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The battle for post-Trump conservatism is already underway — and Canada's Tories are watching closely

Oren Cass. - Manhattan Institute
Oren Cass. - Manhattan Institute

Oren Cass wasn’t run out of town for his heresies, but captured the attention of a polite — if skeptical — audience of Canada’s Conservative power-players

On a hot Toronto evening at the end of June, about two dozen conservative big-thinkers crowded into a small private room in a pub called the Bedford Academy to hear that free trade and the free market aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

It’s not a message that historically resonates with Tories, and it’s possible that some of the attendees — which included people who ranked highly in the federal government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and members of Doug Ford’s Ontario current government — were simply there to socialize and eat steak frites. But it may be a sign of the Trumpian times that Oren Cass, a former policy wonk for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute think tank, wasn’t run out of town for his free market heresies, instead capturing the attention of a polite — if skeptical — audience of Canada’s Conservative power-players convened by Sean Speer, once an economic adviser to Harper and now a fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Cass’s work — which questions the mantra that a growing economy eventually benefits everyone and which dismisses the idea that the free market is always right — is part of a broader re-think of conservative free market orthodoxy.

Books like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy , which inadvertently became a roadmap to the concerns of America’s white working class in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, and Cass’s book The Once and Future Worker have put a new focus on blue-collar workers. Former prime minister Harper’s book Right Here Right Now also tries to nail the populist jello to the wall with worker-centric ideas and a heartfelt plea to conservatives to stop fixating on reducing top marginal tax rates. In the new conservatism that he advocates, Cass wants to take the consumption-oriented policies that dominate our politics and put the focus on production and jobs or, in the words of politicians, “good jobs.”

Conservative politics in Canada are less fractured than they are south of the border, where Trump’s rise adds an urgency to the consideration of these ideas. A rough approximation of the Harper coalition still exists federally, and Jason Kenney has united conservatives in Alberta. And while Kenney flirted with some tenets of reform conservatism when he was dreaming up the United Conservative Party’s platform, he ultimately decided Albertan workers would be just fine if he could only breathe some life back into the oilsands.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper holds his book, Right Here, Right Now, on Oct. 11, 2018. Dave Abel/Postmedia News/File
Former prime minister Stephen Harper holds his book, Right Here, Right Now, on Oct. 11, 2018. Dave Abel/Postmedia News/File

 

But In America, the ideological free-for-all to fill the void that will be left whenever Trump’s time in the White House ends is already unfolding at full speed. There are Republicans who think that everything will go back to normal the minute Trump leaves office; there are populists who are trying to build an economic and political framework around Trump’s success; and there are social conservatives tired of losing the culture wars who are questioning the very idea of liberal democracy.

It’s not unheard for someone to rocket onto America’s national stage, shake up the establishment and force an ideological reset, like Republican presidential candidate and firebrand conservative Barry Goldwater did in 1964. With Trump, it’s a little different.

“The candidate that sort of emerges and blows up the alignment and forces everything into flux is supposed to lose badly,” Cass said in an interview with the National Post on the pub’s patio before he spoke. This time, he said, the dog has caught the car.

Like Harper, Cass isn’t arguing for revolution, and both men think there are modest lessons to be learned from Trump and have clear ideas for what his win means for economy policy.

“There’s a very long list of things I don’t like about Trump but there are certain things he was right about,” Cass said told the Post. “We need to come out of this moment to the other side with this new way of talking.”

For one thing, he said, conservatives need to learn to speak the language of workers. Politicians talk about jobs all the time, of course, but Cass points out that it’s usually by way of selling some other type of policy; conservatives sell their tax cuts by talking about job gains and liberals sell climate policy by calling it a jobs plan.

“The problem is that as soon as the interests of workers actually conflict with a priority, the worker was always subordinated. And Trump said the opposite,” said Cass. “He said, ‘If free trade is a problem for the median worker? Well, I’m not for free trade anymore. I’m willing to throw anything out because the first priority is the interest of the workers.’”

The debate among conservatives in the United States has been seized with this question. Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson has been pushing a full-on populist economic program and even went so far as to endorse the left-leaning economic proposals of Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. Carlson wants to rein in the free market, pushing ideas like a crackdown on payday lending stores — echoing legislation promoted by progressives, including Alberta’s former NDP government.

“Payday loan outlets in poor neighbourhoods collect 400 per cent annual interest,” Carlson said during a monologue in January . “Libertarians tell us that’s how markets work. OK. But it’s also disgusting.”

For Cass and other conservative policy wonks, seeing voters turn toward Warren and self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders is their worst fear. They’re worried Republicans will be so bereft of policy options for ordinary workers that the left will fill the vacuum.

Conservatives need big ideas that will, for example, beat back the growing support for a guaranteed minimum income, which is becoming increasingly popular in progressive circles, Cass said.

His “ working hypothesis ” argues that, more than government handouts, people want good jobs to support a family and a strong community. Cass dreads an ever-growing chunk of jobless citizens relying on an ever-expanding government for a paycheque.

“Rather than taxing low-wage work to cut other tax rates and expand entitlements, we can do the reverse: We can provide a subsidy for low-wage work, funded with higher tax rates and reduced transfer payments,” wrote Cass. So, a worker making $12 an hour, for example, may see a government top-up that brings the salary up to a target wage.

He proposes fine-tuning both the demand and supply sides of the labour market. On the supply side, he thinks we’re training young people all wrong. Cass believes policymakers do a massive disservice by fuelling the idea that a university education is what everyone should be striving for. Instead of pouring money into degree programs, he argued, governments should focus on training in the trades and other, more pragmatic, options.

“Most people shouldn’t go to (university), and we can do better by them. And they will be happier and have better lives if we provide other pathways for them. Like that is an ironclad, rock solid, popular defensible viewpoint to take,” he said.

In a modest way, that plan is already moving in some places in Canada. The Alberta government anticipates that 3,000 skilled workers will retire every year until 2025, a labour gap that doesn’t even account for growth, and Kenney’s UCP has promised fast action on worker training.

The economic program Cass has articulated in his writing and propounded to his Toronto audience is full of specifics that may not apply in Canada; his immigration ideas would actually move the American system closer to the Canadian model, for example. But the overall idea — that, for policymakers, the worker should be king — was hard to dismiss out of hand even for the most skeptical at Bedford Academy.

As Cass has written, “A useful question for programs of reform in today’s America is whether the reformer has proposed any concessions whatsoever on behalf of the average American worker.

“If the path forward is for the workers to change themselves to fit better into the reformer’s preferred society, the program is not a serious one.”

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