Farney: Social Conservatives and Party Politics in Canada and the United States

August 7, 2013

farneySocial Conservatives and Party Politics in Canada and the United States
James Farney
(University of Toronto Press, 2012)
208 p.

This book (written by a dear friend) examines the history and changing fortunes of social conservatism in North America since the Second World War. Generally speaking, social conservatives have had better success in the United States than in Canada, and the author argues that this has been only partly due to relative differences in opinion among the electorate; he stresses, in particular, differing views among the political classes about appropriate borders between the political and the personal (with the Canadians, influenced by British models, placing stricter limits on the scope of politics) as well as differences in party structure and discipline (with the Canadian parties subject to stricter discipline from party leaders).

These basic claims are illustrated through a thoughtful rehearsal of the history of social conservatism on both sides of the border. I found this tremendously informative, and valuable too for the perspective it brings to an appraisal of the current role of social conservatives in North American politics. For instance, social conservatives sometimes express disappointment with Stephen Harper (the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada) for his aloofness from matters of concern to them, especially abortion policy. Reading about the history of the conservative wing in Canadian politics, however, made me realize that Harper’s behavior is actually quite consistent with the mainstream of conservative politics in this country. That may not make social conservatives less disappointed, but it may make them less disappointed with him.

Another surprise was the generally positive appraisal of the efforts and accomplishments of Canadian social conservatives. I have generally considered the political wing of social conservatism in Canada to be weak and sickly, especially in comparison with its American counterpart. Though there is some reason in that assessment, this book helped me to see that, given their respective histories and differing political cultures, the Canadians have actually used fairly intelligent political tactics and achieved some notable successes — even if those successes have not extended to actual policy victories.

The book closes with a brief prediction about the future course of social conservatism. Although social conservatives have succeeded in influencing party platforms and political rhetoric, they have mostly failed to achieve their political objectives. This, together with the observation that public opinion is trending away from the social conservative positions on several issues which most interest them, leads to the prediction that the influence of social conservatism is likely to wane in the coming decades. This may well be true, but I am not wholly convinced: abortion, in particular, is an issue that seems to refuse to go away, and survey data indicate that public opinion lies somewhere on the social conservative side of the status quo; as such, there seems little reason for them to abandon the fight. Furthermore, the social conservative movement is reactionary — and I use the word in a descriptive, not a pejorative sense: it mobilizes around particular issues only because those at the other end of the political spectrum have raised the issues in the first place. Considering that the left seems in no mood to rest on its laurels, it may well serve as a source of continual rejuvenation for social conservatism.

The book is based on the author’s doctoral thesis, but it is written in an engaging and accessible style devoid of jargon. A reader like myself, with little background knowledge of the subject, has no difficulty following the argument. Many of the details in the book’s historical sections are based on the author’s interviews with the people involved, making it a particularly valuable resource for understanding a political movement so often misunderstood. Perhaps the most praiseworthy aspect of the book is its even temper: one could hardly imagine a more fair-minded and disinterested account. I can heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand North American social conservatism in historical context.

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