Canadian Conservatives Are Leaning Into Their Own Brand of Identity Politics

The Canadian right has committed to its own brand of angry identity politics, pitting “regular” folks against the depredations of elites. The Left has to fight back with a class politics opposing economic exploitation — not its own version of tribalism.

Pierre Poilievre, leader of Canada's Conservative Party, greets the National Conservative Caucus in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on September 12, 2022. (David Kawai / Bloomberg via Getty Images

In Alberta, the United Conservative Party has a new leader — and, consequently, the province has as new premier. Danielle Smith is a former member of the Legislative Assembly, leader of the opposition, and talk radio host. She spent her first week as premier trying to explain her comment that the unvaccinated “have been the most discriminated-against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.” She also spent these early days in office walking back elements of her signature “Sovereignty Act,” which would, she claims, allow her province to ignore federal law and court rulings deemed injurious to Alberta.

Smith’s premiership is already a talk radio call-in show come to life as a government. Like her campaign, the premise of her ministry is conservative grievance politics fueled by an anger pointed at the insiders (that is, Ottawa) who are to blame for the province’s troubles. Sluggish oil and gas economy (not now, but previously, and surely again someday) — that’s Ottawa’s fault. Brain drain? A failure to attract workers to Alberta? Ottawa’s fault. Revenue shortfalls? It couldn’t be a failure to extract sufficient royalties from energy companies or a refusal to introduce a sales tax. Instead, it’s Ottawa’s fault. If only everyone else would get out of the way and let the province reach its full potential.

Alberta’s conservatism may seem to be nothing other than small-time petty grumbling politics scaled up. But the province’s conservatives are not alone — they have an analog at the national level.

The federal Conservative Party, led by Pierre Poilievre, is all-in on grievance politics and a wild thrashing against the “gatekeepers” — which are mostly government institutions, laws, and programs that apparently keep the country’s potential bottled up. Poilievre, like Smith, is ostensibly libertarian but also, like Smith, a consummate elite insider. The details of his policies may become known in the fullness of time. But for now what we hear is mostly various iterations of “Fuck you” — epithets aimed at the Bank of Canada, the World Economic Forum, Elections Canada, government spending, and so on. The premise of his politics is that “they” are to blame for your problems, with the “they” being a transferable designation of scorn based on the outrage-routine of the day.

Like Poilievre, Smith comes close to articulating points that matter, but, once more like Poilievre, she undermines her fault-finding by getting everything wrong. Sure, Ottawa ought to come in for criticism when it comes to provincial affairs. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been building moderate — insufficient, though welcome — programs such as daycare and dental care, but federal social spending in Canada as a share of gross domestic product has typically been meager, hovering below the OECD average. Cuts to spending in the 1990s devastated state welfarism and it hasn’t recovered. The Liberal government of Jean Chrétien downloaded program burden to the provinces. The austerity program of Chrétien and his finance minister and successor, Paul Martin, saddled provinces (and by extension municipalities) with the politically treacherous task of doing more with less, and weighed them down with sub-national debt. The overall effect was to hamstring the provinces and set them up for failure. Smith and Poilievre make political hay from the misery that has ensued from the Chrétien spending cuts, but they champion ideas that will actually make everything worse.

The Right’s turn in Canada towards grievance politics and anti-elitism still bears the hallmarks of traditional conservative commitments to business-friendly small government. The grievance may have been turned up to eleven, but the demands are a decidedly paint-by-numbers jeremiad for low taxes, fewer regulations, less national spending on social programs, and plenty of corporate giveaways.

In Ontario, Progressive Conservative premier Doug Ford sings from the same hymn book, though he skews closer to one’s folksy bullshitting uncle than the campus-conservative true believer or the Facebook meme-factory relative. In Ottawa Poilievre is doing a Thatcher cosplay bit — and Smith will do the same, especially given the fact that the Iron Lady is a hero of hers. But as the success of Smith’s politicking proves, the Canadian right’s turn to grievance politics has also made room for wacky takes on science and medicine reminiscent of Donald Trump’s ramblings. And on top of it all, Smith and Poilievre have added a readiness to attack, and possibly dismantle, institutions conservatives used to care about — or at least pretended to care about. Once more, big talk-radio vibes.

The threat posed by a deeper commitment on the Right in Canada to grievance politics is that it may work — at least in the short run. The institutional left has abandoned much of the country’s working class or, at least, it has failed in its meager bids to reach them, often focusing on its own identarian grievance politics to the exclusion of class politics. Class dealignment thus proceeds in a country famous for pretending to be classless. As bizarre as some figures on the Right may be, as utterly kooky as some of their antics are, voters may well overlook them in their desperation to find someone to blame for their troubles and somewhere to direct their anger. The Left has failed to provide a narrative that places the blame where its due: on capital. The Right has taken up the challenge and found targets that resonate: culture warriors and government.

The Left’s response to a growing grievance politics on the Right suffused with wacky sideshow politics can’t be simple mockery or the throwing up of hands, like Jon Lovitz’s portrayal of Michael Dukakis as he faced off against George H. W. Bush for the presidency (“I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy”). Instead, the Left must adopt a grassroots, class-based politics that identifies the root causes of social, political, and economic exploitation and alienation. A Left that keeps its eye on the prize and cares about attaining political power.

There can and should be a left version of accessible, angry politics, but not one of toxic grievance politics. It ought to be constructive and it ought to focus on class alignment and mass mobilization. And to the extent that institutions must be criticized, and criticized they must be, the Left must come at them with an understanding of what they exist to do, where they function well, where they function poorly, and what better sort of arrangement might replace them — and how. And they’d better be ready to communicate that in a way that’ll play on talk radio.