Today the Tories have vanished from Canada’s political life as a separate group: The modern Conservative Party is the result of a mid-1990s reshuffling in which the Progressive Conservatives were shouldered aside by a new wave, more economically conservative and significantly more populist. To this day, Canada’s conservatives have never taken a clear position on abortion, and the party tries to minimize discussion of the abortion issue. Though it did take a clear stand against same-sex marriage, strikingly, it did almost nothing to try to undo marriage rights for same-sex couples once they were passed in 2005.
Using Toryism as a prism to understand the difference between Canada and the United States goes a long way in explaining what differentiates the political pasts of the two countries. Canadian elites and a substantial part of the population long sought to maintain an ordered and hierarchical society on the British model. Canada’s 19th-century frontier was a highly regulated one compared to America’s; its manufacturing sector protected by heavy government involvement; its society (until after the Second World War) significantly more socially stratified. Canada has always been more open to state intervention in the market, something at least partly attributable to Tory influence, and citizens are significantly more deferential to authority. Though Tory power was already fading by the 1960s, the way in which Canadian conservatism approached social issues means the Tories’ fingerprints still show on Canadian politics.
In understanding the future of the Republican Party, it is important to remember that the libertarian-religious right alliance that now defines the Republican party and American conservatism is not automatic: It was largely determined by conservatives sorting out how to respond to a new set of issues in the 1960s. Under a different set of pressures and influences—such as Canadian conservatives experienced—the interaction between ideology and party politics can fracture in different directions, creating a future that neither party has yet imagined.
Today, on issues such as gun control, immigration, trade policy, and fiscal policy, Republicans seem to be approaching a necessary reexamination of parts of their platform. The Canadian comparison suggests that conservatism has the intellectual resources to take Republicans in unanticipated directions, and yet also that the party’s history may make it surprisingly difficult to break with the past.
James Farney is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Regina, and author of “Social Conservatives and Party Politics in Canada and the United States.”