Since today is the last day to purchase memberships in order to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada's overcrowded leadership race, perhaps it's time to address the growing number of well-intentioned progressives who believe joining the CPC to vote in the race is an effective way to stop the "alt-right" in Canada.
Ipolitics credits Gonzalo Riva with being the first to publicly propose this idea, and was soon followed by former Green Party president, Dave Bagler, who amplified this message among Green voters. Musicians Amy Millan and fellow Stars bandmate Torquil Campbell joined in on Twitter, and an opinion piece in Chatelaine was published suggesting that it's possible to spend $15 for a membership and "cast a vote for someone without toxic and divisive values, hopefully preventing permanent damage to our country."
While supporters of this idea remain disparate and largely unorganized, it is one that is beginning to circulate widely on social media, and it can seem like attractive shortcut to many engaging with politics for the first time. That's why it is worth engaging with this idea on its own terms, and unpacking the danger lurking just behind its good intentions.
Why do they think this is a good idea?
The argument for joining the Conservative Party can be summarized as follows:
With the rise of Donald Trump and the emboldening of the far right around the world, progressives need to do everything we can to stop it from taking power in Canada. Kellie Leitch represents the real and present danger of a white nationalist, anti-immigrant candidate taking over a major political party. This will give hateful ideas a greater platform, and enable the far right to incite more racist, Islamophobic attacks.
In order to stop this from happening, progressive-minded individuals only have to spend $15 to become a member of the party and vote for the more "progressive" alternative in the leadership race. The candidate of choice for most of these progressive-minded voters is Michael Chong, the MP for Wellington-Halton Hills in Ontario.
In short, joining the Conservatives and influencing the outcome of their leadership race is a form of political engagement that involves a low level of investment (of time and money) and a high level of return.
However, given that this leadership race will be decided by votes from riding associations rather than individual members, it is not enough for people to cast a single ballot — the goal, therefore, is for progressives to join in such numbers that they can carry the vote in less-populated riding associations.
What's the problem?
There are both short-term and long-term problems with this strategy. In the short term -- assuming for a moment that it even could achieve its stated aim -- the strategy underestimates the amount of new memberships and organizational coordination that would be required to actually have an impact on the outcome. Continuing such a scattershot approach will only succeed in wasting everyone's time and money.
Further, most accounts have failed to understand the actual dynamics at play in the Conservative leadership race, and have been actively distorting both the current level of support that Leitch has inside the party, and who the real frontrunners are: O'Leary, Bernier, and Scheer.
Chong, the preferred choice of these ‘strategic Tories', is a second-tier candidate who (much like Lisa Raitt) is trying to position himself as a kingmaker. That is, Chong is trying to position himself as the one who will be able to bring enough votes to a frontrunner in order to secure their victory (and, in the process, ensure a future cabinet position for himself).
But beyond these practical problems, there are long-term political problems with this strategy that makes it an issue of concern for the broader Left:
You will be fundraising for the Conservative Party. There's no way around this one: you will be engaging in a unique fundraising effort for the Tories, and a faction within the party will be more than happy to amplify your efforts in order to reach beyond their current fundraising base. In response, these strategic Tories say that they have or will make a similarly sized donation to a progressive organization as a way to mitigate the harm — which actually concedes the point that with their donation, they are doing harm. Most commonly, they reply that their individual donation is too negligible to make a difference. But it isn't only a $15 donation — it is $15 multiplied by however many others they will be able to persuade to join along with them. The criticism isn't so much that they are giving $15, but that they are actively trying to facilitate hundreds of other people to do the same.
You will be lending progressive legitimacy to the right. The primary effect of this campaign will be to lend an aura of progressive "legitimacy" to a specific faction inside the Conservative Party — and, by extension, to the Conservative Party itself. But every faction, regardless of who they are backing for leader, is unified through their party membership to policies that attack poor and working-class people, Indigenous sovereignty, women's reproductive rights, immigrants and refugees, civil liberties, the LGBTQ+ community, democratic institutions, and the future health and viability of our planet (to name only the most notable themes from the Harper years). Put simply, progressives have no allies inside the Conservative Party and it is irresponsible to suggest otherwise.
You will be disorganizing progressive movements. Globally, we are currently going through an intense period of political crisis, with growing polarization and thousands becoming politically active for the first time. From women's marches to anti-Trump and anti-racist demonstrations, there is a significant number of future organizers and leaders actively seeking out opportunities to get involved and fight for social and economic justice in their communities, workplaces, and campuses. This presents a significant opening for the left, and we don't have the luxury to be squandering people's time and energy by sending them down paths that lead nowhere.
Is Michael Chong a "progressive" alternative?
As I already mentioned, the candidate supported by these strategic Tories is Michael Chong. A recent article describes Chong as a "principled progressive candidate" and "a moral and principled leader" with a platform that is "bold, pragmatic, and progressive while maintaining a conservative approach to governance."
But Chong's supposed progressive credentials are an illusion. In the economic section of his leadership platform, he is pushing standard neoliberal policies that literally come straight from the Fraser Institute. He wants to reduce and flatten personal income taxes by $14.9 billion a year and lower corporate taxes by five percent, or $1.9 billion a year.
Absolute income tax reductions will disproportionately benefit the rich, as will a flattening of the income tax system as a whole. Canada's already low corporate tax rates will be slashed even further. A few boutique tax credits for working people will do nothing to offset the structural harm that these massive reductions for the one per cent would entail.
And there is nothing for progressives to celebrate on the environmental front, either. Chong is touted by some for his "ambitious" revenue-neutral carbon tax. Despite the fact that it's earned him some attacks from his fellow leadership contenders, don't be fooled: it is perfectly in line with mainstream Conservative thinking on this issue (and is backed by none other than arch-Conservative Preston Manning). It is a laughably inadequate tool for confronting the enormity of the climate crisis.
Beyond his leadership platform, it's always worth taking a trip down memory lane to see what sort of legislation Chong has supported in the House of Commons. Here is a random sampling of legislation from the Harper years that Chong was happy to support:
And it goes on. Just take your pick.
From violations of civil rights and workers' rights to legislation that courted outright bigotry, Chong has hidden his ‘progressive' credentials quite well. And while Chong has come out in support of M-103 and has been publicly critical of the Conservative Party's more overt courting of the racist right, he does so with the aim of continuing Jason Kenney's cynical approach of targeting select immigrant communities. If nothing else, Chong is a smart Conservative who recognizes that the party has to expand beyond its traditional (and aging) white base -- which in fact makes him a long-term enemy of progressive movements.
A symptom of a deeper problem
The belief that joining the party of militarism, bigotry, and the one per cent can lead to any outcome other than the strengthening militarism, bigotry and the one per cent is naive and dangerous. But it's all too easy for those of us on the left to dismiss the anxieties of those calling for such a strategy without taking a look in the mirror as to why this would appear as a viable option.
This strategy reflects a low level of confidence in existing progressive movements or organization to effectively fight back against the far right at both a local and national level, and suggests that negotiating the terms of one's own oppression will produce greater returns than building a force to outright oppose it.
People will use the tools at their disposal in order to best advance their goals, and we are in desperate need of effective tools.
The late Mark Fisher coined the term "capitalist realism" to describe "the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it." The ‘progressive for Chong' phenomenon is but one morbid symptom of this condition.
Since the economic crisis of 2008, we have been in an era of periodic bursts of anger and rebellion, but they have not coalesced into a sustained, mass-based movement across the country. As people grapple with how best to defend their own lives, their families, and their friends from the threat of the far right, we need to make sure that we building credible vehicles to take us toward a future that is fairer and more just than the one we currently live in. Otherwise, we can expect a lot worse than lesser-evilism to rear its head.
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Image: Facebook/Michael Chong