Musings —09.13.2016 12:00 AM—
What’s a value?
Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch has been talking a lot about “values.” She sent out a questionnaire to Conservative partisans about it. Here’s what it said: “Should the Canadian government screen potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values as part of its normal screening for refugees and landed immigrants?”
Leitch’s question enraged the Left side of the spectrum – and her party’s acting leader, and several Conservative caucus members, and a leadership rival. (Newspaper columnists and editorial boards, too.) They were all super outraged.
That’s what Leitch wanted, of course: attention. Your average Canadian voter couldn’t pick her out of a two-person police line-up. So she and her smart circle of advisors did something to get noticed, and to get pointy-headed progressive intellectuals – who the conservative base deeply detest – to commence the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. It worked, big time.
While everyone was running around being outraged, however, no one bothered to ask any practical questions. Here’s one: how would Prime Minister Leitch’s policy actually work, in the real world? At some future border crossing, would a courteous CBSA lean across the counter and say: “Welcome to Canada. Are your values Canadian, or Islamic State-ish? Planning on blowing anything up? Got an tobacco or alcohol to declare? No? Well, have a good day and welcome!”
Leitch’s stunt was just that: a stunt. She’s a doctor, and she’s not particularly stupid. She knows that CBSA – and CSIS, and the RCMP, and (as we have recently learned, after the confrontation with that ISIS fanboy in London) the FBI and Homeland Security in the U.S. – already screen potential immigrants and refugees to Canada for their affinity for terror and extremism. So, knowing that, what was Kellie Leitch – she of the mid-election barbaric practices hotline stunt – hoping to achieve with her latest stunt, about “values?”
To get noticed, as noted. And to appeal, naturally, to the Conservative Party’s still-formidable red-necked, knuckle-dragging moth-breather demographic.
Richard Nixon pioneered that sort of strategy, many years ago. He used to say that Republican presidential aspirants should run to the Right to get the nomination – and then, once they get it, start running back to the Centre. (Somebody should tell Donald Trump, who is still jogging toward the outer reaches of the far Right.)
So that’s what Leitch is doing, as she scrambles to get noticed and win her party’s leadership. It’s cynical, it’s dishonest, and it may just work.
But we digress. When Leitch talks about “values,” what does she mean? Does anyone know what a “value” is? Kellie Leitch doesn’t define what she means by “values” – and, when you think about it, neither does any other politician, ever.
Values are the stuff of life. They are indefinable. They are hopes and dreams and fears and the things found deep within the guts of every person. Values are about emotion, not reason – which is why the Right is so good at them. They know the Left get tongue-tied when trying to talking about passion and emotion and stuff like that. And – almost always – whomever controls the “values” debate tends to win elections.
I wrote an entire book about the subject, Fight the Right, available still at fine bookstores near you. Therein, I noted that, after every electoral loss, progressives always confuse “values” with “messaging.” But they’re not the same thing. The challenges facing progressives extend to more than mere linguistics and wordplay. Values are the ineffable, keenly felt issues that hit folks at a primordial level. Not the stuff we think about – the stuff we feel. The stuff that attracts the attention of hearts, not heads.
Pollsters, pundits and political scientists prattle on endlessly about values, but none of them ever seems to be able to offer a working definition of same. A value is known, it’s felt, as noted, but a value isn’t easily described.
Leitch, and her fellow travelers on the Right are better at values – because they have a willingness to talk about emotional issues, and a willingness to manipulate cultural prejudices.
Conservatives delight in values-related debate, because they know that surveys consistently show that voters believe that conservatives have values, and liberals don’t. Also problematic: we progressive types fuss over minutiae. We are too often the proponents of Nanny Statism and social engineering, whether we realize it or not We’re policy fuss-budgets. Conservatives, meanwhile, are more concerned with what Garance Franke-Ruta, the online politics editor of The Atlantic, calls “the fundamental stuff of life.”
They’re all big picture, the conservatives. Progressives, meanwhile, are all about the little things: laundry lists of picayune political promises; minor tactical tweaks; everything that is vertical, in policy terms, but little that is horizontal. Voters know it. Or, more accurately, they feel it.
One of the experts I interviewed for Fight the Right summed it up best: “The Right has always been very good at playing to resentments, and particularly class resentments of the white working class.”
And that’s why Rob Ford won, and why Donald Trump is gaining on Hillary Clinton, and why Kellie Leitch – dishonestly, despicably – is going on and on about “values.” Because the values war is the war that conservatives will always win. And that’s the phony war that Kellie Leitch is fighting right now.
And we’re all falling for it.