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Canada Political Party System

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Political parties are organizations that seek to control government. They participate in public affairs by nominating candidates for elections. ( See also Political Campaigning in Canada.) Since there are typically multiple groups that wish to do this, political parties are best thought of as part of a party system. This system dictates the way political parties conduct themselves in competition with one another. As of 2015, there were 23 registered political parties in Canada. The five major federal parties are the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party of Canada, the New Democratic Party (NDP), the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party of Canada.

Historical Background

For the first half-century after Confederation, Canada had a two-party system: Liberals and Conservatives. It was modelled after that of Great Britain. The Progressive Party’s rise to Official Opposition after the election of 1921 shattered Canada’s two-party system. Until the late 1950s, the Liberals and Conservatives were joined by groups such as the Canadian Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the Progressive Party, the United Farmers of AlbertaSocial Credit, the Bloc populaire canadien and the Labour Progressive Party.

In the early 1960s, Canada’s party system settled around the Liberals and Conservatives and the much smaller New Democratic Party (formerly the CCF). In 1993, Canada’s party system fragmented once again, with the rise of the Reform Party of Canada (which later morphed into the Canadian Alliance) and the Bloc Québécois. Those parties disappeared or diminished in importance. The Canadian party system has evolved to the point where three main parties compete for power. Various smaller parties organize in a more limited way.

Structure and Organization

Canada’s electoral system is based upon single-member constituencies. A political party tries to win a majority of seats in a general election to form a government. Political parties recruit members. They organize and fund their activities to nominate candidates to contest seats through political campaigns.

Canadian political parties function both nationally and locally. (See also Local GovernmentProvincial Government.) Federal and provincial campaigns — and that of Yukon — are party contests in which candidates represent political parties. Municipal campaigns — and those of Northwest Territories and Nunavut — are contested by individuals, not by parties.

Generally, the national party organization is dominated by the party’s elected members and leader. The national party organization sets policy and election strategy. At the same time, political parties also organize at the constituency level through local associations. These associations are typically the focus of membership activity. One of their primary functions is to choose the candidate the party will run in that constituency. They also deliver and adapt the party’s message to the local context.

Federal Political Parties

National political parties have existed since before Confederation. However, they were not formally recognized on ballots until 1970. Starting in 1974, political parties could register with Elections Canada. Registration entitles them to several privileges. The most important of these are the right to have the party’s name listed on the ballot underneath the names of its nominated candidates and the right to issue official tax receipts for financial contributions to the party. (See Political Party Financing in Canada.)

To be eligible for registration, parties need to meet certain legal requirements and have at least 250 members. To be registered, parties need to nominate a candidate in a general election or by-election. At the time of the 2015 federal election, there were 23 registered political parties in Canada. Only some of those, however, could reasonably expect to win seats in an election. The five major federal parties are the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party of Canada, the New Democratic Party (NDP), the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party of Canada.

Provincial Political Parties

Most provinces in Canada have party systems that reflect the parties in national politics. The dominant parties have tended to be LiberalsConservatives and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)/ New Democratic Party (NDP). Provincial politics have featured more idiosyncratic parties, including the United Farmers of Alberta; the United Farmers of Ontario; Liberal-Progressive; Social CreditUnion Nationale; the Parti Québécois and the Saskatchewan Party.

There are often provincial parties with similar names or aims as national political parties; but Canadian parties are not generally well-integrated. The Conservative Party of Canada has no formal relationship with any provincial parties. The Liberal Party of Canada has more formal ties with the provincial Liberal parties; with the exception of the Parti libéral du Québec, which is independent, and the British Columbia Liberal Party, which is a centre-right party. It has not been affiliated with the federal Liberals since 1987. Provincial NDP parties are fully autonomous; except in Quebec, where formal ties exist between the Nouveau parti démocratique – Québec (NPD) and the federal party. According to the NDP charter, the NPD must “conduct itself in general consistency with the social democratic principles of the New Democratic Party of Canada.”

Despite the general lack of formal ties, however, there is often significant overlap between supporters of provincial and national parties of the same name.

Party Membership

Most Canadian political parties require their members to be Canadian citizens or permanent residents and not to be members of any other national parties. Members must also pay a nominal annual membership fee. Canadian parties typically provide limited opportunities for members to get involved outside of elections. During elections, however, party membership lists provide a source of volunteer labour. Members can participate in choosing party officers, delegates to conventions and local candidates. Relatively few Canadians join and participate in political parties. Parties typically do not publicize their membership numbers.

Representation

Political parties are important structures for representing the diversity of Canadian society. In the past, this largely centred around representing Canada’s linguistic duality; both in formal structures and in informal practices. For example, the Liberals traditionally alternate between francophone and anglophone leaders.

As Canadian society has become more diverse, there have been greater demands for inclusivity in parties. Many parties have responded with efforts to recruit more candidates from underrepresented groups, such as women and visible minorities. In 2015, 28 per cent of the nominated candidates were women. Among the five major parties (BlocConservativeGreen, Liberal, NDP), 33 per cent were women. Jagmeet Singh became the first racialized leader of a major national political party when he was elected leader of the NDP in 2017. In 2020, Green Party leader Annamie Paul became the first Black Canadian and the first Jewish woman to serve as leader of a major federal political party in Canada.

Party Financing

Political party activities, particularly media-intensive election campaigns, require great financial resources. Political parties aggressively fundraise, seeking contributions from members and supporters to fund their activities. Canadian national parties are limited by law to fundraising only from individuals and their financial activities are heavily regulated. (See also Political Party Financing in Canada.)

Candidates

Each general election involves simultaneous elections in all of Canada’s 338 ridings. In each constituency, there may be candidates from registered political parties; as well as representatives of other parties without registered status, whose names appear on the ballot as independents. (See also Canadian Electoral System.) In 2015, there were 1,792 candidates — the third-highest total ever for a Canadian general election. All but two constituencies had at least four candidates running; 48 electoral districts had seven or more.

At the local level, the most important task of the constituency association is to choose its candidate. The procedures for doing so are normally loosely established by the national political party. But there is considerable autonomy accorded to local parties, and their practices vary. Usually, the candidate is selected by a secret vote of all members in the constituency. It is also common for candidates to be acclaimed; particularly in areas where the party is weak, and few people are interested in becoming candidates.

There is a tradition of the local association choosing the candidate. But the party leader must approve any candidate running under the party’s name. This gives the national party a degree of control over the nomination process as the leader can refuse to approve a candidate chosen by the local association. This is sometimes used to ensure that a favoured contestant becomes the party candidate; or to help the party improve the diversity of its candidate pool. Such interventions are controversial, and party leaders use them sparingly.

Once the party’s candidate is chosen, the local party tries to secure his or her election. The party will choose a campaign manager, rent a campaign office and begin the process of publicizing the party and the candidate with signs and advertisements. Closer to the election, it will organize door-to-door canvasses and the distribution of literature. On election day, the local party focuses its efforts on encouraging its identified supporters to get out and vote.

Leadership

Party leaders are the central figures in political parties. They are in effect the party’s candidate for prime minister (or premier, at the provincial level). As a result, the selection of party leader is one of the most important tasks undertaken by parties. Normally, the selection of party leaders takes place after the resignation or death of the incumbent. Parties will also periodically call for or force a leadership review. In the first 50 years after Confederation, a party’s Members of Parliament (MPs) chose one from their ranks to lead the party. This system was supplanted by the leadership convention; delegates from the local party associations and other components of the party gathered in a central location to choose a leader. Only a few thousand of the party’s members would participate in these conventions.

In the 1990s, Canadian political parties began to switch to a system where all party members vote for their choice of leader. All major parties now choose their leader in this way. The Conservatives and Liberals weigh the votes in each constituency equally. This ensures that constituencies with large numbers of members do not dominate the process. Administering leadership votes takes significant resources. Parties have used combinations of in-person, telephone, postal and Internet ballots. These systems treat all party members equally. But they can create situations where the chosen leader has weak support among a party’s MPs or the party establishment.

The parties also elect a president and other executive members. Their job is to manage the party’s administrative apparatus. Most parties also hold policy conventions. These usually take place every two years. There is often debate between the MPs and participants in policy conventions as to how far elected members are bound by the resolutions established at such conventions. In a general election, it is the task of the national party to manage the overall national campaign. It plans the leader’s tour, raises and spends money on advertising and campaign literature, and distributes money and other resources. At other times, the parties operate offices with a small but paid staff. Their responsibility is to conduct party business and to coordinate the various constituency, provincial and national organizations.

Parliament

Political parties are central to the operation of parliamentary democracy in Canada. Almost all of the MPs elected to the House of Commons are elected as parts of political parties. Similarly, appointments to the Senate may also reflect party lines. However, support for partisan appointments has changed. The Liberal Party removed its senators from caucus in 2014. The NDP does not allow senators to sit under its banner. Party lines define political conflict in Parliament. MPs are expected to vote with their party in almost all cases. Weekly caucus meetings provide an opportunity for a party’s elected MPs and senators to meet, voice concerns and maintain cohesion.Canadian ParliamentThe Parliament buildings in Ottawa, seat of the federal government.(© Aqnus Febriyant | Dreamstime)

Major Political Parties in Canada

Conservatives

At the time of Confederation, Canada’s politics were modelled on Britain’s system of parliamentary democracy. This meant that two broad-based political parties would compete for power. In the Conservative PartySir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier brought together a broad ruling coalition. (See Great Coalition of 1864.) It comprised a diverse collection of ideological, regional, religious and economic interests. At the political level, they allied the Tories of Canada West with the French-speaking Parti bleu of Canada East; along with business interests from the Maritimes. With the exception of the 1874 election, when Macdonald’s government was driven from office by the Pacific Scandal, the Conservative Party dominated Canadian politics until 1896.

In 1885, Macdonald allowed Métis leader Louis Riel to be hanged despite fierce Catholic opposition. This seriously weakened the alliances between the Ontario and Quebec wings of the Conservative Party. The Conservative party further alienated French Catholic voters with its implementation of conscription during the First World War. ( See also Election of 1917Military Service ActUnion Government.)

The Conservatives’ lack of support in Quebec made it difficult for the party to compete nationally after the First World War. From 1921 until 1957, the Liberals dominated national politics. The Conservatives only won one election, in 1930; It was partly aided by voter dissatisfaction in the wake of the Great Depression. In 1942, after Progressive Party member John Bracken won the Conservative leadership, the party’s name was changed to the Progressive Conservative Party (PC). Several members of the Progressive Party moved to the PC. Others abandoned the Progressives for the CCF and the Liberals.John DiefenbakerJohn Diefenbaker, prime minister of Canada from 1957-1963.(Library and Archives Canada/C-6779)

In 1957, John Diefenbaker led the party to a minority government and then to a landslide victory in 1958. (See Elections of 1957 and 1958.) Diefenbaker won significant support in Quebec. However, he was unable to manage this coalition. The Liberals came back to power in 1963. Western Canadian provinces had previously supported minor parties such as the Progressives and Social Credit. These provinces remained in the PC camp even after the Conservatives’ defeat.

As in the period before Diefenbaker, the PC had difficulty competing with the Liberals’ ability to bridge Quebec and the other provinces. This changed in 1984 when PC leader Brian Mulroney led the party to a landslide victory. Mulroney did this by bringing Quebec into the PC fold. He wedded that province’s support with the Conservatives’ traditional western support base. However, Mulroney’s pursuit of constitutional reform exposed the disagreements between western Canada and Quebec over Canadian identity. (See Meech Lake AccordCharlottetown Accord.) The western wing of the party largely left to form the Reform Party in 1987. The Quebec wing of the party left to form the Bloc Québécois in 1990. After the 1993 election, the Progressive Conservative party lay in ruins; it was reduced to only two seats in the House of Commons.

The Progressive Conservative party languished throughout most of the 1990s. It slowly increased its support to a handful of seats across the country. Meanwhile, the Reform Party (reformed as the Canadian Alliance in 2000) had difficulty expanding beyond its western support base. In 2003, the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives merged to form the Conservative Party of Canada. It chose Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper as leader in 2004. Harper led the Conservative Party of Canada to two minority governments in 2006 and 2008 and to a majority government in 2011. Harper’s careful, incremental pursuit of neo-conservative public policy led to a slow increase in support. However, the party continued to struggle with gaining support in Quebec.

(See also Conservative Party.)Conservative Party of CanadaThe Conservative Party of Canada’s official logo, adopted in September 2020.(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Liberals

At its inception, the Liberal Party rested on a much narrower base than the Conservatives. The Clear Grits of Canada West joined the anticlerical Parti rouge of what is now Quebec; along with the reform element in the Maritimes led by Joseph Howe. Little united these factions except for a common dislike of John A. Macdonald.

The rise of Wilfrid Laurier to the leadership in 1887 transformed the party. Laurier was elegantly bilingual and a politician of genius. He neutralized the hostility of the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec toward the concept of political liberalism. His victory in the election of 1896 laid the groundwork for decades of Liberal domination in Quebec and for the party’s predominance in the next century. Laurier lost office, however, when he again proposed free trade with the United States in 1911. (See Reciprocity.) Robert Borden and the Conservatives succeeded Laurier and led the country through the First World War. Borden solidified the deep anti-Conservative sentiment in Quebec by imposing conscription in 1917. Many Québécois were in strong opposition, as they considered the conflict an English, not a Canadian, war. ( See Election of 1917.)

When Laurier died in 1919, his successor was William Lyon Mackenzie King. King’s political philosophy prepared Canada, slowly but surely, for the welfare state. His cautious statesmanship led the country through the Great Depression and the Second World War. From the time King became leader, it would be fair to describe Canada as a single-party dominant state. For example, since 1921, the Conservatives have won five majority governments; the Liberals have won 12.William Lyon Mackenzie KingLeader of the Liberal Party 1919-48, and prime minister for almost 22 of those years, King was the dominant political figure in an era of major changes.(courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-27645)

Louis St-Laurent (1948–58), a stolid lawyer, succeeded King. St-Laurent was followed by Lester B. Pearson (1958–68). He laid the plan for Canada Pension Plan and Canada’s bilingualism and biculturalism policies. When Pierre Trudeau first took office in 1968, his government seemed radical. But it practiced a cautious management style. When he returned to office in 1980, he introduced the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (See also Elections of 1979 and 1980.)

In 1984, the Liberals lost much of their Quebec support base to the Conservatives. The Liberals were swept from office. Aided partly by a divided opposition, the party came back to power in 1993 under Jean Chrétien. The Liberals won three consecutive majority governments. Their parliamentary domination rested on a steady and relatively high share of the popular vote. After the Sponsorship Scandal came to light, the Liberals were reduced to a minority government in 2004 under Paul Martin. In 2006, the Liberals lost power. The party then went through a succession of leaders and faced a decline in voter support. In 2011, the party was reduced to 34 seats and third place in the House of Commons. The Liberals won a majority government under Justin Trudeau in 2015 but were reduced to a minority government in 2019.

(See also Liberal Party.)Liberal Party, logo(courtesy Liberal Party of Canada)

New Democratic Party (NDP)

Other parties were formed during the 20th century to challenge the dominance of the Liberals and the Conservatives. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) grew from the Progressive Party, a farm-based party led by Thomas Crerar from Manitoba and Henry Wise Wood in Alberta. Crerar and Wood were radical populists. They fought against the influence of the large financial interests such as banks and railways. As a national party, the Progressives survived for about 15 years. Some Progressive and United Farmers of Alberta Members of Parliament helped found the CCF in 1932.

The CCF’s Regina Manifesto of 1933 defined the party as social democratic. Tommy Douglas led the party to power in Saskatchewan in 1944; it became the first democratically elected social democratic government in North America. (see Tommy Douglas: “Greatest Canadian”.) It remained the leading party of the left until it faced near electoral annihilation in 1958. (See Elections of 1957 and 1958.) In 1961, it decided to ally with the recently formed Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to form the New Democratic Party (NDP).New Democratic Party LogoThe federal New Democratic Party (NDP) logo.(courtesy New Democratic Party)

The NDP provided Canada with a “two-and-a-half-party” system until the 1990s; a system in which the two large parties — the Liberals and Conservatives — were joined by a smaller party. A combination of weak leadership, scandal at the provincial level, competition from other protest parties and trade union dissatisfaction seriously weakened the party. It reached a point where some, including its own members, questioned its survival.

The NDP was revived under the leadership of Jack Layton. He became party leader in 2003. Layton’s likeable image, combined with his efforts to professionalize the party’s electoral machinery, helped restore the NDP’s place in the party system. In May 2011, Layton led the NDP to its best-ever election result; it finished second with 103 seats and became the Official Opposition. Much of the NDP’s breakthrough came from Quebec.

After Layton died of cancer in August 2011, the task of turning the NDP from the government in waiting to the party in power fell to Tom Mulcair. In the 2015 election, however, Mulcair ran a cautious campaign. He was outflanked on the left by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who promised deficit spending and electoral reform. The NDP was reduced to third place with 44 seats. In the 2019 election, it fell to fourth place and 24 seats under new leader Jagmeet Singh.Jagmeet SinghFederal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, photographed in November 2017, speaking at the Ontario Federation of Labour conference.(OFL Communications Department, via Wikimedia Commons)

Bloc Québécois

The Bloc Québécois was founded as a parliamentary movement. It was formed by Members of Parliament from Quebec ridings who left the Conservative and Liberal parties after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. The parliamentary bloc was led by Lucien Bouchard, who had been a Conservative cabinet minister. He resigned his seat and soon after formed the Bloc Québécois political party.

The Bloc runs candidates solely in the province of Quebec. Its principal policy is to promote Quebec’s interests and Quebec sovereignty in the House of Commons. In the 1993 election, the Bloc received the second-most seats (54) and became the Official Opposition. But the party slowly declined in support. It was almost obliterated in the 2011 election when it lost all but four seats. However, in the 2019 election, the Bloc ate into the NDP’s support in Quebec; it claimed 32 seats to the NDP’s 24.

Green Party

The Green Party of Canada was founded in 1983 to promote environmental concerns. The party ran small numbers of candidates with little voter support until 2004. Changes to Canada’s party finance laws meant that a party that earned two per cent of the vote nationally would receive public funding. Under leader Jim Harris, the Greens nominated a full slate of candidates for the 2004 election and qualified for the funding.

The combination of increased party resources and growing environmental consciousness among voters led to the growth of the party. It received seven per cent of the vote in 2008. Elizabeth May, who became leader of the party in 2006, won the Greens’ first ever seat in the House of Commons in 2011. She was succeeded as leader by Annamie Paul, the first Black Canadian and the first Jewish woman to lead a major federal party.

Fringe Parties

Canada has seen a variety of very small parties that meet the criteria for registration but earn small shares of the vote and do not win seats in the House of Commons. Some of these parties, such as the Communist, Christian Heritage or Canadian Action parties, have lasted for a long period of time. Others might only contest one or two elections before fading away. These parties have little success electorally. But they allow their supporters to participate in the debate over the direction of the country.

Significance

Political parties are important to the health of Canadian democracy. They help to organize political competition and structure the operation of our political system. As organizations, however, there are signs that Canada’s political parties are weakening. The membership base of political parties is aging and declining. Fewer Canadians identify themselves as party supporters. Voter turnout in Canada has declined in the last two decades, raising questions about the ability of parties to connect with voters. Canadian parties are as important as ever in the operation of our political institutions. But their connection with the electorate is increasingly tenuous.

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B.C. Premier John Horgan to resign in the fall after leadership review

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VANCOUVER — British Columbia Premier John Horgan says he’ll resign as leader in the fall after the New Democrats hold a leadership convention because a second bout with cancer has left him with little energy for a job that’s been the thrill of his life.

“I wish I had the energy to do more, but I don’t,” he told a news conference Tuesday.

Horgan, 62, announced last November that he was diagnosed with throat cancer after being diagnosed with bladder cancer in his 40s.

He said that while he is now free of cancer following 35 radiation treatments, he will not seek re-election because he’s not able to make another six-year commitment to the job.

“I get tired and I come home and I fall asleep,” he said, adding he feels at peace about the timing of his “very difficult decision.”

Horgan said he and his wife Ellie, “the love of my life,” recently spent about 10 days in his constituency on the west coast of Vancouver Island reflecting on what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives.

The premier said he asked that question of himself before posing it to his cabinet colleagues at a retreat last week and concluded he couldn’t continue on as leader.

“There has been endless speculation as a result of my recent battle with cancer about what my plans would be. I want to put the speculation to rest so we can get back to what really matters, and those are the issues before British Columbia,” Horgan said.

Horgan said he will continue to work toward his goals to represent British Columbians in the next few months, including as leader of the Council of the Federation as he hosts his counterparts at a meeting next month in Victoria.

He said the No. 1 issue on the table is getting a commitment from the federal government to work with provinces to resolve the crisis in health care.

“I fully intend to carry on that battle to make the federal government stand up for the commitments they made to all of us and convene a meeting so that we can fix the most important social program, in fact, the most important program in Canada.”

Horgan has led the NDP since being acclaimed as leader in 2014 following the party’s defeat in the 2013 election.

In 2017, he formed a minority government after negotiating a so-called confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party, which held the balance of power.

Horgan called a snap election last October during the pandemic and won a majority government, taking 55 of the 87 seats in the legislature.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posted a message to Horgan on Twitter, thanking the premier for his many years of public service, for his “ambitious” climate action as well as his initiatives on affordable child care and COVID-19.

“Wishing you all the best, John,” Trudeau said.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said it’s no secret that he and Horgan “come from different political stripes.”

“But I’ve appreciated working with him greatly at the Council of (the) Federation table when I was chair a few years ago and this past year, now with him being chair. He’s served as an excellent chair. He’s a very, very capable and competent politician and I would say a friend in many cases as well.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said it had been a real pleasure to work constructively with Horgan on a range of issues.

“We come from different political traditions, but have always worked to find common ground.”

Sonia Furstenau, leader of B.C.’s Green Party, said Horgan led the government during a series of overlapping crises.

“Although we have not always agreed on policy, together our two parties created an era of unprecedented cross-party co-operation,” she said in a written statement, adding the legacy of their confidence and supply agreement lives on as a model for a similar deal between the federal New Democratic and Liberal parties.

“I sincerely hope that the premier enjoys health, rest and time spent with his family,” Furstenau said.

A date for the leadership convention has not yet been set.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 28, 2022.

 

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

 

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Federal Green Party launches leadership race, will pick new leader in November

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OTTAWA — The beleaguered federal Green Party launched a leadership contest on Tuesday with the hopes of announcing a new leader on Nov. 19.

The Greens will take applications for the job until Aug. 5 and announce a list of candidates at the end of August, with a view to beginning the first round of voting in October.

People who want to vote on the party’s next leader will have until Sept. 7 to become registered members of the Green Party, which is currently represented by two MPs on Parliament Hill.

The approved rules for the race acknowledge a “critical need to remain within the boundaries of our current financial and staff restraints.”

The party was rocked by financial issues and internal conflict ahead of a disappointing election result in 2021, and outgoing leader Annamie Paul, a Black woman, accused some in the party of racism and sexism.

Paul’s runner-up in the 2020 contest, Dimitri Lascaris, has written that he will not run again — and Amita Kuttner, the current interim leader, has said they do not want the job.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 28, 2022.

 

The Canadian Press

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The Political Strategy of Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill – The New Yorker

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The Political Strategy of Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill

Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, addresses attendees at the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference, in Orlando.Photograph by Paul Hennessy / Sipa / AP

In April, the conservative activist Christopher Rufo flew from his home, near Seattle, to Miami, to meet with Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, and to take part in the public signing of the Stop WOKE Act. A former documentary filmmaker and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Rufo was the lead protagonist of last year’s furor over the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools and helped advise the Governor on the Florida law, which aimed to limit discussion of racial history and identity in schools and workplaces. Rufo was especially taken with how personally invested DeSantis seemed in the policy. “He shows up to the tarmac at 6:30 A.M. with a Red Bull energy drink, ready to roll through the policy papers,” Rufo said. The bill had not come from the Governor’s advisers or the grass roots: “It’s driven by him.”

Rufo also came to think that the issue he helped spark—the national conservative outcry over progressive teaching and training on race and gender—was reaching a new, more potent phase. The same legislative session had produced the Parental Rights in Education bill, denounced by its Democratic opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits schools from teaching anything about sexual orientation and gender identity to students below third grade, demands that any such instruction at any age follow requirements to be set out by the state’s board of education, makes parental permission a prerequisite for a range of mental-health counselling and interventions, and gives parent groups broad latitude to sue school districts if they believe teachers or administrators are not complying. On Fox News, the story of Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania, was airing non-stop; for members of the conservative education movement, such as Rufo, the pivot from issues of race to those of gender—which combine the rhetoric of parental control with an old-fashioned sex panic—seemed to offer immense political promise.

The parental-rights movement took root before the Supreme Court’s decision last week to overturn Roe v. Wade. But the same pattern within social conservatism that has shaped fights about educational control—namely, a willingness to push ahead with deliberately confrontational legislation, even if poll numbers oppose it—is likely to reappear in the post-Roe battles over abortion. Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation, said that Florida’s bill “is going to be the calling card for conservative reform efforts in education” and described Rufo as “the icon of this movement.” A spokesman for Heritage Action for America, the political-advocacy-action arm of Roberts’s think tank, told Reuters that, among the base, this issue had generated the “highest energy (among Republicans) since the Tea Party.”

After the Supreme Court affirmed marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, in 2015, the general political wisdom was that issues around gay rights were more or less settled. Even Donald Trump largely avoided the topic. Religious adherence is steadily falling in the United States, the portion of the country that is both white and Christian is plummeting, and there is no organization like the Christian Coalition of yore. In other words, this pattern is a little different: the politics of social conservatism are surging, without a discernible cultural movement toward traditionalism.

Writing in the Times recently, Nate Hochman of National Review argued that figures like DeSantis, Rufo, and Tucker Carlson were building a new brand of social conservatism, one that has risen from the ashes of, and materially departed from, the religious themes of a generation ago. “Instead of an explicitly biblical focus on issues like school prayer, no-fault divorce and homosexuality, the new coalition is focused on questions of national identity, social integrity and political alienation,” Hochman wrote. “We are just beginning to see its impact. The anti-critical-race-theory laws, anti-transgender laws and parental rights bills that have swept the country in recent years are the movement’s opening shots.”

In American politics, ideology is often a smoke screen for individual ambition. We have movements, but really we have movers. The situation is especially pronounced in the right wing of the Republican Party, where the post-Trump chaos has left few permanent factions, and allegiances are being constantly remade. Even the most basic questions were foggy in Florida, including whether this sort of campaign against indoctrination struck most voters as necessary. One nonpartisan poll conducted by the University of Florida found forty per cent of voters in favor and forty-nine per cent opposed. But another, by the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies, found a wildly different result: sixty-one per cent in favor and twenty-nine per cent opposed.

In such a situation, the particular steps that DeSantis took were important. One was obvious from afar: he and his allies described their political opponents not just as leftists, but as “groomers”—a watchword deployed to suggest that the Democratic Party is somehow complicit in pedophilia. On March 4th, while debates were still under way, DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, tweeted, “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.” In an official statement, DeSantis celebrated the bill’s signing by saying, in part, that parents “should be protected from schools using classroom instruction to sexualize their kids as young as 5 years old.” (The rhetoric has since spread: Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking member of the Republican leadership team in the House of Representatives, tweeted that the “usual pedo grifters” had failed to respond to the infant-formula shortage.)

Since there is no evidence to support claims of a widespread surge in sexual abuse in the schools, and since DeSantis and his allies described the problem in such general terms, there wasn’t really anything specific for Democrats to refute. To even argue that claims of grooming were baseless seemed in some ways to raise their profile. Some Democrats saw only a collection of familiar interest groups: as the progressive Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani told me, “The school-choice movement is, like, a hundred per cent invested in this kind of stuff, because they benefit from public education being attacked as extreme or inappropriate, because that leads parents to take their children away.”

As a result, the statements from Democrats tended to be very general, too: calling DeSantis’s program one of “authoritarianism and censorship”; suggesting that it was the program of a “homophobe”; or that the campaign against grooming in schools amounted to “gaslighting.” Meanwhile, the specific rhetoric of grooming was growing louder. Referring to a new conservative grassroots group involved in the fights over schools, Carlos Guillermo Smith, a progressive legislator from the Orlando area, told a reporter, early in April, “Every single day, I am bombarded by baseless accusations of pedophilia by Moms for Liberty-type advocates that say I need to stay away from children. It’s unhinged.”

A familiar way to view the allegations of widespread grooming is that they operate as signals to adherents of the QAnon conspiracy, which alleges a broad, secretive pedophilia network organized by leaders of the Democratic Party. Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist affiliated with the Never Trump movement, told me that the grooming claims solved a more mundane political problem for Republicans, too. “There’s a very important psychological aspect to how one defends Donald Trump if you’re a Republican, and that means the Democrats have to be worse.” Trump’s attempted coup against the government on January 6th, Longwell said, had raised the stakes. “You have to believe the Democrats are worse than trying to overthrow the government, and, if they’re worse than that, it means they want men to play women’s sports and that they are grooming little kids.”

DeSantis made a second significant move during the debate over the bill, one that Rufo in particular emphasized: the Governor escalated. The C.E.O. of the Walt Disney Company, Bob Chapek, told shareholders during an annual meeting early in March that he opposed the bill and had called DeSantis to say so; DeSantis retaliated with a new bill that stripped Disney (Central Florida’s largest taxpayer) of certain special legislative benefits that it had enjoyed since its establishment, a half century ago. “At the time, I remember some conversation, ‘Oh, DeSantis will never be able to vanquish Disney, Disney’s too powerful, too beloved,’ and at the time Disney had a seventy-seven per cent favorability rating with the public,” Rufo told me. He credited the Florida Governor with two insights: “A, that the bill is popular, and B, that though Disney is an economic and cultural power, it is really a novice political power, and, as many people are saying lean out of it, he leans into the fight, I think, brilliantly.”

Rufo himself was a central player in the fight with Disney. A few days after the bill passed, Rufo published a “shocking new report on Disney’s child-predator problem,” as he termed it—a re-airing of a 2014 CNN report that had found thirty-five Disney employees with histories of sexually abusing children. He also published clips from a leaked webinar that Disney had conducted for its staff, in which an executive producer at Disney Television Animation mentioned her “not-at-all-secret gay agenda” and executives pledged to introduce more L.G.B.T. characters and to greet visitors without describing them as “boys” and “girls” but with less gender specific terms, such as “friends.” These were distinct things: one, an investigative report from years ago about actual sexual abuse; the other, a pro-forma corporate-diversity campaign. But on social media they bled together. “These videos did billions of impressions over three weeks,” Rufo told me. “We got ‘Disney’ trending, ‘Disney groomer’ trending, all these popular hashtags for about three weeks straight.”

By the end of this campaign, Rufo said, Disney’s favorability ratings had dwindled to about thirty-three per cent. Its stock price is down nearly fifty per cent from a year ago. On Twitter, Rufo celebrated DeSantis’ shock-and-awe strategy: “The way to win the culture war is to demonstrate strength, blast through fake taboos, and play for keeps.”

When I asked Republican activists and operatives about the rise of the school issues, they told a very similar story, one that began with the pandemic, during which many parents came to believe that their interests (in keeping their kids in school) diverged with those of the teachers and administrators. As Roberts, the Heritage Foundation president, put it to me, parents who were in many cases apolitical “became concerned about these overwrought lockdowns, and then when they asked question after question, there was no transparency about them, which led them to pay more attention when their kids were on Zoom. They overheard things being taught. They asked questions about curricula. They were just stonewalled every step of the way.” The battles regarding the COVID lockdowns, Roberts told me, opened the way for everything that came after. “This is the key thing,” he said. “It started with questions about masking and other aspects of the lockdowns.”

Both parties right now are trying to answer the question of how fundamentally COVID has changed politics. “From 2008 to 2020, elections were decided on the question of fairness—Obama ’08, Obama ’12, and Trump ’16 were all premised on the idea that someone else was getting too much, and you were getting too little, and it was unfair,” Danny Franklin, a partner at the Democratic strategy firm Bully Pulpit Interactive and a pollster for both Obama campaigns, told me. But the pandemic and the crises that followed (war, inflation, energy pressures) were not really about fairness but an amorphous sense of chaos. “People are looking for some control over their lives—in focus groups, in polls, once you start looking for that you see it everywhere,” Franklin said.

Both parties had shifted, in his view. Biden had sought to reassure Americans that the government, guided by experts, could reassert its control over events, from the pandemic to the crisis in energy supply. Republicans, meanwhile, had focussed on assuring voters that they would deliver control over a personal sphere of influence: schools that would teach what you wanted them to teach, a government that would make it easier, not harder, to get your hands on a gun. A moral panic about gender identity might seem anachronistic, but it served a very current political need. Franklin said, “It’s a way for Republicans to tell people that they can have back control of their lives.”

At first, these curricular concerns centered around race, and the teaching of critical race theory became a defining issue in the Virginia gubernatorial election, won last November by the Republican Glenn Youngkin. Rufo had been a central figure in that fight, but as he watched the conflicts in local districts unfold he came to think that, for the conservative base, the pull of racial issues paled in comparison to those that invoked gender. “Put yourself in the shoes of an average parent,” Rufo told me. “You’re looking at critical race theory and thinking, The maximum damage that can be done is that my child will be taught that America is a racist country. Perhaps if it’s a white family, our skin color will be called into question as some sort of marker of oppression. But really it’s limited to an intellectual plane. There’s a ceiling on it.” With gender, he went on, there was “essentially no ceiling”—the emotional reaction was “much more visceral and deep-seated.”

Rufo recounted a story that he said he’d heard from a mother on the Upper East Side, who told him that her daughter was transitioning, with the help of an online community, and felt that this community “had essentially taken her away from me.” The mother, he said, told him that she knew half a dozen other Upper East Side parents with similar stories. “It’s not just that we’re going to teach your child that the country is evil,” he went on. “It’s really the fear—and I think the legitimate fear—that my child will essentially be recruited into a new identity.”

People who identify as trans are growing in number and visibility: in 2019, the C.D.C. found that nearly two per cent of high-school students identified as transgender. The political debates over whether trans high-school athletes should compete according to the sex they were assigned at birth or according to their gender identity arise naturally from that increased visibility, and conservative media has aggressively amplified those cases. But the law in Florida and the rhetoric accompanying it make more ambitious claims: that school staff are at least partly responsible for these changes and that trans people have—as Rufo put it—been “recruited into a new identity.” (This is an especially insidious allegation to make, in that it implies that trans people’s gender identity should not necessarily be understood as reflective of their own volition.) The idea that school counsellors are responsible for that recruitment is what connects the increase in trans visibility to the preëxisting conservative campaign for control of schools. I found a few cases in which parents alleged in lawsuits that school staff had held conversations with their children about transitioning without informing them—but nothing at all widespread. I asked Roberts, the Heritage Foundation president, about whether there was reason to believe that such “recruitment” was happening. “I think you ask the right question, the prevalence question,” Roberts said, adding that he would disagree with me “with a smile.” He went on, “It’s not on the verge of being undocumented from the perception of eighty per cent of Americans, even if they haven’t seen it firsthand at their own child’s swim meet.”

Of course, we were talking about somewhat different things. I had expressed doubt that teen-agers were really “recruited” into a new gender identity, and Roberts was talking about the conservative political reaction to activism on behalf of trans youth. Parents’ perceptions, Roberts went on, are shaped by events such as those in last fall’s session of the Texas legislature, when pro-trans-rights groups organized protests and testimony in opposition to a bill requiring student athletes to compete in alignment with the gender on their birth certificate. “In Texas of all places, this agenda—and I’m putting this as delicately as I can—of advocating for gender ideology, of allowing young men to compete in women’s sports has been pushed by the other side, by several dozen—if not a few hundred—activists who have showed up to testify in the Texas legislature.”

Really, political power in Texas is on the side of the Governor, not those few hundred activists. Despite the trans-rights groups’ fervent objections, Texas’s Governor, Greg Abbott, signed the bill. In Florida, DeSantis has moved to exclude certain medical treatments for transitioning people from Medicaid. Despite this momentum, there isn’t much evidence that anti-trans politics broadly are popular. Shortly after Roberts and I spoke, a new poll, funded by the Wall Street Journal, appeared: sixty-five per cent of Americans had said that being transgender should be accepted by society while just thirty-two per cent discouraged it.

But those numbers suggest a reckoning for conservatives that may never come. One of the costs of President Biden’s low standing in the eyes of American voters is that Republicans can campaign on some unpopular ideas without much risk of losing votes in the midterms. David Shor, the Democratic strategist and election analyst, compared the Republicans’ current position to where Democrats were in 2018, when President Trump was viewed with similar disdain by the public, and progressive candidates pushed transformative approaches to immigration, such as decriminalizing border crossing, without much fear of reprisal. “The reality is people are really mad about inflation and the economy and crime and all these other things,” Shor said. “The issues that people care the most about are the issues that people don’t trust Democrats on right now. And the only issues that people do trust Democrats on right now are issues that people don’t care about.”

In other words, Americans haven’t suddenly become traditionalists; DeSantis has simply seized a political opportunity. The school issues have solidified his standing with socially conservative voters, and elevated him as the main alternative to Trump. Longwell, the strategist, told me, “One of the things I marvel at is that, in focus groups with Trump voters all over the country, I ask, ‘Who would you want to run in 2024?’ Usually about half the group says Trump, and the other half says, ‘Eh, I don’t know. He’s a little old. Maybe some new blood—Ron DeSantis!’ And the idea that a guy in Texas or Alabama actually knows who the Governor of Florida is is stunning.” As I write this article, the betting market PredictIt puts the chances that Trump wins the Presidency at twenty-six per cent and DeSantis at thirty-two per cent. (Biden’s odds are at twenty-two per cent.) The more extreme parts of the parental-rights campaign—the talk about groomers, the singling out of educators—are being pursued not because they are popular, but because they don’t need to be. ♦

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