Conservative, Liberal, Progressive? How to define yourself without labels

“Not being a party purist doesn't mean you're a hypocrite, or that you lack integrity. It means you're a moderate. But you don't have to be meek or mild!” Former Progressive Conservative MLA Donna Kennedy-Glans writes on understanding our own political identity, and defining our own political values.

'On social media, people are constantly trying to define my political identity'

Calgary has always been a city on the move, but with the plunge in oil prices a few years ago, that forward movement stalled. Former politician Donna Kennedy-Glans weighs in with her thoughts on political identity and political values. (Getty Images)

Picture this: Together with other political hacks, I was corralled into a section of Calgary's BMO Centre on Oct. 28 to listen to Jason Kenney's victory speech.

Together we watched Kenney elected leader of the United Conservative Party. This was his reward for 16-months of hard work in the trenches to unite the two "right-wing" political parties in Alberta — the now defunct Progressive Conservatives and Wildrosers.

I'm always on the look-out for "beyond polarity" thinking and acting. You would think, in the wake of a "unite the right" campaign, that I'd notice a lot of "right-wing" ideas in a victory speech. But, I didn't.

Instead, Kenney said the go-forward plan was not about uniting the right.

"Most people don't situate themselves," he said, "in some theoretical political spectrum."

For me, that simple observation was the most rousing.

We don't want others situating us either. We want to understand our political identity, define our own political values. We want to feel comfortable in our chosen political home.

It's easy to plunk yourself down, decisively, at either end of the political spectrum. But when you don't quite feel comfortable seated entirely on the right-wing or on the left-wing, it can be unsettling.

Politically pure

Wherever I go in Alberta, people are talking politics.

The last two years have seen a lot of change in our province's political landscape. Dramatic floor crossings. Unprecedented spending. And now, positioning for the 2019 provincial election is moving into high gear. Change is unfolding. More and more, politics is becoming part of everyday life. But figuring out how to express your own political voice isn't easy.

Most people aren't politicos. Most of us aren't "politically pure." Most of us don't fit neatly into the available political boxes. And trying to either shoe-horn yourself into a box, or worse, being shoe-horned in, is destructive to our sense of self.

I was a Progressive Conservative MLA. I left caucus to sit as an Independent for a few months. I returned to caucus, chose not to run in 2015, and then ran for party leader. And yet even I have frustrations with my political identity.

On social media, people are constantly trying to define my political identity.

Calgary has been thought of traditionally as a conservative city, but changing demographics have brought new trends to the political scene. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

I'm told, I don't deserve to walk in the Pride Parade as a card-carrying conservative. I'm told, I must be a liberal because of the way I care about social justice issues, like the rights of women in a place like Yemen. It's frustrating. I don't want to be 'twittered' into a political box. And neither should you.

People and parties like purists. A "true believer" is a guaranteed voter. But there is no need for any of us to settle for a box full of someone else's ideas.

A passion for ideas

I am not one of those people that situates myself along some polarized political spectrum. I'm a moderate. But moderate doesn't mean sitting in the mild middle. On issues I care about I am passionate!

In his book, The Political Mind, George Lakoff says:

"There are no moderates — that is, there is no moderate worldview, no one set of ideas that characterizes a "center" or "moderation." People who are called "moderates" use conservative thought in some issue areas and progressive thought in others, without falling on any linear left-to-right scale. Indeed, many so-called moderates have no moderation at all, and are quite passionate about both their conservative and their progressive values."

Right now in Alberta, we're seeing a lot of movement by moderates.

During the UCP leadership contest, two former PC MLAs decided to sit as Independents. A month ago, the Calgary-Mackay-Nose Hill MLA left the NDP Caucus to sit as an Independent: A few days ago, she joined the Alberta Party caucus. Albertans are paying attention, wondering what the heck is going on.

Although some political movements would have us believe our brains are wired to accept either right-wing or left-wing political ideas, the truth is our brains can handle contradictory value systems in different contexts.

A great many of us are progressive on certain issues and conservative on other issues. But that image of a left-right political scale is often quite firmly lodged in our unconscious brains. Fact is, this doesn't reflect political reality.

Transcendent moral values

Savvy politicians campaign on moral values that transcend left-right polarities.

Politicians will thoughtfully select a few moral values. Then they pitch these values as mainstream, beyond progressive and conservative ideas, left or right ideology. It's not disingenuous. These values really do matter to ordinary people. These values can be more important than political ideology.

The federal Liberals, for example, campaigned on several values including merit-based decision-making in the selection of Supreme Court justices and senators. What voter is going to quibble with any politician denouncing elitism and patronage appointments?

Jason Kenney celebrates his victory as the first official leader of the Alberta United Conservative Party in Calgary on Oct. 28, 2017. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The values of empathy, responsibility (for oneself and others) and an ethic of excellence (making oneself and the world better) are not merely left-wing progressive values.

Kenney focused on these key values in his victory speech: the need for a generous and compassionate society; fiscal responsibility; a free economy; and personal responsibility, self-reliance, strong community and the family — and not the government — as the basic unit of society.

These are mainstream "Albertan" values, not exclusively right-wing conservative values.

Frankly, these are moral values that matter to me. I spoke of similar values when I ran against Kenney in the PC leadership race last fall. I'm delighted that these values matter to my fellow Albertans, too, though I suspect Rachel Notley's crew would prioritize and describe them quite differently.

And that's key. Left or right, we often agree on values here in Alberta. We're talking about the same fundamental priorities. What's different are the mean to those ends.

Same goal, different approaches

From our government, we expect more than police and fire departments. We expect social security, disease control and public health, safe food, disaster relief, health care, consumer and worker protection, environmental protection.

In Alberta, citizens supporting conservative, progressive, liberal or socialist political parties, and even the politically disengaged would be unlikely to object to any of these government mandates. The difference lies in the way people prefer to see these goals met.

For example, do you always want to see a public sector mandate implemented by unionized government bureaucrats or are you comfortable with the private sector and citizens playing a role? Trust in the private sector isn't a right-wing versus left-wing question. I know members of both the Wildrose and NDP who do not trust big companies.

Yet people and parties like to put other people and parties into narrowly defined little boxes. And that does us all an injustice.

Alberta: Reinventing ourselves

In Alberta, no party is really debating the merits of social security, disaster relief, environmental protection, consumer and worker protection or universal health care. Mostly, we debate the breadth and depth of these government mandates — who implements the programs and how programs are sustainably funded. These choices aren't neatly arranged along left-right political continuums.

Our economy and our politics have undergone a seismic shift, but our values have remained. The question now is how we support those values.

Calgary's economy and its politics have changed dramatically. (Getty Images)

The "Rags-to-Riches, Pull-Yourself-Up-By-Your-Bootstraps" narrative is a story we love in Alberta. A next step out from that narrative is the Reinvention-of-the-Self story. We're working on that narrative right now in Alberta, provincewide.

As we do, we need to remember that terms like conservative, liberal, and progressive are just labels. Self-identified progressives may be conservative on fiscal responsibility. Self-identified conservatives may be liberal on foreign policy. Each of us maintains and holds ideas and ideals that may appear contradictory.

Not being a party purist doesn't mean you're a hypocrite, or that you lack integrity. It means you're a moderate. But you don't have to be meek or mild!

So, what's your political passion?

You can read more from Donna Kennedy-Glans on her blog, Beyond Polarity.

Calgary:The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create.

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Donna Kennedy-Glans is a former Progressive Conservative MLA. She spent 28 years in the energy sector, and currently writes the blog Beyond Polarity.