to go nuts,” Sen. Lindsay Graham was quoted saying in Mr. Martin’s story. “We’re not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we’re not being hard-ass enough,” said the South Carolina senator, who blamed shifting demographics without much context for the party’s looming troubles.

Four years with the American economy on the rebound – a likely condition on which Mr. Obama’s forthcoming policies may or may not have much actual influence – will augur well for the term-limited president’s constitutionally inevitable Democratic successor. If elected, whomever that candidate turns out to be, his or her challenger will be the third consecutive Republican defeated by the Democratic presidential candidate.

Inevitably, another centrist democratic president presiding over a buoyant economy with a philosophy that government has an important role to play will be one more nail in the coffin of the international philosophy of hard-line fiscal discipline that animates modern neoliberalism – be it Republican, Conservative or Wildrose in flavour.

As we all know, in politics as in other enterprises, the smart money follows the candidate with the best chance of winning, and so what the New Yorker’s Nicolas Lemann called in his election post-mortem “an increasingly unlikely coalition of business interests and social-issue populists” will surely begin to unravel.

And so it will in Canada too, as contributors and strategists observe the downward spiral of the American Republicans that inspire the Reform Party-dominated Canadian Conservatives under Mr. Harper.

Demographic trends in Canada are not precisely the same as in the United States, but with American cultural influence looming large and a population traditionally more in tune with social democratic concepts and programs, making Canada a place where “European style” is not necessarily an insult, it can be argued Conservative backers and voters here too will grow increasingly wary of Mr. Harper’s Americanized fiscal fantasies.

Indeed, Conservative parties everywhere face the prospect of having to adapt to new realities, and if they do not, they will die.

Survival means moving back toward the centre – precisely where the Tea Party driven American Republicans and the Reform Party derived Canadian Conservatives are disinclined to go.

Ironically, it is here in conservative Alberta that a conservative political party facing similar demographic and social realities (caused in this case by a decades-long influx of newcomers from more liberal parts of Canada) hit upon a formula that works in the form of softer, more centrist rhetoric and a genuine move to the centre on social policies.

The Progressive Conservatives under Premier Alison Redford are still a market-oriented party of business, as suits their corporate backers, but their success at the polls against the wild-eyed Tea Partiers of the Wildrose Party illuminates the best hope for a future for conservatives, be they American Republicans or Canadian Tories.

But those national parties are now so dominated by their radical wings that such a progression is unlikely – and thus their demise is probably inevitable.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

7 Comments on "Republican failure shows conservative parties must adapt, like Alberta PCs, or die"

  1. fred says:

    Q: What do you get when you cross Mitt Romney with Paul Ryan?

    A: Stephen Harper.

    I’m here all week. Don’t forget to tip.

  2. Bruce says:

    Here’s hoping you’re right, Dave.

  3. ronmac says:

    This should have been slam dunk for Obama.

    Normally, incumbent presidents have little trouble winning a second term. Since 1932 -going back 80 years- there’s been only one who didn’t (Jimmy Carter in 1980).

    Most of the GOP heavy hitters realized early on Obama was probably a two-termer and stayed out, leaving the field to Mitt who was expected to go down in a blaze of glory.

    But then the unexpected happened. The race became a lot closer. Why?

    In the first place the Obama campaign was run by a group of technocrats and was about as inspiring as watching paint dry. Half the time Obama looked like one of those lab technicians stepping out of the lab for a smoke.

    In contrast Mitt was blowing into every nook and cranny, and lying a mile a minute. Over time I think the American public grew fond of him, -as I did.

    Call me old fashioned but I expect a certain amount of lying from politicians, especially at election time. It shows they care.

  4. Lars says:

    David, as I recall, the Harper Conservatives have a solid 40% support – do you really expect it to fragment under the strains imposed by the inconsistencies of the party’s ideology? Aside from the recent Alberta election being lost by the God Forbid party, there doesn’t seem to be much sign of this sort of division in Canadian conservatism.

  5. Tom in Ontario says:

    When you look at the final numbers Obama walked all over Romney. He took the swing states, ran up a margin of 2.5 million in the popular vote and didn’t lose any of the states he was supposed to win. He ran a tough campaign. After the first debate debacle he began campaigning in earnest and never looked back.

    As for incumbents being reelected or not, Besides Carter in 1980, Hoover lost to FDR in 1932, Gerald Ford was toppled by Jimmy Carter in ’76 and Bill Clinton turfed out George W. Bush’s father in 1992. Second term presidential elections are not necessarily a shoo-in for first termers. Remember the words of Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in 2008. “Obama will be a one term president.”

  6. Filostrato says:

    The next stupid neo-Con step – Social Impact bonds.

    From a piece by Les Whittington in the Toronto Star:

    Feds introduce controversial ‘social impact bonds’ to fund social services

    Introduced by the lovely Diane Findley, her dystopian view of the future is enough to make your skin crawl.

    The Harper government is introducing a controversial new approach to funding social services called “social impact bonds” that can turn a profit for private investors.

    “Social finance is about mobilizing private capital to achieve social goals, creating opportunities for investors to finance projects that benefit Canadians and realize financial gains,” the government said in a statement announcing the financing mechanism.

    I can’t see any down side to that at all, can you? When profit is your only motive, the results have just gotta be good. Just look at the wonderful shape “Western” countries are in now.

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