Conservative Family Policy: Lessons from the North

Senator Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act, which consolidates and simplifies various tax credits and family benefits (including the Child Tax Credit and the child-based provisions in the Earned Income Tax Credit), has set off a renewed intra-conservative debate about the translation of conservative ideas and principles into a working-class policy agenda.

It is still too early to judge how this debate will ultimately be resolved. Although Romney’s proposal has been lauded in some wonky and social conservative circles, its conservative critics have made various arguments about work disincentives, fiscal costs, and so forth.

A big part of the debate is about competing policy perspectives. But one gets the sense that the disagreement also reflects divergent views about the political future of American conservatism: Is it about continuing down a Trumpian path of identity and grievance politics, doubling down on the traditional Republican policy agenda of tax cuts, trade, and globalization, or charting a new, policy-oriented working-class course?

I would submit that, as American conservatives debate this question, they may be able to draw lessons from recent conservative experience in Canada. A Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper from 2006 to 2015, successfully articulated a conservative policy agenda rooted in the concerns, interests, and inspirations of working-class voters. Its track record shows that such a strategy can ultimately produce positive policy and political outcomes.

In particular, the Harper government’s creation of a Universal Child Care Benefit to recognize the social value of parenting and head off a national child-care system proposed by its progressive opponents may provide salutary lessons for American conservatives in the context of the current child benefits debate.

Grand New Party?

Conservative intellectuals Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam are rightly credited for foreseeing the political fecundity of working-class populism in their 2008 book, Grand New Party: How Republicans can win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.

They argued at the time that the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement needed to adjust their policy agenda to better represent the concerns, interests, and aspirations of non-college-educated voters if they were to compete in a political context that was increasingly realigning along educational lines.

Douthat and Salam’s political and policy analysis was based on a combination of demographic and electoral trends and a growing sense that conservative policy priorities, including pro-efficiency tax cuts, entitlement reform, and globalization, were increasingly disconnected from the Republican Party’s voters.

“If you make conservatism relevant to ordinary working people, you make it the most powerful political philosophy in Western democratic society.”

Stephen Harper

These warnings went unheeded by elected Republicans, however, and there is a good argument that their failure to embrace this so-called “reformicon” future ultimately contributed to Donald Trump’s takeover of the party. He lacked the substantive policy ideas that Douthat and Salam put forward, but he instinctively discerned what they had seen roughly eight years earlier. His working-class populist message enabled a unique path to victory within the presidential primary and ultimately in the general election.

There are various factors that caused the Republican Party to ignore Douthat and Salam’s admonitions, but there is a legitimate argument that, although it was well-researched and rigorous, their plan simply involved a degree of risk and uncertainty that Republican lawmakers were unwilling to take on. They were in effect calling on elected Republicans to shift away from a set of issues and policies for which they had developed muscle memory over nearly three decades. Politicians are, if anything, leery of the untested, unfamiliar, and unknown.

Harperism: Working-Class Conservatism in Canada

I have sometimes wondered if the case for a new, working-class conservatism would have been strengthened by pointing to the policy and political accomplishments of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government during this period. Harper’s governing agenda, which he once described as “adapting contemporary issues to a new conservatism,” was essentially a real-time validation of Douthat and Salam’s thesis.

It was not merely an intellectual exercise either. The Canadian experience showed that a conservatism oriented to working-class concerns, interests, and aspirations could indeed be highly successful as a political proposition.

Harper’s political vision was about bringing conservative ideas to bear on behalf of working-class citizens. As he said in a 2006 interview: “If you make conservatism relevant to ordinary working people, you make it the most powerful political philosophy in Western democratic society. Where Conservative parties are successful, and successful on a sustained basis, that is what they do.”

His governing record reflects this key insight. Harper understood that modern conservatism is more than just the sum of marginal tax rates and government spending as a share of GDP. Conservatives must have a limited yet positive vision for government that addresses bigger questions such as the role of the family in our society, the socio-cultural roots of poverty and purposefulness, and the social costs of crime and addiction. 

As he outlined in a 2003 speech prior to becoming prime minister:

There are real limits to tax-cutting if conservatives cannot dispute anything about how or why a government actually does what it does. If conservatives accept all legislated social liberalism with balanced budgets and corporate grants—as do some in the business community—then there really are no differences between a conservative and a Paul Martin [the centrist Liberal prime minister at the time]. 

There is, of course, much more to be done in economic policy. . . . In large measure, however, the public arguments for doing so have already been won. Conservatives have to be more than modern liberals in a hurry. 

The truth of the matter is that the real agenda and the defining issues have shifted from economic issues to social values, so conservatives must do the same.

Therefore, Harper sought to reorient Canadian conservative policy thinking from its macroeconomic priorities of previous decades (such as uncompetitive marginal tax rates, bloated government spending, and over-regulation) to a new set of microeconomic and social issues that were salient with working-class voters.

This intellectual shift proved to be good politics. The Conservative Party basically halved its “gender gap” between male and female voters and sustained this rough ratio throughout most of its tenure. It also made considerable gains with non-college-educated, working-class men that similarly held up during its time in office. The net effect was to win three straight federal elections including the first Conservative majority victory in nearly a quarter century in 2011.

Recognizing the Social Value of Parenting

The most powerful example of this paradigmatic change is the Harper government’s Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB). 

I have previously written about the evolution of the Canadian government’s policy framework for supporting families with children. The country went from a post-WWII universal family allowance to a means-tested, income support program for families with children in the 1980s due mainly to budgetary factors.

The Conservative Party under Harper proposed restoring a universal child benefit in its 2006 election platform. The UCCB would provide $100 CAD ($78.35 USD) per month for each child under age six irrespective of family income or how the funds would be used. The policy case was primarily about positive externalities: a universal child benefit sought to recognize the difference between the private costs and social returns of raising the next generation. It was in effect a public policy affirmation of the social value of parenting or what has been described in the policy literature as a “parental recognition objective.”

Putting a universal child benefit at the center of the party’s policy agenda was a major departure from its conventional policy and political orthodoxy. Yet Harper and his team (including Ken Boessenkool who had written in favour of universal child benefits in the late 1990s) viewed the UCCB as part of a broader shift in the Conservative Party’s positioning from “economic issues to social values.”   

A contributing factor was that the then-Liberal government was starting to actively pursue a new national child-care framework whereby it would transfer funding to provincial governments to establish what amounted to a publicly-funded and publicly-delivered child-care model that conformed to a common set of national standards. The idea had a long pedigree among Canadian progressives dating back to a Royal Commission on the Status of Women in the early 1970s.

The UCCB must therefore be viewed as a policy alternative to the Liberal Party’s state-centric idea of a national childcare system. But this was more than merely a technocratic debate about the best means of supporting families with children. It became an expression of competing values about parental choice, the role of the state, and how we think about paid and unpaid work.

As I outlined in a recent essay, the Conservative position was aided by two factors. The first is that a majority of Canadian families with children under the age of four at the time used a mix of home-based daycare and other private arrangements for their child-care needs and therefore were by and large neglected by the Liberal government’s one-size-fits-all model.

Harper instinctively understood that conservatives must apply their fixed principles to new and evolving issues if they are to remain relevant and responsive to the voting public in general and working-class voters in particular.

The second was an infamous, mid-campaign gaffe when a Liberal spokesman complained on a television panel that parents would abuse the unconditional dollars under the Conservative plan to buy “beer and popcorn.” This political misspeak accentuated the technocratic, government-knows-best underpinnings of the Liberal Party’s child-care proposal and brought into greater focus the values-based choice before voters.

The net effect was to position the Conservative Party as trusting and supporting parents versus the Liberal Party who did not seem to trust parents to make the best choices for their families. It is hard to discern how fundamental this political contrast was to the Conservative Party in the ensuing election, but there is no question that it was a major theme particularly in the aftermath of the “beer and popcorn” incident. It is no accident, for instance, that a standard Conservative message in the final days of the campaign was that the party believed the “real experts on raising children are moms and dads.”

The Conservative Party ultimately won the 2006 election, and the incoming government canceled its predecessor’s national child-care framework and implemented the UCCB in its first year in office. It produced positive results on child poverty in Canada, had minimal (even mostly positive) employment effects for parents, and ultimately became one of the Harper government’s signature policies over its nearly ten years in office.

Lessons for American Conservatives

As important as Canadian conservatives’ experience with child benefits is, the bigger lesson here is about the translation of conservative ideas and principles into a working-class agenda. Harper instinctively understood that conservatives must apply their fixed principles to new and evolving issues if they are to remain relevant and responsive to the voting public in general and working-class voters in particular.

This is not a call for ideological compromise. It is instead a recognition that conservatism is more than a finite set of policy positions: it is a framework to see the world as it actually is. Its ideas and principles are fixed but its application to new and evolving issues is necessarily dynamic. This process has been described by Yuval Levin as an exercise of “applied conservatism.”

It is a good descriptor of Canadian Conservatives’ positioning on child benefits in particular and Stephen Harper’s political philosophy more generally. It amounted to the translation of conservative principles about choice, subsidiarity, and the importance of the family institution to the practical question of the rising costs of raising young children.

That is precisely the kind of policy and political recalibration that Douthat and Salam envisioned in their book. Theirs was not a call to abandon conservatism but rather to apply and translate it to a new set of issues pertinent to working-class voters. The Harper government’s experience with the UCCB demonstrates that they were on the right track.

The choice before American conservatives is therefore about more than the specific design details of Senator Romney’s child allowance proposal. It is about the Republican Party’s future orientation: will it shift its policy agenda to better meet the needs of its increasingly working-class base as Douthat and Salam put forward more than a decade ago? Or will it continue to advance a more traditional Republican policy agenda that seems more and more disconnected from its voters?

The answer as a matter of practical politics seems self-evident. But the Canadian conservative record shows that it is not just an exercise in expediency. The result can be to incrementally shift policy and governance in an applied conservative direction.