On the surface, the childcare debate seems rather innocuous — do Canadians support publicly subsidized daycare spots or would they rather have a little extra cash in their pocket to spend on whatever arrangement suits their family? But once you scrape below the surface, it doesn’t take long to see how this issue reveals Stephen Harper’s vision of the family — and by extension, the role of the state.
If you weren’t already suspicious of Harper’s tax cut disguised as a childcare program, you would probably be alarmed to know with whom he’s been meeting to help promote his policy. The Globe And Mail recently reported that he has been consulting with “social conservative” groups, including REAL Women Of Canada, the Institute For Canadian Values and the Canada Family Action Coalition, to help spread the word about his party’s so-called “Choice In Childcare” initiative.
Now all it takes is about 30 seconds on the websites of these three organizations to see what they’re all about. REAL Women dub themselves an “alternative” women’s movement, and they actively oppose employment equity, funding for women’s groups (which they claim have all been taken over by “feminists/lesbians”) and, of course, same-sex marriage. The Canada Family Action Coalition opposes anti-bullying initiatives in schools because they only serve to spread the “homosexual agenda.” The Institute For Canadian Values was formed last spring, as equal marriage legislation was headed for a vote. Of course, the Institute opposes same-sex marriage, as well as abortion and daycare, which the Institute says leads to an increase in violent crime.
It’s scary enough that Harper is consorting with groups working to turn back the clock on all of the rights we’ve won for our communities in the last 30 years. But many queer people have lulled themselves into believing that once the marriage issue has been settled, Harper and his ilk are not so bad. Lots of gay people vote Conservative, and try to influence party policy from “the inside.” Many would blast me for suggesting that they have a moral duty to oppose Harper’s vision for Canada. But whether we like it or not, Harper’s view of the family doesn’t include us and it never will.
George Lakoff is a linguist and cognitive scientist in the US, and his slim volume Don’t Think Of An Elephant: Know Your Issues And Frame The Debate is like a language manual for the left. He maintains that conservatives and “progressives” are divided, because they believe in two competing visions of the family unit as a metaphor for society. The conservatives follow the “strict father” model, with all of its Leave It To Beaver associations. You know the drill: father as disciplinarian, mother as nurturer and homemaker. Lakoff argues that this extends to conservative political policies emphasizing self-help, security and unfettered capitalism. In contrast, Lakoff says that lefties generally follow a gender-neutral “nurturing” family model that promotes equality, community and widespread prosperity. This translates into an understanding that the state has a role to play in improving people’s lives by providing social services, promoting equity and mitigating the corporate quest for profit at the expense of every-day people.
Lakoff began this analysis after puzzling over how the Republicans had managed to hoodwink millions of US citizens into voting against their own economic self-interest. He couldn’t understand why poor people would vote for tax cuts instead of supporting the social programs that improve their quality of life. Then he took a hard look at the ways that conservatives communicate and organize, and realized that the left has a lot to learn.
According to Lakoff, the reason that conservatives are so effective at communicating is that they are able to frame their issues in terms of moral values, rather than as just a series of interconnected facts. The left has always been pretty bad at communication. Lefties figure that if we give people enough information, they will rationally come to the correct decision. Because left ideas are superior, right? Wrong. Lefties have spent so much time in defensive mode that all we’ve been doing lately is fending off attacks, rather than conceiving of and promoting a better vision of the world.
Conservatives have also learned how to work together. In the US, conservative activist Grover Norquist brings 80 right-wing people together each week, and they fight and negotiate. They figure out who is going to win their issue each month, and they all support each other. They identify “wedge issues” that they can all get behind, and they work together to reach a common goal. Harper has already begun to do this in Canada. While childcare might be a tangential issue to many social conservative groups in Canada, the Conservatives are using this issue to build trust and a base of support for their government. And we can only imagine what tradeoffs they are offering behind closed doors.
If there’s one thing that the left is not good at, it’s working together, as evidenced by the rift between the CAW and the NDP. But if we want to have any impact on government policy in the next few years, we need to learn to work together. And like it or not, we need to wade into the values debate.