Ten years ago, when my temporary ordination as a Buddhist monk at Gampo Abbey was cut short by a ruptured Achilles tendon, and I was being driven to the bus stop by my abbey friend Geoff, he asked me, “Do you regard yourself as a small-c conservative?”
We had been talking about politics and social issues off and on during the five-plus months we had been there (Geoff had arrived the day before I did). I had brought a copy of The Economist to the abbey and had sometimes got into discussions or even arguments with younger residents (I was 43) about things like racism or philanthropy or capitalism. Monks aren’t supposed to make friends (the ideal is to extend the same good will and friendliness toward everyone), but I had become close to Geoff, who was a rock guitarist and sometime street person from Edmonton. He was about 10 years younger than I was, and was a lay resident (he wore street clothes and did not observe the full monastic discipline of the ordained residents). His politics were not exactly socialist, because many of his opinions were pragmatic and even tough, as one might expect from an Albertan; but at the same time there was an activist streak in him that wanted to push back against big, greedy corporations.
My answer to Geoff was no, I did not see myself as a small-c conservative. “I think real conservatives would shoot me for some of my positions,” I said.
“Like what?” said Geoff.
“Well, I’m against capital punishment for one thing. I believe in gun control. I’m antiwar and believe in solving problems through negotiation and treaties. I’m an environmentalist. Oh: and I’d completely legalize drugs and prostitution. So how conservative is that?”
“Not very conservative,” said Geoff, chuckling.
“On the other hand, leftists would probably shoot me too. I’m a capitalist and I think the government should stay out of the economy. I would privatize a lot of what government does, including health care. I don’t believe in government deficits. I’m opposed to multiculturalism and other government-funded efforts at social engineering.”
“Not very left-wing,” Geoff acknowledged.
Here in Canada the four main federal political parties are the ruling Conservatives, the “social-democratic” New Democratic Party, the long-dominant but now flagging Liberals, and the decimated regional sovereigntists the Bloc Quebecois, with the Green Party showing growing support. I feel that none of these parties represents my beliefs or my interests. I have developed a revulsion for the governing party, so I will vote against them at the earliest opportunity. But who is there to vote for?
My political beliefs are still not fully formed, but they have been taking shape over the past few years as I have investigated economics and, now, liberal philosophy based on my effort to acquire a liberal education. The word liberal derives from the Latin liberalis, meaning “suitable for a free man”. The initial and core idea of liberalism is that of individual freedom, and this I can say I wholeheartedly support. We all should have the maximum freedom that is consistent with the same freedom being enjoyed by everyone else.
No party subscribes to this idea except, I suppose, the tiny Libertarian Party, but they seem just a bit too “ideological” for me. To me, the environment is the most important issue globally and locally, but the Libertarian solution to environmental problemsprivate ownership of all resourceswould need to be explained to me more clearly. How will this alleviate or prevent climate change, for instance? I note that their website does not include the environment as a heading on its list of “positions”only “pollution” under the heading “social concerns”. They come across as too doctrinaire, too academic, too robotic. And if they have trouble luring me in, they’ll have more trouble luring most other people.
If the environment is my concern, surely the Green Party is my natural home. It’s true that I have voted for the Green Party in the past, but only halfheartedly. Why? Because the Green Party is basically a left-wing party, probably even left of the New Democrats. They support big government, high taxes, organized labor, minimum wages, and other socialist policies. Their strength is that they “get” the importance of the environment as an issuebut that is their only strength (other than the personal appeal and integrity of their party leader, Elizabeth May).
So where does this leave me? Politically, in Canada, nowhere. It feels like my options are to lodge a protest vote with an idealistic splinter party (the Libertarians) that has no realistic prospect of winning even a single seat, or to vote for a party (the Greens) that represents my key issue, but only as one plank of a platform that I otherwise deplore.
I think of my situation this way: if there were a small-l liberal party, I’d vote for it. Failing that, if there were a small-c conservative party, I’d vote for that. Failing either of those, I’m left with my aversion to the current ruling party, which inclines me to vote for whatever candidate seems most able to unseat my local incumbent. That would mean voting either Liberal or NDP.
So I have become a voter-against instead of a voter-for. In this I suspect that I am like many of my fellow citizenswhich is too bad.
My path forward? I will continue to work on my own philosophical, economic, and political education and ideas, and seek to share them with other like-minded people. Maybe one of these decrepit, backward-looking parties can be repurposed to the needs of the 21st century and its disaffected occupants.