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Conservatism in the 21st century

Summary:
Americans pay little attention to Canadian politics, even though Canada is by far our largest export market and in many ways Canada is the country that is most similar to the US. In the upcoming election, Canada’s Conservative Party has recently been rising in the polls.  Interestingly, its message seems to be aimed at blue-collar voters: There are plenty of skeptics of O’Toole too. He’s propagating an interventionist, pro-labor and big spending program that Conservatives haven’t offered up in decades. On top of putting workers on boards, for example, he wants to change the labor code to empower unions and help them organize. . . . It’s all building up to be a disappointing turn of events for business, which worked hard in the run-up to the election campaign to

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Americans pay little attention to Canadian politics, even though Canada is by far our largest export market and in many ways Canada is the country that is most similar to the US.

In the upcoming election, Canada’s Conservative Party has recently been rising in the polls.  Interestingly, its message seems to be aimed at blue-collar voters:

There are plenty of skeptics of O’Toole too. He’s propagating an interventionist, pro-labor and big spending program that Conservatives haven’t offered up in decades. On top of putting workers on boards, for example, he wants to change the labor code to empower unions and help them organize. . . .

It’s all building up to be a disappointing turn of events for business, which worked hard in the run-up to the election campaign to make growth and productivity a priority. Instead, the two big parties appear to be taking pages from the left-leaning New Democratic Party, which promised this week to cut family mobile phone bills by C$1,000 ($792) a year.

One sees similar trends in some other Western democracies, which raises a number of interesting questions:

1.  Why is this happening?

2.  Will the Republican Party in the US become a blue-collar party?

Throughout history, conservatives have not always been associated with small government and/or market friendly policies.  Indeed in many countries the term ‘liberal’ connotes views on economics that would be viewed as conservative in America.  I suspect that the association of conservatism and small government has something to do with the rise and fall of Soviet communism between 1917 and 1991.  When conservatives viewed communism as the biggest threat to our way of life, they naturally gravitated toward ideologies that were the polar opposite.  This boosted the prestige of free market ideologues like Milton Friedman, and made the libertarian wing of the GOP disproportionately influential during the last half of the 20th century.  The Reagan administration spent more time enacting tax cuts and deregulation than in promoting social conservatism.

With the collapse of communism, conservatism focused on other issues.  After 9/11, Islamic terrorism became the number one foe.  But after the disappointing interventions in several Middle Eastern countries, many conservatives lost faith in the neoconservative agenda of a highly interventionist foreign policy.  At this point, cosmopolitanism became increasingly seen as the number one problem.  Ironically, the success of the neoliberal revolution championed by people like Reagan and Thatcher served to transform our cultures in a number of ways that made conservatives uncomfortable.

The most successful economies tended to shift toward a post industrial structure, where highly skilled people in big cities exported goods and services requiring a high degree of education, and more basic manufactured goods were imported from lower wage countries.  These same big cities drew immigrants from all over the world, so much so that places like London are increasingly filled with immigrants and their children.  Highly educated urban areas also tend to reject the sort of traditional values that are prized by many conservatives.

Ex ante, it was not at all clear how this would play out in terms of electoral politics.  One could imagine a different scenario where the British Labour Party became a foe of globalization and held on to its support in working class towns in the north of England.  After all, they had traditionally been skeptical of the EU, viewing it as a neoliberal Trojan horse.  Instead, the Conservatives became the Brexit Party.

In America, the Bernie Sanders of 2016 was a sort of transitional figure, skeptical of globalization and immigration, trying to put forth an “all lives matter” message that would appeal to white, black and Hispanic blue collar workers.  But the Democrats were moving in another direction, and Sanders eventually shifted with the party.  Similarly, pro-globalization, pro-immigration GOP figures like Jeb Bush discovered that their party had moved off in another direction.

Political parties are highly complex entities, particularly in a two party system such as the US.  They are forced to become “big tents”, containing various groups that don’t see eye to eye on each and every issue.  The challenge for the Democrats is to hold onto low income/low education voters while reaching out to highly educated social liberals.  The challenge for the GOP is to attract working class voters while holding onto more affluent voters that own stocks and thus benefit from trade, deregulation and corporate tax cuts.

If higher income voters in big cities continue drifting toward the Democrats (not a sure thing by any means), then the GOP will be likely to move away from its small government stance of the 20th century.  In the 2022 midterms, I expect the GOP to focus more on immigration, critical race theory and bashing tech companies than corporate tax cuts and repealing Obamacare.  I also expect President Biden to have trouble convincing Democrats in affluent areas to raise taxes on the rich.  But politics is so complex that I don’t have much faith in my ability to predict what the two big parties will look like in 2040. Almost anything is possible.

One thing I know for sure is that neither party will consistently advocate “freedom”.  Almost no one believes in freedom.  So the parties will sort issue by issue.  Freedom to engage in physician-assisted suicide?  To sell one’s kidney?  To smoke pot?  To gamble?  Prostitution? Pornography? Freedom to have an abortion?  Freedom from government vaccine or mask mandates?  Freedom to enact private vaccine or mask mandates?  Freedom to sell unapproved vaccines?  Freedom to migrate between countries?  Freedom to trade with other countries?  Freedom to espouse conservative views in liberal corporations.  Freedom to kneel during the national anthem at football games?

Please don’t mention freedom when talking about American politics.  Politicians that favor freedom are about as plentiful as this animal:

Conservatism in the 21st century

Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment". In May 2012, Chicago Fed President Charles L. Evans became the first sitting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to endorse the idea.

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