Over the past few years, national conservatives have erupted onto the political stage, making significant gains in popularity and sending shockwaves across the world. Nowhere has this been more pronounced than in Europe and the United States, especially since the outcome of the US presidential election.
While there may be minor differences distinguishing the various national conservative parties across the West, several unifying themes exist that paint a clear picture of this emerging political philosophy. These include the opposition to mass-migration as communicated through the Brexit campaigning of Nigel Farage in the UK and by President Trump; this messaging is often coloured by an opposition to multiculturalism, economic protectionism and isolationism, and the favouring of local and more direct forms of government.
Most recently, Geert Wilders, a Dutch national conservative politician with the Party for Freedom, gained five seats in the Netherlands’ general election. Although Wilders lost to Mark Rutte of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, Rutte’s winning party has also taken a shine to right-wing political rhetoric.
The rapid rise of national conservatism across many Western nations suggests that, at least to a certain degree, it may be inevitable in Canada as well. Signs of national conservatism can be found in political happenings close to home; it is necessary to anticipate the rise of this ideology in order to address the challenges it may bring for Canadians and students on Canadian campuses.
Though Trump’s election has been widely discussed, we ought to pay attention to two of its ramifications.
The first is the way his movement has emboldened leaders in other nations. Marine Le Pen, a member of the conservative National Front party and a prominent contender for the French presidency, claims that the impossible was made possible with Trump’s victory.
The second is that Trump’s victory was widely unanticipated, including by reputable sources. Even on the day of the election, The New York Times predicted that Trump only had a 15 per cent chance of winning.
Such poll-defying outcomes cast doubt onto expert models, predictions, and polling, making the political future of Canada less certain.
A number of factors suggest that Canada may be fertile ground for national
conservatism, both in politics and on university campuses.
One major factor associated with Trump’s success is civilian distrust of the government, something that has recently been happening in Canada as well. According to a recent Edelman poll, only 43 per cent of Canadians say they trust their government, down from 53 per cent a year earlier. 80 per cent of Canadians feel the country’s elites are out of touch. Similar public attitudes in the US and Europe have undeniably affected elections and favoured populist candidates who are less approving of the establishment.
There are also manifestations of nationalist rhetoric in Canadian politics. There were chants of “Lock her up!” directed at Premier Rachel Notley during a rally at the Alberta Legislature a few months ago. This supports the notion that Canada is developing a similar political climate as the one that contributed to the results of the elections in the United States.
Additionally, some Canadian politicians have begun to entertain some of Trump’s proposals, such as the extreme vetting of migrants. Though the argued purpose of this is to prevent potentially dangerous individuals from entering the country, we have seen its overbroad and vastly exclusionary effects south of the border.
Furthermore, Conservative leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch has proposed screening immigrants for “Canadian values,” reminiscent of the unified set of values that is typical of nationalism. While Canada has yet to elect anyone whose politics come close to those of Trump or European national conservatives, we are beginning to see this type of rhetoric become more acceptable here.
With that said, anti-immigrant sentiment driven by national conservatism manifests differently depending on context. For instance, given that Canada is far less prone to undocumented immigration, there has been no talk of “building a wall.”
What this suggests is that national conservatism in Canada may not be as recognizable as one may think. It may involve a gradual shift to extreme vetting of refugees, followed by decreasing the intake of refugees and economic migrants, and fewer pro-multiculturalism policies.
By introducing such policies systematically, national conservative ideas may become normalized, and eventually more drastic suggestions will be considered appropriate within political discourse.
In the meantime, we see the consequences of national conservatism on campuses. Discriminatory flyers distributed at various universities across Canada, including the University of Toronto, McGill University, the University of Alberta, and McMaster University, are examples of fringe political ideologies rising in popularity and emboldening extremists to take action. If this continues, it could significantly damage international students’ perceptions of Canada and create a tense atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety on campuses.
Yet, while it seems obvious that the rise of national conservatism may embolden those that lean to the extreme right, we should also pay attention to the backlash from extreme leftists. In the US, emboldened left-wing activists are protesting Trump in the hundreds of thousands. Much of this type of political protest, albeit in a different context, is happening on campuses as well.
One recent example is when radical ‘anti-fascist’ protesters shut down the Toronto Action Forum, hosted by Students in Support of Free Speech and Generation Screwed at U of T, an incident that was met with controversy.
We are also reminded of Hillary Clinton’s assertion during the campaigning period that a significant portion of Trump supporters were irredeemable and “deplorable” people. Such sentiments signify that the political spectrum is intensely divided and that many consider the left and the right to have irreconcilable differences.
Regrettably, polarization, activism, and extremism on both sides of the political spectrum within the campus environment paints a bleak picture of relations between students in terms of political discourse.
Conflicts between groups on campus, events being shut down over activists’ demands, and political controversies such as the one surrounding Dr. Jordan Peterson are all consequences of a new political era characterized by a decline in common and shared fundamental values.
Such an environment leaves little room for one to be moderate in their political leanings, further intensifying the situation. Debates over political correctness — which have all but consumed the campus this year — are but one symptom of a divided people, where the rules of communication itself have become a central issue.
Consequently, if it is the case that this political philosophy will spill into Canada, adherence to the principle of freedom of speech will be essential in the interest of continuing the free exchange of ideas in a peaceful manner — and avoiding political polarization. For students, this will mean prioritizing exposure to differing viewpoints in order to avoid political echo chambers and understand opposing perspectives.
Yousif Abu Al Soof is a first-year student at UTSC studying Life Sciences.