In June 2009, Alberta’s former minister of finance Iris Evans commented to the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto that, “when you’re raising children, you don’t both go off to work and leave them for somebody else to raise.”  Essentially, Mrs. Evans suggested that parents might need to sacrifice financial well-being for stable families.

Needless to say, her fellow Alberta Tories ran for cover.  Premier Ed Stelmach responded, “We have a tremendous respect for working families—both parents working contributes greatly to the province of Alberta and to the country of Canada.”  Evans herself tried to hide from her remarks, saying in her mea culpa, “But it was never with the intent to slam parenting as people do when they have children in alternative care or in daycare.”  Yet how could it not have been her intent?  It is theoretically possible that she was speaking only of those well-off families who could afford to have one breadwinner (presumably male) in the family, but it’s doubtful that women in many such households would suddenly give up their lucrative careers in law, finance, government, or management for that of housewife.

If many leftists are asking the broad mass of the citizenry to sacrifice some prosperity for the good of the environment, it is also the case that many rightists have asked for sacrifices in the name of the family.  Unfortunately, not too many have been willing to make such sacrifices, even if they thought it ideal.  As one parent from Calgary said in a CBC story on the Evans brouhaha, “If you can stay at home with your children then you should really, but I also think she needs to see it from the other point of view that actually for a lot of parents it’s just not an option.”

Indeed, that was the case even before the severe recession hit in the fall of 2007.  It’s not an option because economic policies pursued by conservative governments like that of Mrs. Evans have done much to undermine the people they claim to represent.

In the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Europe, the success of post-World War II political parties on the right largely followed their transformation from being parties exclusively for the rich, the reactionary and landed elite, and the business class into parties that could embrace a broader middle class and even the working class.  Inflation pushed many voters toward such parties, and the parties, in turn, kept their promise to do something about it.

Cutting taxes, reducing government expenditures, and breaking up industrial trade unions helped to bring down the rate of inflation during the 1980’s and 90’s.  The ending of the Cold War kept the economic boom alive by reducing arms expenditures.  But within the period of great economic growth (1981 to 2008) other factors, trends, and migrations began to emerge that would ultimately undermine parties of the right by wrecking the majorities they had created.

The working classes lost jobs thanks to free-trade policies and new technologies that turned the world into one big marketplace.  The underlying ideology of the age seemed to be “the cheaper, the better.”  Thus, high-paying manufacturing jobs were shipped to other lands, undercut by foreign competition, or eliminated altogether.  Something similar happened in agriculture, as the drive for low prices forced many from the land, and new technologies produced more bountiful harvests from fewer acres and with fewer harvesting them.

Prices did drop for commodities or Chinese-made hardware items.  However, inflation in two major areas—education and healthcare—forced many families to have two breadwinners, giving rise to the daycare industry.

The industries that boomed from 1981 to 2008—whether in finance, computer technology and engineering, or healthcare—required a university- or post-secondary-trained workforce.  A high-school diploma simply wouldn’t do anymore.  More young people went to college, and college costs rose thanks to increased demand.  Healthcare costs took off because two generations lived longer with the help of new medical technologies and because of the dramatic increase in specialized care.  Litigation contributed to soaring insurance costs.  The economic boom enticed Third World immigrants to come and get their share of the prosperity, if not the largesse of the welfare state.

Both libertarians and conservatives fail to understand how intertwined culture and economics are.  Yes, religion plays a role.  Yes, family structure plays a role.  Yes, language and history play roles, too.  But what makes up the foundation of many cultures is what people do for a living.  The way people dress, where they live and what songs they sing, what they do on a Saturday night, and their outlook on life—all are a reflection of people’s work, whether they are farmers, fishermen, miners, lumberjacks, pioneers, or roughnecks.  Frontiersman Daniel Boone may have blazed the trail through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, but he was followed by the Scots-Irish and their hardscrabble farms, and then by coal companies, burrowing their mines into the mountains.  By the 1950’s, the ballads of earlier generations could be heard in Merle Travis’s “Sixteen Tons,” and country music regularly treated themes of working men and their jobs.

When work changes, culture follows.  Going from a mine or an auto factory to an office cubicle is like traveling to another planet.  Certainly, the generational ties of farmers, ranchers, steelworkers, and automakers were broken as their children went to college and then off to a job in a glass tower downtown.  What choice did they have?  Their parents’ and grandparents’ jobs were gone.

Mrs. Evans and many rightists like her do not understand, and perhaps have never understood, how the economic policies they enact make it difficult or even impossible to create the kind of societies they claim they wish to see.  Such policies have made two wage-earners in a family a means not of luxury but of survival.  An economy whose growth is based on consumer spending needs consumers with enough income to spend.

The lack of single-earner families has also had an effect on politics.  In 2008, GOP presidential candidate John McCain only earned 50.7 percent of the vote in Orange County, California, the lowest percentage for a Republican candidate in a two-person race in that county since 1936.  In 1984, Ronald Reagan won Orange County with 74.7 percent of the vote.  The former base of the post-World War II conservative movement, with all its one-breadwinner families working in the defense and aerospace industries and in military installations, has largely vanished—along with its white majority.  The loss of working- and middle-class jobs coincides with nonstop mass immigration, transforming the political makeup of the county.  The same has happened in the industrial Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic states.  Deindustrialization destroyed the dreams of men like Pat Buchanan who believed a grand conservative coalition comprising the ethnic working and middle classes in states stretching from New York to Minnesota, along with the Sunbelt, would be the majority party for ages.  Today, the only middle-class jobs in such places are in the public sector, hardly the base upon which to build an antigovernment coalition.

Economic policy cannot be made in the abstract, apart from culture and politics.  Any new rightist or conservative political coalition has to be forged in the economic policies it wishes to promote.  The right of yesteryear did not realize this and watched its majority leave of its own accord.