“I do not want this book to focus too much on Donald Trump,” writes former prime minister Stephen Harper at the outset of his new volume on conservatism in the 21st century and the future of public policy as he would like to see it unfold. But the seismic aftershocks emanating from the 2016 U.S. election more or less ensure that anyone attempting to craft policy prescriptions for the current moment must contend with the present occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And Harper is no exception. Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, Donald Trump is all over Right Here, Right Now.
Trump, who in Harper’s own estimation is “not really a conservative and not even a Republican,” won the presidency because he was able to tap into a populist vein of discontent among a large (and largely unacknowledged) group of working-class and middle-class voters left behind by the galloping speed of globalization. The surging populist forces that brought Trump to power provide an opportunity for conservatives, Harper suggests, if only they are willing to take it.
As an avowed anti-Keynesian economist, Harper discards status-quo conservatism promoting lower taxes for the very rich and high levels of unskilled immigration, largely because he believes that pursuing this policy mix would cede political power to the left. He also dismisses an adherence to unbridled populism, in part because it would produce candidates who are unelectable. (Harper uses as an example failed Alabama Senatorial candidate Roy Moore; in Harper’s conception, Moore’s greatest sin was not the credible allegations of sexual misconduct and assault levied against him but the “brand damage” he inflicted on the Republican party.)
What Harper advocates instead is what he calls “populist conservatism.” He defines this as being “rooted not in abstract ‘first principles’ but in real-world experience applied to the needs of working people.” Which sounds perfectly worthwhile until one realizes how vague and imprecise this definition really is.
This proves to be one of the key failings of Harper’s book: time and again the author retreats into generalities where specific examples would be preferable. “Conservatives have a real opportunity to champion working people in general and paid work in particular,” Harper writes. “However, it will require that, in policy areas like regulation, taxation, education, and environmental protection, we find a space somewhere between free-market dogmatism and pure political expediency.” What that space might look like is anybody’s guess.
It would be easy to enumerate specific areas in which Harper neglects to provide solutions to pressing problems. Climate change – the one truly existential crisis facing humanity today – is afforded a scant few pages and takes a back seat to the exigencies of business in growing the economy. Harper congratulates himself on apologizing to Indigenous people in Canada for the horrors of the residential school system but declines to acknowledge that his Conservative government failed to provide reserves with clean drinking water or address the rampant problems of over-incarceration and suicide among Indigenous people. And so on.
This is largely to be expected. What is more surprising is Harper’s general unwillingness to sketch a clear picture of how his conservative vision might work in practice. He begins by suggesting he will address one of his favourite questions from Donald Trump: “What the hell is going on?” By the end of Harper’s book, a reader is no closer to an answer.