The narrow defeat of Canadian Conservative efforts to de-register rifle ownership will produce a lingering hangover for positive political and social movements, as Conservatives gear up to foment rural-urban divisions. The urban-rural divide that emerged during the rifle registration debate has been manufactured by slick urban bluebloods as a political gift that they hope will keep on giving.

I got drawn into the trick when I saw the mid-September headline about Conservative enforcer John Baird lambasting the Toronto elite. Elite-bashing still gets my juices flowing, so I checked out the story on the off-chance the Conservative cabinet minister had lambasted Bay Street bankers and speculators who were doing nothing to overcome the recession by helping people buy homes or find decent jobs.

But then I saw who (or whom, the grammatical elite may say) Baird was targeting – NDP leader Jack Layton and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. By foiling his government’s so-called private members’ bill to cancel registration of rifles, Baird charged them with dissing rural people.

Jack Layton rose to national prominence as a champion of the homeless, and Michael Ignatieff spent most of
his career in the field of international human rights; neither cause is recommended in any career guide I’m aware of as a good way to suck up to elites.

Alas, this Baird-baiting attack comes from a considered strategy that is a foundation stone of the rise of neo-conservatism over the last two decades, thanks to hard-edged political messaging and an angry voter base aroused by elite bashing.

It’s time the bag of tricks gets discussed.

Baird-baiting of rural resentment expresses a militant divisiveness that has been central to the far-right, which arose as much as a protest against moderate (what used to be called progressive) conservatism in the Republican and Progressive Conservative parties as against liberals or radicals in other parties. Until the 1980s, mainstream parties of both the right and left moved to the centre of the spectrum, with a slight tilt one way or another. Longtime Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau declared himself to be of “the radical middle”, for example, while Conservative Bill Davis, often regarded as the most progressive premier in Ontario’s history, loved the slogan that “bland works.” As in the U.S., both mainstream parties sought to win with 51 per cent in favor, and conducted themselves so as to leave only a small proportion of the defeated 49 per cent bitterly estranged.

New technologies of polling, canvassing and supporter mobilization enabled by computer programs during the 1980s, coupled with a fast-growing indifference to voting among people on low incomes, allowed shrewd conservative leaders to veer sharply to the right by mobilizing what pollsters called a “universe” of hardline supporters through “cultural politics.” Mobilizing hard supporters, rather than winning the muddled middle, became the order of the day in conservative electoral strategy – the political expression of niche marketing that also blossomed during that decade.

This was like taking candy from a kid in Canada, where there are four major national parties, allowing the first past the post to take the spoils with as little as a third of popular support. Baird’s appeal to vote-rich rural areas, much over-represented in political representation – over-representation that is rarely protested by so-called urban elites in North America, and seldom acknowledged by city-bashers — is a textbook case of this Wedging Works strategy.

To dig the knife in further, the far-right strategy takes ruthless advantage of the “red meat” issues their hardliner interest group friends want – usually sensitive cultural or personal issues that once had trouble getting on a respectable political spectrum. The beauty of this, Thomas Frank showed in his best-selling expose of far-right methods in What’s the Matter with Kansas, is that the more losses right-wingers seemingly suffer on issues related to sex and crime, the more frantic and driven their base becomes – and the more money enters the coffers of conservative causes.

When they win when they lose, there is no incentive whatsoever for conservative leaders to work on workable compromises or to reduce divisiveness and polarization. Welcome to Wedging 101.

Third – a brilliant example of issue-framing borrowed from bullfighters’ dangling of red flags before enraged bulls — at a time when governments refuse to dealing with rising inequality, people suffering from resentments based on inequality can be rallied to express their anger against cosmopolitan urban trendies and creatives. Economic division is redefined in terms of lifestyle, rather than unequal power or wealth.

The greatest shortcoming of the cosmo crowd is their liking of high-end cafe latte, their tolerance for personal, cultural and social diversity, and their lack of sensitivity to the ways popular envy and resentment are triggered by political correctness, fancy coffees and salad greens – which makes them sitting ducks for demagogues.

Notwithstanding the longstanding differences between country mice and city mice, the rural-urban divide has been manufactured by far-right politicians. History shows that radical movements came from rural farm areas – Kansas, Minnesota, Saskatchewan, home of North America’s first socialist government, being the most obvious examples. And leave us not forget Saltspring, the people’s republic of, a testimony of the environmental and cultural energy that can come from a rural westcoast island of 10,000 people.

As for rural non-farm areas, they are mostly quite urbanized strongholds of loggers, miners and meat-packers – think Cape Breton, Sudbury, Kirkland Lake — who have entire chapters of radical labor history dedicated to them.

Today, what was once a North America-wide “rural” heritage is alive and well mainly in Quebec, where progressive Quebec nationalists hold sway and where the far-right has no hearing.

The loss of labor and truly populist heritage in most hinterland areas is due to de-industrialization that flowed from the far-right’s championing of free trade deals. Most of the plants and mines have been shut down and moved offshore.

This strip-mining of rural social structure is most marked today in relations with farmers, a majority of whom once worked close to urban centres, serving local markets, enjoying mutually beneficial relations with neighboring cities. Increasingly, farmers live in what U of T sociologist Harriet Friedmann calls “monocultural export zones,” that have no relationships within a depopulated rural community, let alone a nearby urban one. This is what long-distance food, which triumphed during the 1980s and ‘90s, has produced – during the very years when neo-conservatives started winning bigtime in social, environmental and political arenas.
Far-right politics are premised on a conflict of each against all, which flourishes when reciprocity in economic and social relations is shattered. And the nice negative feedback loop for them is that they – to turn the old co-op slogan on its head – “build the road as they travel,” creating more social and political estrangement by creating more economic estrangement.

If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made, it’s often said. But anti-elitism pays off even better.

Speak Your Mind