Conservatives in Alberta don't speak the same language. And that's a problem for UCP

Members of the United Conservative Party will meet this weekend at their annual general meeting.

This column is the opinion of Alberta farmer and blogger David Cymbaluk. For more information on the CBC Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

About a year ago, I wrote that Alberta's United Conservative Party was along the ideological lines that Jason Kenney's choice to have without the two factions activated.

Since then, Kenney lost the leadership vote in May to near-perfect parties and Danielle Smith was elected party leader earlier this month by a majority vote. And, as UCP members gather for their annual rally this weekend in Edmonton, it's hard to see how the party holds up, going forward. The two factions within the party do not speak the same political language at all and as has been explained during the recent leadership race, neither do they speak the same social language.

In my original work, I identified two factions as animated and republican: animation aligned with traditional Canadian conservatism, republicans aligned with influential philosophies within the Republican Party in the United States.

the division of philosophy between these groups is no different from the difference between astronomers and astrologers.

A millennium ago, there was no difference between astronomers and astrologers; it is a singular intellectual pursuit. Currently, the two groups do not speak the same language.

Alternative information ecosystem

Smith became leader earlier this month with republican support within the UCP. the hole he made in his first week on the job is instructive about the current sorry between republicans and working people.

Anti-vaccine and pro-Putin sentiment is not collaborative within the republican faction; this is a common view in the community. Conservatives, on the other hand, view both views (as generalizations). This is because the republican camp, either directly or indirectly, consumes media from the alternative information ecosystem.

In the alternative information ecosystem, anti-vaccine and pro-Russian sentiments are widely tolerated.

If a view is not accepted by the general public, it is considered an endorsement in the alternative information space. This is a contrarian social space. An alternative information ecosystem is an environment where truth is not determined by facts and evidence, but rather is determined by the number of people willing to believe and share ideas.

If enough people are willing to believe in an idea in an alternative information ecosystem, then that idea must be true for consumers in that social space. To return to my analogy of astronomy and astrologers, animation-like astronomers who study the galaxy of facts follow the unchangeable laws of nature.

Republicans are like astrologers, who concern themselves with narratives that link unrelated facts into a constellation that justifies their beliefs.

UCP: uneasy party

Smith should apologize that he regularly enters the alternative information ecosystem and finds ideas there that he finds interesting. It was also why he was able to mobilize the republican faction to support him during the leadership race. Since he was familiar with the alternative information ecosystem, he could speak their language. Words and phrases that seem harmless to most citizens have deep meaning for alternative media consumers. For example, the label "mainstream media" doesn't mean much to most people.

But for alternative media consumers, if you apply the label, the consumer will immediately recognize you as a member of the group.

This is my point, that conservatives and republicans no longer speak the same social language. They do not consume the same media and therefore do not share the same social frame of reference.

The reactions of both factions to Smith's apology were also instructive.

The conservative faction was annoyed that it was necessary and he should be forced to apologize. Republicans were confused because he apologized at all. Apologies also strengthen their social isolation. This confirms to them that there are evil forces behind the scenes forcing politicians to do things they don't want to do, and therefore confirms republicans' choice to consume alternative media.

Smith, who has been elected party leader, is now forcing conservative factions to make choices as they prepare for the May 2023 provincial elections. Which do they like less: the republicans or the NDP? Did they vote for UCP to prevent the NDP from being elected, or did they stay home or vote for a third party, which allowed the NDP to get the most votes?

This is the by-election

Smith did not get an overwhelming vote of party membership. The majority of his inherited caucuses support other candidates. And now his control of the caucus will be determined by the outcome of his election to the Legislative Assembly via Brooks-Medicine Hat. The by-election, to be held November 8, was made possible by the resignation of MLA equestrian Michaela Frey.

While by-elections are a notoriously unreliable predictor of popular sentiment, in this case, what Smith had to show was that he could unify the two party factions within his chosen constituency.

If he can show that traditional conservative voters are willing to tolerate some alternative facts if it means defeating the NDP, then the caucuses are likely to be in line and not cause problems. On the other hand, if conservative voters stay home and force Smith to rely solely on republican voters, then self-interest will pressure many caucus members to push for a change of direction. The UCP is a divided party. The split was deep and structural and seemed to grow over time. As long as an alternative information ecosystem exists, it is difficult to see a new consensus develop that will unite the factions.

Those seeking an evidence-based approach to governance cannot coexist with those seeking a belief-based approach to governance. The real test of whether the UCP is a single party will be revealed at the ballot box in next year's general election.

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