We shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss social conservatives

Social conservatives are definitely falling out of fashion with Conservatives, who worry that they’ve become a drag on the party’s chances of winning the next election.

But is pushing them to the margins going to turn into another, bigger problem for politics at large in Canada? Are Conservatives creating a whole new breed of “deplorables” — Canadian style?

A lively debate is underway in the Conservative leadership contest about whether candidates opposed to same-sex marriage, abortion and so on should be allowed to run.

“I am very, very tired, beyond tired, of my party being hijacked by this type of bigotry,” MP Michelle Rempel Garner complained after one potential candidate, Richard Decarie, called homosexuality a “choice.”

Similar outrage ensued when another possible contender, MP Derek Sloan, also went on TV and muddled his way through an explanation of the “complicated” science of homosexuality.

In one week, Sloan and Decarie have become poster boys for the kind of conservatism that many in the party are eager to reject — swiftly and summarily. You might call it an intolerance for intolerance.

But this might not end well. It’s an age-old rule in politics: insult your opponent, if you must, but don’t insult his or her supporters.

Hillary Clinton’s defeat to Donald Trump was built in part, she conceded later, by her description of his supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”

In the deeply divided United States of 2016 and today, being deplorable is now a badge of honour for many.

Just this week, Trump’s Republicans cranked out a new ad to capitalize on mockery from a CNN panel that labelled the president’s base as “credulous rubes.”

Populism thrives on what political elites reject.

Make no mistake: Homophobia is deplorable, as is sexism, racism, xenophobia and all the other prejudices that fuel the political fringe. None of them should have a place in a modern political party, especially one with a real chance of forming government.

But it’s worth remembering that openness to same-sex marriage is a rather recent development in Canadian politics.

Liberals who made it legal, like prime ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, initially apologized their way into that new reality of the early 2000s, saying the courts had forced them to do it.

Martin even had to backtrack on his own vote in favour of traditional marriage in 2001 to back his own same-sex marriage legislation four years later.

Marching in Pride parades is not an age-old tradition either for political leaders. Justin Trudeau is the first sitting prime minister to have done so, in July 2016. That’s not even four years ago.

So while we’re tempted to see Canadian openness to LGBTQ rights as a steady, progressive evolution in this country, it was actually more like a revolution, which may have left some people behind.

It wasn’t too long ago when many of us were having arguments around the dinner table with recalcitrant (mostly older) relatives, when coming-out declarations could find people banished from jobs, families and certainly political ambitions. This isn’t ancient history in Canada.

In 2005, a newly elected MP named Andrew Scheer stood up in the House of Commons and described same-sex marriage as unnatural, like trying to rename a dog tail as a dog leg. It was jarring when the Liberals released the tape of it this year, but it wasn’t in 2005, causing not a ripple, nor a news story that I can recall.

Opponents of same-sex marriage weren’t exactly rare 15 years ago in the Commons. They existed in every party.

As Conservative leader, Scheer missed an opportunity in the last election by failing to tell Canadians how his views had, as he put it, “evolved” since then.

The story of that evolution in thinking could actually be many Canadians’ story — the ordinary, everyday Canadians with whom the Conservative leader was trying to connect. More than laws and social norms have changed over two decades in Canada with respect to LGBTQ rights — individuals have changed their minds and their views too.

How did that happen? It wasn’t by shouting people down or banning any talk about the issue, as some are suggesting now. People wrestled with equality rights by talking them out, by seeing LGBTQ people in their midst, maybe even at their own family dinner table.

Something like that conversation is likely needed in Conservative circles right now. Homophobia is probably not a treatable condition, but resistance to social change is — witness the revolution in Canadian politics over just the first two decades of this century.

What doesn’t work is to cast all the change-resistant people to the fringes or ban them from participation in a mainstream political party — unless we’ve decided that Canada needs its own proud band of deplorables.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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