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Clarifying conservatism

Advocating for pragmatic and responsible policy can yield a more representative and balanced student government
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There is a popular view that students are predisposed to left-wing agendas. Supposedly, student leftists are a mob of ‘social justice warriors’ who strive to indoctrinate campus culture and student government with their ideology, and shut down dissenting opinion.

This is false. Left-wing groups are simply more active on campus. They are the ones who show up, speak out, and vote. While it could be said that students generally lean left and are more progressively-minded, this does not mean that all students are far-left, let alone left-leaning at all.

The lack of conservative involvement in student politics not only means that some opinions are not heard, but also gives a false perception that students are in agreement with certain controversial political stances. In reality, students’ political opinions are diverse, and this apparent consensus is determined by a limited and unrepresentative number of participants.

This false picture was given fuel at the recent University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Annual General Meeting (AGM). At the prompting of a Socialist Fightback U of T member, around 50 participants put the UTSU on record as “opposing the Ontario government’s anti-democratic ‘free speech on campus’ mandate.” In the surrounding discussion, words such as “Orwellian” were used. This creates an impression that student government is irredeemably in favour of the viewpoints of organizations like Socialist Fightback.

However, those with alternative viewpoints — namely, conservatives — do exist, but have shunned student politics, as evidenced by comments made by U of T Campus Conservatives President Matthew Campbell about the UTSU. Such disengagement impairs the necessary collaboration for the best and most representative policies.

The root of the reluctance

Conservatism is often associated with the alt-right or far right, especially on campuses. Because they do not want to be associated with the racist, xenophobic, and transphobic movements of recent years, conservative students prefer to disengage from campus discourse and politics.

A strong distinction must therefore be drawn between the majority of conservatives and the far-right. Take, for example, the recent attempt by some Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) activists to have the party condemn “gender identity theory” as a liberal ideology” at the Ontario PC Convention. This is deeply concerning — particularly for Ontarians and students who identify as transgender.

I believe that most conservatives on and off campus feel this way too. After all, it was unexpectedly introduced by a fringe social conservative wing of the party during a low-attendance period at the convention, and was later dropped by the premier.

Even though these views do not reflect the representative majority of conservatives, they nonetheless carry the burden and fear of being labeled as resentful, reactionary transphobes.

Defining the representative majority

The first step to overcoming the conflation of conservatism with the far-right is to understand that conservatism strives for pragmatic and responsible policy. In Michael Oakeshott’s words, it is the preference for “the tried to the untried… the actual to the possible… the sufficient to the superabundant.” Conservatives favour the gradual transition of established institutions, and reject utopian promises delivered by risky, abrupt change.

Conservatives also uphold the rights and freedoms of the individual — including of expression, assembly, and speech — as they are the underpinnings of liberal democratic society and the university institution.

Of course, this is a very broad program, and its specifics are subject to disagreement. Nonetheless, it very clearly excludes populist nationalist movements.

The PC government’s recent free speech mandate is therefore a justified attempt to protect a fundamental right that conservatives feel is increasingly compromised. This view was further vindicated by incidents surrounding the recent Munk Debate, featuring alt-right figure Steve Bannon. There was a campus-wide poster campaign condemning the debate, and an organized attempt to physically bar attendees from entering Roy Thompson Hall on the night of the event.

While most conservatives find Bannon’s views unsavoury, they hold that his right to speak is a fundamental democratic principle. Of course, free speech is not justified absolutely, especially for expressions that promote violence. But it is precisely through free and open discussion that the alt-right’s erroneous views can be challenged and exposed, as conservative David Frum did at the debate.

On this basis, conservatives believe that the government’s free speech mandate is not Orwellian, nor anti-democratic. But, counterintuitively, they don’t attempt to engage in free discussion to change campus politics — even when they had the opportunity to defend the free speech mandate at the AGM.

Toward a more representative student government

This mindset is unhelpful. Conservatives — who tend to focus on federal and provincial politics — should get more involved in student politics, where their input can lead to more representative and informed decisions on issues that affect everyone on campus.

Conservatives also advocate for the elimination of debt. While the current UTSU recently decided to implement balanced budgets, they are relatively uncommon. For conservatives, while other areas of student jurisdiction are debatable, debt reduction is not — it is a matter of necessity. This practice should be standard for every student government in every year.

There is also the need for more efficient spending: not merely allocating funds to avoid debt, but cutting categories that are inefficient or dysfunctional. This is the practice of making decisions on the basis of what works — not on the basis of theoretical ideals or lip service. Conservatives understand that there is no perfect fix to anything; problems can only ever be managed.

When it comes to salient issues like mental health or accessibility, conservatives acknowledge that the current system does not work. But as student governments strive to improve their services, which they should, conservatives must advocate for gradual change and financial accountability in order to keep policy reform more grounded.

Ultimately, conservatives should not only help to diversify representation in student government, but also help advocate for pragmatic and responsible discussion and policymaking. Clarifying what conservatism is — and what it is not — is the first step to securing its place in student politics.

Sam Routley is a fourth-year Political Science, Philosophy, and History student. He is The Varsity’s UTSG Campus Politics Columnist.