Canada has always been a “mosaic” of diverse communities. Credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty

September 14, 2021   5 mins

It may seem perverse to suggest that thoughtful American conservatives might look for inspiration to Canada. But the American Right is at an impasse.

Many conservative voters, and brightest intellectuals, have become disillusioned with the Republican Party’s long-standing combination of laissez-faire economics, aggressive foreign policy and “family values” targeting abortion, gay marriage and other social issues. The Trump presidency revealed that traditional Republican political elites still hold too much of this platform, even as their base rejected it — and them. Meanwhile Trump’s alternative agenda, pitched initially as a rejection of both “globalism” and culture-war issues, collapsed amid blustering incompetence.

Canada is often cast as a more progressive version of the United States: less nationalistic and religious, more accepting of diversity and more generous in its welfare programs. But according to Michael Cuenco, a sharp-eyed young political analyst, Canada offers important lessons for the American Right.

Cuenco draws on the work of those American thinkers who have most cogently articulated the case for a “pro-worker” post-Trump conservatism, such as Michael Lind, but departs from them in critical ways.

His most original, and provocative, proposal for a new conservatism relies on a heterodox rereading of Canadian immigration policy, which is often cited as a model by reform-minded Americans on the Right. In a two-part series of articles for American Affairs this spring, Cuenco noted that American conservatives have long envied Canada’s “points system”, whereby the majority of immigrants are classed and selected on the basis of their potential economic contribution.

In this way, Canadians can avoid having to make what Americans would describe as a difficult choice between having a robust social safety net or an open labour market, between high levels of immigration or civic peace. But, Cuenco insists, America has failed to recognise that the Canadian system also requires what he calls a “civil religion” — one that is founded on a politically useful untruth.

The “civic religion” that enables this peculiarly effective immigration policy, Cuenco argues, is “multiculturalism”. However, this “noble lie” was told not to facilitate immigration, but to ensure social cohesion by smothering potentially dangerous domestic tensions. Indeed, it was conceived by prime minister Pierre Trudeau, father of the current prime minister, to contain and gradually dissipate the threat of francophone separatism. People insisting on their personal rights or identities may seem to be resisting hegemonic power, but they are really demonstrating that their characters and worldviews have been thoroughly shaped by it. The conservative mission, rightly understood, would not be to bemoan the hidden “religious” dimension of contemporary liberalism or undo false consciousness of its believers, but to better direct that process of shaping.

Against Quebecois claims to being one of the two founding nations of Canada (the French and the English), Trudeau promoted the idea that Canada had always been and must remain a “mosaic” of diverse communities. By emphasising a “multi” rather than “bi” cultural perspective, French Canadians’ particular status could be diluted, and the hegemony of the English-speaking political and economic leadership class (the so-called “Laurentian elite”) secured.

In Canada — and, one might argue, throughout the Western world — the official political culture of the past two generations has increasingly become a kind of pageant of “difference” in which citizens are solicited to remember the far-flung origins of their compatriots, the important contributions of immigrants, the richness of their “communities” and other such clichés. One might see this sort of compulsory “multiculturalism” as a cynical means for reducing genuine differences in groups’ worldviews and long-standing historical grievances — which have the potential to generate irresolvable conflict — into a pacific dramaturgy where different identities are paraded.

But that’s a good thing, says Cuenco. In his formulation, Canada’s civic religion of multiculturalism makes for a political culture that is “Left in theory, Right in practice”.

There are many contemporary thinkers who wish to overcome the political division of Right and Left, and share Cuenco’s ambition to bring together progressive and conservative critics in defence of the working and middle classes. But Cuenco proposes something more interesting and more radical than a horse-shoe shaped coalition of the discontented.

He argues that the polices and values of one side (the Left) must be placed in service of the ultimate aims of the other (the Right). What we need, he proposes, is a group of elites who both recognise the legitimacy of populist resentment and the need to convert its demands not only into feasible policies but also into the language of liberal and progressive values.

And so Cuenco offers us a new articulation of the classic defence of liberal democratic civil religion proposed by Emile Durkheim, who argued that our form of government promotes human rights as a kind of worship through which we affirm and renew our membership in a national collective — one that is made all the more binding because we imagine ourselves to be autonomous individuals.

This “noble lie” by which liberal states seem to dissolve themselves into a shapeless mass of isolated individuals — through their emphasis on rights — is in fact the religion by which such states master fractious societies and persevere in being. What could be more conservative?

By returning to Durkheim and casting multiculturalism as a civic religion, Cuenco also reveals a number of paradoxes on the Right and Left. Thinkers on the Left usually understand themselves as pursuing the transformation of society in line with a substantive vision of equality, as radicals opposed to supposedly dominant ideologies and institutions. Yet these are the very values that have shaped America since its foundation — values which are hegemonic throughout all major political, cultural and economic institutions. From Marxist professors to progressive human resource managers, the Left is a party of order and tradition.

On the Right, meanwhile, conservative intellectuals, particularly those of a populist bent, insist today that America must be saved from the excesses of the Left, which include everything from the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties to the Progressive era of the early 20th century. The views of many (indeed most) living Americans, along with vast portions of American history, and their ideological foundations, appear to such ostensibly America-loving conservatives as unworthy of conservation. A number of venues on the post-Trump right, such as American Mind and American Greatness, have recently called for an “American Caesar” or “Salazar Option” by which a dictator might sweep away America’s supposed internal enemies, and with them, much of what defines America.

In contrast to such puerile fantasies, Cuenco urges the American Right to see the real conservative potential of the policies and values of the Left. Reducing income inequality and reigning in the tax-evasion of our financial elites would reduce the political power of the latter to shape American media, culture and politics around their peculiar and increasingly racialised understanding of ethics. It would provide capital for programmes of reindustrialisation and infrastructure development that was promised, but never achieved, by Trump in his first campaign. Likewise, reorganising the US immigration system along Canadian lines, coupled with the renewal of a civic religion that gives a progressive veneer to a calculus about the probable economic impact of any would-be immigrant, would soothe culture wars over immigration and national identity.

Success on both fronts requires conservatives to make peace with the state, bureaucrats and experts — and to distinguish their specific critique of our current elite’s depredations from an overly sweeping and inherently self-defeating opposition to the very existence of elites.

It also requires conservatives to learn, as Pierre Trudeau did, to take up the language of the Left, and instrumentalise it towards the end of holding society together — rather than trying to drag it back into a vanished past or impotently raging at its continued disintegration.

Blake Smith is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago. A historian of modern France, he is also a translator of contemporary francophone fiction and a regular contributor to Tablet.