The Conservative faithful are assembled this week in Vancouver to figure out the party's future. They should be watching what's happening to their American cousins. The Republicans may be about to go down to an ignominious defeat in the November elections. Then again, something worse might happen: They might win.
In the coming years, a lot of advice will be thrown at federal Conservatives, on the subject of how to take back power. Today, we offer some advice on how to become a party not just capable of forming a government, but capable of governing well, for all Canadians.
Which brings us back to the American relatives. The GOP, singed by two defeats at the hands of Barack Obama and dragged even further to the right by groups like the Tea Party, has become a dangerously angry coalition. Its presidential candidate plans to build a wall across the Mexican border; that's his signature promise. He talks, with a straight face, about preventing Muslims from travelling to America. He swears he can Make America Great Again through a kind of economic authoritarianism, telling voters he can magically order companies to return manufacturing jobs to the U.S.A. How will he do this? By force of will, apparently.
And as for the financial frustrations of his supporters, he tells his low-income voters that he has a plan to make them wealthier. It involves unleashing the dynamism of the American economy through yet more tax cuts focused on upper-income Americans, which will make the world's most unequal developed country yet more unequal.
The Republican Party is increasingly guided not by evidence and intellect, not by wisdom and a willingness to face reality, but by resentment and a growing rage among its voters. The GOP is now the party of angry people, and more specifically angry white people. This is likely going to turn out badly for the GOP, but on the off chance that it retains control of Congress and wins the White House, it will be even worse for America and the world.
The good news is that the Conservative Party of Canada is not the GOP, and there's no reason it ever has to become it. The modern Republican Party was born out of the racial politics of the 1960s, which Donald Trump has now brought to the surface like never before. That isn't Canada's modern conservative history.
It wasn't part of the DNA of Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative Party – he substantially increased immigration, aiming to have immigrant and visible minority voters see the PCs as their party. The Conservative Party continued that tradition, led by the outreach efforts of Jason Kenney. In elections prior to 2015, the party made significant inroads with visible minority voters, offering them a vision of a country of economic and educational opportunity, where success was open to anyone, regardless of religion or race – a vision of what Canada should be and, far more than the United States, actually is.
But something snapped in the fall of 2015. The Conservatives started to lose and they started to get desperate. They reached for an enemy to rally their voters, and settled on Muslims. The polls may have suggested that crying wolf over niqabs and calling for a hotline to report "barbaric cultural practices" would be a winner with a large number of Canadian voters, and that was what was so disturbing about the strategy. It didn't just damage the Conservative brand, it hurt Canada. The hurt would have been worse if the Conservatives hadn't lost.
The Conservatives have to once again become the party that successfully "targets" immigrant and visible minority voters – not to stigmatize them, but to win their votes.
It can do that, in part, by being the Canadian party that is truly liberal, in the classic sense of that term. The best way to maintain harmony in a racially diverse society is not with a racial spoils system, but by building a country where all are truly equal before the law, and where race and religion are irrelevant to one's educational, social and economic success.
Above all, the Conservatives have to become a party of ideas, and a party whose ideas, tempered by evidence and research, tackle real problems. Again, this is the opposite of what American conservatism is turning into.
For example, can Canada's Conservatives face reality by acknowledging climate change? Some want to, and in a manner that will challenge approaches favoured on the left. Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown stunned his party by coming out in favour of carbon taxes, and using carbon levies to lower other taxes. Last year, party godfather Preston Manning did likewise. Conservatives need to get beyond the settled issue of whether global warming is real and figure out a Conservative answer to it.
Can Conservatives have a realistic crime policy? Can they admit that while "tough on crime" talk, including worse prison conditions and mandatory longer sentences, may be a winning electoral strategy, it is hardly ever a winning crime-reduction strategy? Can they admit that the goal of the criminal justice system should be to reduce crime by reducing the chance of offenders reoffending, and the best way to do that is through education, treatment and help reintegrating into society?
Can Conservatives face up to income inequality? Can they figure out how to be the party that most respects the free market, while acknowledging the side effects that go along with its benefits?
The Conservatives can't turn into the party of resentful anti-intellectualism. That sounds so obvious that it barely needs saying, but it has happened to America's Republicans. It's easy to drift into the politics of authoritarianism and reaction. That's what former Toronto mayor and Conservative icon Rob Ford represented.
Fittingly, it's also where Stephen Harper's Conservative Party ended the last election – facing defeat, it held a desperate, final-hours rally with the Fords. Then the curtain dropped. Before it rises again, the Conservative Party has to rewrite the script, and rediscover the plot.