Social Conservatism and the Future of the Conservative Movement

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In May of this year I attended the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) national policy convention in Vancouver. The convention was the culmination of months of lobbying by LGBTory, during which we tried to build support for an amendment to the CPC’s policy on same-sex marriage. During this process we encountered serious resistance from organized social conservatives who proclaimed proudly that they were “fighting for the soul of the Conservative Party”. Now several of our socon opponents have announced that they are running for the leadership of the CPC. Our experience in Vancouver made me come to believe that if a social conservative wins this contest, we will witness the slow, painful extinction of the party as a politically viable movement.

Along with dedicated allies across the country, we were trying to change the party’s Policy Declaration in order to remove exclusionary language defining marriage as “the union of one man and one woman”. (I’ve told the story of why we fought to change the CPC’s marriage policy here). We expected some opposition, but we were surprised by the vehemence of the reaction by social conservatives who did everything they could to prevent the amendment from coming to a vote at the convention. We believed that it would be relatively easy to get the proposal through the party’s complicated multi-stage approval process so that it could ultimately be decided by delegates in Vancouver, but coordinated opposition surfaced as soon as the issue appeared on the radar.

At regional policy meetings, we were opposed by fringe groups of anti-abortion Christian activists who tried to stop the proposal from reaching a final vote by opposing it in the social policy breakout sessions. On the CPC’s on-line policy forum IdeasLab, social conservatives tried to stop the amendment from reaching the convention whenever it was raised by a sympathetic electoral district association. Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost wrote on IdeasLab, “This motion has the potential to cause a floor fight in Vancouver, it would be much wiser to let it not make it to the floor.”

Ultimately it did make it to the convention floor, but things only got more heated. We had learned our lesson and spent months communicating with sympathetic delegates to make sure they were present for the vote at the social policy breakout session – the first stage in the convention vote. Our opponents were similarly organizing their delegates. In the packed room, socons used procedural rules to try to keep the proposal from reaching the final plenary session. Using repeated “point of order” objections they challenged our speakers, tried to keep delegates from entering the room to vote, and ultimately accused us of cheating (you can see video of the session here).

Both sides were handing out literature to delegates as they entered the session; it is informative to compare this material. We appealed to notions of equality, inclusiveness, and personal freedom, and urged the party to bring its policy in line with Canadian law and jurisprudence while recognizing the rights of religious institutions to decline to participate in same-sex marriages:

Our opponents attacked us personally and accused us of promoting “factionalism” in the party (as if their own supporters didn’t constitute a “faction”), called us “homosexualist agitators”, and warned that we were trying to “infiltrate” the party.

They warned that passing the resolution would tell socons that “you reject them/not welcome in the party”, although telling same-sex couples that the party doesn’t recognize their legal marriages is apparently acceptable.

They blatantly appealed to immigrants from homophobic cultures with horrific human rights records, suggesting that recognizing marriage equality would “kill the CPC’s ability to grow” in this demographic by alienating new Canadians from places like the Middle East and Africa, where they “place great value on traditional marriage” (and, incidentally, imprison homosexuals and throw gay men from the tops of buildings).

When the scare tactics proved unsuccessful and the amendment passed the breakout session, Brad Trost was interviewed by CPAC (watch video here). He said “We cannot have a functioning free-enterprise society without [traditional marriage]” and “the language of equality and comparisons, to me that’s socialist language the way they talk about it.”

Ultimately the resolution made it to the plenary session, and the final vote speaks for itself. By a vote of 1036 to 462 (approximately 70% to 30%) representing a majority in all provincial and territorial delegations except Saskatchewan, delegates agreed to drop all reference to marriage from the Policy Declaration. As we suspected all along, when the convention delegates were finally allowed to vote on the proposal, they supported it overwhelmingly (and in proportions that closely mirror the opinion of Canadians in general on the issue).

Our experience at the convention taught us a few things about social conservatives. Despite their claims to be the “base” of the CPC, when party members were permitted to vote on a hot-button socon issue, they mustered only 30% of the delegates. Nevertheless, socons refuse to accept that the Canadian public has moved on, and continue to advocate policies that a large majority of Canadians find unacceptable. This is a position of electoral suicide, but they’re still fighting the Culture War as if nothing has changed. In a way they’re like those Imperial Japanese soldiers in the Pacific who, decades after the end of the Second World War, emerged from the jungle refusing to believe that the war was over and the Emperor had surrendered.

We experienced first-hand the anti-democratic tactics of social conservative groups at the convention, and it was a disturbing experience. Rather than allow a civil debate on the issue and a free and open vote, they fought us for months to try to prevent the proposal from reaching the convention floor. They believe fundamentally that the issue is not open to discussion, let alone a democratic vote. They refuse to accept that a democratically-elected Parliament made same-sex marriage legal eleven years ago, and they will not accept that LGBT people in Canada should be treated equally under the law. Now they want to lead the party.

Social conservatives and their fundamentalist religious allies believe they know what’s best for Canada. Unlike more libertarian conservatives who believe that matters of family and morality are best left up to individuals and that the state should stay out of the personal lives of citizens, social conservatives want to impose a rigid model of morality on all citizens whether they like it or not, and are not above using the coercive power of the state to enforce their moral code. This is fundamentally wrong, and should be alarming to all Canadians, including Conservatives.

There is a leadership race going on in the CPC right now with the new leader to be chosen by party members in May 2017. Brad Trost and defeated Ontario MP Pierre Lemieux, a fellow socon who opposed us in Vancouver, have declared their candidacies and have vowed to turn back the clock on the policy that was approved by a strong majority of party members and make same-sex marriage illegal again.

The party cannot win an election with such a leader. The result would be permanent opposition status, with the party reduced to a rump of bitter-enders sulking in the far reaches of the opposition benches, dreaming of a Canada that doesn’t exist anymore. Contrary to their claim that a pro-gay marriage vote would “ensure Liberals hold power for a generation”, electing a socon leader would guarantee that the CPC would be a footnote in Canada’s political history, taking its place in the Museum of Failed Political Experiments alongside the Anti-Confederation and Social Credit Parties.

Eric Lorenzen
Hastings County, Ontario

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