RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW: POLITICS AND LEADERSHIP IN THE AGE OF DISRUPTION
By Stephen J. Harper
Penguin Random House Canada (Signal/McClelland & Stewart), $25.95, 240 pages
The wheels of politics are often changing and evolving. The key to political success is to identify these transformations, modify certain policies and fortify the language and communication going forward.
Former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper (who I’ve known for years and served as one of his speechwriters) is a conservative who supports markets, trade, globalization and immigration. Yet, he’s identified a necessary transformation in his new book, “Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption,” that isn’t a “new form of conservatism” — but is more about “rediscovering conservatism.’
The starting point is, unsurprisingly, the rise of Donald Trump.
Mr. Harper acknowledges he was “not impressed” with the businessman/reality TV star during the Republican presidential primaries. He thought it was “obvious” that Mr. Trump “was not really a conservative and not even a Republican.” Like many others, he assumed this candidacy would ultimately fizzle out.
It didn’t happen. Mr. Harper re-evaluated the political landscape after President Trump’s stunning victory, and determined a “large proportion of Americans, including many American conservatives, voted for Mr. Trump because they are really not doing very well.” Moreover, they’re not doing well “because of some of the policies we conservatives have advocated. In short, the world of globalization is not working for many of our own people.”
Utilizing components of the platforms of some individuals (Trump), movements (UK’s Brexit) and parties (Italy’s Five Star Movement) could, therefore, help conservatives achieve greater electoral success in today’s disruptive political environment.
He suggests conservatives should examine the positive aspects of “present-day populism.” This isn’t a new ideological concept, having previously existed in agrarian movements and the old U.S. Populist Party. It’s one Mr. Harper knows rather intimately, since his political career started in the Reform Party of Canada, “a self-described ‘populist’ party.” While this outfit was more right-leaning, populism thrives among left-wingers and centrists. This “eclectic” complexion has enabled adherents like Mr. Trump to “borrow their natures and their agendas from different sides of traditional political debate.”
Mr. Harper believes “populism will be with us in one form or another for some time to come,” or as long as “working men, women, and families continue to face current economic and social pressures, and conventional political parties do not adapt.” Conservatism seems “well placed to respond to populism,” and should adapt the “practical concerns, interests, and aspirations of working and middle-class people.”
This populist-style conservatism needs to “bring conservative ideas to bear on the real-life challenges facing regular folks.” One idea would be to support moderate nationalism and oppose alienism, “an extreme anti-nationalism” supported by leftists that “reflexively identifies with other cultures and denigrates one’s own society.” Another conservative idea would be “reformed democratic capitalism.” The original capitalist revolution dates back to President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Mr. Harper describes this impressive duo as “philosophical conservatives” rather than ideologues, since their policies and programs “were practical responses to the real economic problems of the day.”
While Mr. Harper regards the Reagan-Thatcher period as “largely successful,” he believes the “growing ideological excitement overlooked some very real challenges that came with market reform and globalization.” Many Eastern Bloc countries, for instance, experienced unemployment hikes when state-run companies were privatized, along with significant decrease in living standards. And while free trade triumphed in many ways, it was also “partly responsible for the loss of manufacturing jobs.”
Capitalism became “an end rather than a means,” Mr. Harper writes, and conservatives “had fallen victim to a broader market dogmatism.” He also points out “markets are powerful, but they are not perfect,” and conservatism “is not, at its core, about markets. It is about making an economy work.”
Modern conservatism therefore needs to be more pragmatic when it comes to capitalism, globalization and market-based economics. There must be some degree of financial regulation and tax policy, along with the development of a “pro-growth, pro-work agenda that serves ordinary citizens.” This would enable conservatives to, once again, become the champions of working class values.
I have some small differences of opinion with my old friend and boss. Populism has historically never served conservatism well; its long-lasting appeal in an adjusted form remains suspect. Meanwhile, today’s conservatives stand for markets and working economies — and there’s little reason to eliminate the former.
Nevertheless, “Right Here, Right Now” is intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking. Mr. Harper’s strategy of making modern conservatism wiser, stronger and more politically viable is well worth our time and consideration.
• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.