Urbans and Rurals by Roger Graves

Last May, Gord Brown, the Conservative MP for Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, died suddenly, and a by-election was held in December to elect his successor. To nobody’s surprise, Michael Barrett, the Conservative candidate, won handily with over 57% of the vote in a field of five.

Michael Barrett was a relative unknown (he was a municipal councillor for Spencerville and Gord Brown’s riding association president), yet his election followed a predictable pattern. Leeds-Grenville is a rural riding. Its largest town is Brockville with a population of 21,000, together with a handful of much smaller towns such as Kemptville and Gananoque. Rural ridings almost always vote Conservative, in the same way that inner city ridings almost always vote Liberal or NDP. But have you ever wondered why?

I have written before that there are two tribes in Canada, called urbans and rurals, and they have different views on what the state, i.e. the whole apparatus of government, is for and what they expect from it. These views correspond more or less with the concepts of left-wing and right-wing respectively.

The fundamental philosophy of the right wing is that the state is an unpleasant necessity, rather like drains or diapers, to be tolerated when necessary, but on no account to be encouraged. The bedrock of the right wing view is that the state exists only to do those things that individuals cannot reasonably do by themselves (defence and foreign affairs are typical examples), and unless it is doing this in some identifiable fashion it should keep out of peoples’ lives. Right-wingers often come across as rather surly individuals because they have a fixed objection to being told what to do; they consider themselves perfectly capable of deciding what is best for themselves.

The left wing sees things differently. To them, the state is the great and beneficent provider of all things, the paternal employer, surrogate mother and all-enveloping nanny. Left-wingers, at heart, are a rather timid people. They demand of government not so much that it will govern, but that it shall look after them. In this role as surrogate parent, the left wing expects their government to provide health, education, pensions, physical security, and so on, with little or no conscious involvement on their part. Provided it does this reasonably well, or makes reassuring noises where it does not, most left-wingers are happy for the government to tell them what to do, and will overlook any amount of graft, corruption and incompetence.

The right wing, in rejecting an intrusive state, necessarily believes in personal responsibility, both for themselves and for their immediate families, hence their strong emphasis on family values. The left wing, on the other hand, believes in a generalized responsibility for everyone, as exemplified by phrases such as ‘the brotherhood of man’ and ‘social responsibility’. Of course, if everyone is responsible for everyone else, there is little need to feel personally responsible for any individual in particular, hence the typical left-wing disparagement of family values and the assumption that the state (i.e. someone else) will take care of all that.

Robert Heinlein, the science fiction author, put it rather well. “Political tags – such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth – are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.”

So what has all this to do with urbans and rurals? Quite simply, I think that right wing types tend to gravitate to the countryside and small towns where the heavy hand of the state is less evident. I know I did, many years ago, moving from urban Ottawa to a rural setting. Left wing types in contrast tend to gravitate to inner city areas where government services are always close by, public transport is always available, and policemen are much in evidence. In between are the suburbs where the two sides mix. Families with young children tend to live in the suburbs because otherwise mum and dad would spend their entire lives ferrying their kids back and forth from hockey practice and dance lessons, but when the kids leave home, mum and dad may move either into the countryside or downtown, depending on their inclinations. Politically speaking, suburbs tend to reflect this dichotomy, swinging back and forth between left wing and right wing, between Conservatives and Liberal/NDP.

I’ve made the assumption here that the Conservatives are right wing and reflect the views of the rural tribe. So they do to a certain extent, but here we run up against the hard fact that the urban tribe tends to outnumber the rural tribe. If the Conservatives want to win an election, they have to soften their views somewhat to appeal to at least part of the urban tribe, particularly in the suburbs where a lot of their potential support lies – the big tent, in other words. Liberals, on the other hand, already appeal to the urban tribe and feel they have no need to try to appeal to the rural tribe, which in any case they know to be a waste of effort on their part.

An interesting development is Maxime Bernier’s new Peoples Party of Canada. The PPC, for all that it sounds like something you would expect to see from North Korea, is actually more right-wing than the Conservative Party. It will be interesting to see how well it does in the next election. Of course, it is likely to take votes away from the Conservatives, and to this extent is probably going to mean another Liberal government come October, but this is merely history repeating itself. After all, this is exactly what the Reform Party did to the old Progressive Conservatives back in the 80’s and 90’s, until the two combined to form the present-day Conservative Party, so perhaps we are going to see another ten years of Liberal rule. A depressing thought.