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If conspiracy theories are for losers, what does this say about Kenney's UCP?

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

Are Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party nuts?

Are they going down the rabbit hole of bizarre and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories like some of their Republican brethren in the United States?

In other words, in their effort to unite the right (as used to be said when that was still a respectable expression) are these Alberta Conservatives turning into Qonservatives like the nutty and dangerous QAnon fringe of the Republican Party south of the U.S. border?

When Kenney led the UCP to victory in 2019, most Albertans were pretty sure the party was a little farther to the right, but still basically a mainstream version of the old Progressive Conservative Party that had successfully led Alberta for a remarkable 44 years.

That is to say, a party capable of incrementalism and common sense, not all that different than what the federal Conservatives had become under Stephen Harper, who as prime minister appeared to be Kenney's mentor and guide.

That assumption naturally led to the expectation by many that in office the UCP would move back toward the centre and adopt a somewhat less radical program than the party's election rhetoric suggested and, more importantly, that it would drop the most bizarrely conspiratorial claims that animated Kenney's election campaign.

This led naturally to another conclusion, that the election in 2015 of the Alberta NDP under Rachel Notley was a historical anomaly, a step away from the mainstream -- or, as UCP campaigners put it during the campaign, a fluke.

This view came to be fairly widely accepted even though the Notley government operated like a slightly more progressive conservative government throughout its four years in power, as well as polling evidence that Albertans knew exactly what they were voting for in 2015 even if they didn't expect others to vote the same way.

Nevertheless, given such assumptions, Kenney's promised witch hunt to root out Rockefellers and green foreign communists supposedly hiding under every bed plotting to landlock Alberta seemed unlikely to actually happen once what we had assumed to be the Tory dynasty, lightly rebranded, was restored to power.

Not all political promises are kept by sensible governments, after all. Many people who voted UCP and a lot who didn't expected the UCP to act sensibly once in power.

This goes against the precaution recommended to all voters: that one should always assume political parties intend to do what they promise. But it's human nature to see signs of common sense and hope for the best.

So if the UCP emerged as the winner -- as it ultimately did on April 16, 2019 -- it was not completely unreasonable to think it would drop its most outlandish ideas, such as the plan to strike an official inquiry to investigate a non-existent foreign conspiracy against Alberta.

After all, we all suspect conspiracy theories are for losers.

Indeed, there is some evidence for this bit of pop psychology.

Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent, authors of American Conspiracy Theories, quoted in a New York Times analysis of the Qanon movement yesterday, argue that conspiracy theories like the one promoted by Premier Kenney "tend to resonate when groups are suffering from loss, weakness, or disunity."

The two Josephs' 2014 book said evidence shows that, in the United States at least, conspiracy theories with the most prevalent public support tend to be those of the political side that is out of power. That is, in a year when Republicans hold the upper hand, the most prominent conspiracy theories will tend to be those featuring misdeeds by the right and business. When Democrats have control, the alleged conspiracies of the day will lean toward communists and anti-business plots, the hobgoblins of the right.

In other words, quite literally, conspiracy theories are for losers.

This suggests another way of looking at Kenney and the UCP, as well as the NDP.

First, this could suggest that the Kenney UCP is the anomaly in Alberta politics, more akin to Social Credit after its election in 1935 when it was led by William Aberhart, before E.C. Manning brought the party into the conservative mainstream after Aberhart's death in 1943.

Second, that the NDP, still led in opposition by Notley, is much closer to the small-c conservative Alberta mainstream that ruled continuously from 1943 to 2015, or maybe even 2019.

If this is true, it would be the UCP -- dominated by the more radical Wildrose Party fringe of the merger with the PCs in 2018 and strongly influenced by the Q-fantasies from south of the 49th parallel -- that is in fact the outlier.

UCP supporters will dismiss this as nonsense, of course -- possibly even as evidence of a conspiracy against them.

The NDP won't much like it either, as it could risk alienating their base by suggesting their party is more conservative than progressive.

Still, if you look at actual NDP policy -- its cautious labour law reforms, pipeline pragmatism, and insistence on no pay increases for public employees -- there is plenty of evidence for this.

As for the UCP, what else could account for why an ostensible political winner, touted as a restoration of a successful political dynasty, continues to act like a party that knows in its bones it's a loser, likely soon to be swept away on the tide of history?

Consider the willingness of the Kenney government to keep giving time extensions to its so-called "Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns." Could this indicate some tension between the government, which wants its conspiracy theories validated, and Commissioner Steve Allan, who has realized there is nothing there to validate?

Meanwhile, Kenney and his inner circle continue down the rabbit hole, pushing a war with health-care workers during a pandemic, taking epidemiological advice from restaurant lobbyists, refusing to enforce COVID-19 restrictions, passing unconstitutional legislation interfering with the right of citizens to protest its policies, promoting massive and destructive open-pit mining projects unpopular with farmers and ranchers, and attributing all opposition to a conspiracy of foreign environmentalists, bankers and liberal journalists.

This has resulted in new fissures on the right.

While Kenney tolerates outright Alberta separatism by caucus members like Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes, Brian Jean, once the leader of the Wildrose Party, has emerged from the Wild Rose bushes to beg the premier and his digital Praetorian Guard to start acting like "grown-ups who can be trusted to maturely address the issues facing Albertans."

"Campaign rhetoric is for campaigns," Jean pleaded in a Postmedia op-ed yesterday, "governing requires a different approach."

Of course, Jean himself is not immune to conspiracy theories when in campaign mode, and he may still harbour leadership ambitions after being cheated out of the running by Kenney's underhanded UCP leadership campaign in 2017.

As for Jean's shot yesterday at Kenney's lifestyle -- advising him to eat healthier meals and get more sleep -- what was that about?

Still, there's no question about this: the UCP, its leaders and a lot of its members are fractious, divided, and acting more like a desperate opposition party on the campaign trail than a confident government in power.

In other words, like losers.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

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