‘ A zombie party ‘: the deepening crisis of conservatism

The long read: The traditional right is clinging on to power but its ideas are dead in the water

Conservatism is the dominant politics of the contemporary world. Even when rightwing parties are not in power, conservative ideas and policies defined the shape of society and the economy. Ever since the transformative 1980 s governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher– with their new fusion of disruptive capitalism and social traditionalism- the premise in Britain, the US and far beyond has been that conservatism is the default setting of democratic politics.

Even when other parties have been in office, leaders such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton have continued with the conservative project of privatising the nation and deregulating business. For decades, armies of rightwing activists- with rich fiscal backers and many allies in the media- have successfully spread and entrenched conservative ideas.

Many of conservatism’s adversaries have come to expect that, somehow, it will always prevail. Despite the spectacular failing of Theresa May’s premiership and the unpopularity of her divided party, the contest to succeed her is likely to dominate British politics this summer, as if the identity of the Tory leader is its weightiest matter. The Republican Donald Trump, despite the most consistently bad approval ratings of any modern US president, is widely thought to have a good chance of re-election. In today’s otherwise unstable, fast-changing political world, conservatism has an air of permanence.

Yet this aura has led to an overconfidence about conservatism’s underlying health. In Britain and the US, once the movement’s most fertile sources of notions, voters, leaders and governments, a deep crisis of conservatism has been building since the end of the Reagan and Thatcher governments.It is a crisis of competence, of intellectual energy and coherence, of electoral effectiveness, and- perhaps most serious of all- of social relevance.

This crisis has often been obliterated. The breakdown of Soviet communism in the 80 s, the apparent triumph of capitalism during the 90 s, the western left’s own divides, dilemmas and failings, and the ongoing surge of rightwing populism have all helped maintain conservatism’s surface confidence. Meanwhile, the rightwing media’s fierce, suffering religion in the ever-more distant politics of Thatcher and Reagan has helped delay the moment of recognition that those politics have grown obsolete. The right is still winning elections, from India to the European parliament, but transatlantic conservatism as we have known it since the 80 s- pro-capitalist, anti-government, controlled by the traditional parties of the right- may be dying.

The signs of this crisis have been around for years, for those who cared to see them. In Britain, the Conservatives last won a solid general election majority 32 years ago, in Thatcher’s final landslide victory. The Republicans have won the popular vote only once in the last seven presidential elections: in 2004, in the afterglow of George W Bush’s deceptive early successes in the Afghan and Iraq wars.

” The numbers are haunting ,” says Charles Kesler, a resulting conservative political scientist who teaches at Claremont McKenna College in California.” The Republican party has been telling itself for decades that it is on the verge of becoming a majority party .” It has long been a central claim of conservatism that it represents what Richard Nixon called ” the silent majority “. Yet over recent decades, says Kesler,” all those hopes ought to have disappointed “.

Since the 90 s, Britain and the US have steadily become more urban, multiracial, more connected to other countries, and, in some ways at least, fairer to women. Meanwhile, providing assistance to the Tories and the Republicans has grown ever more concentrated in towns and rural areas, and among white men. While Reagan and Thatcher looked forward as well as back, promising both to build a new world and to restore an old one- as in Reagan’s famous 1984 campaign slogan” It’s morning again in America”- conservatism has since become increasingly incarcerated by nostalgia.

” The Tory party has doubled down on[ exploiting] older people’s feelings about the contemporary world ,” says Andrew Cooper, Conservative peer and co-founder of the polling and social research firm Populus.” The party has got itself on the wrong side of a huge values divide .” Across Britain, he says, people under 45 have an increasingly ” open”, meaning liberal, worldview. This liberalism will not fade as they enter old age, he predicts- a transformation on which conservatism has long relied- because it is largely pragmatic: a response to a more diverse and interdependent world.

In 2012, the Republican senator Lindsey Graham summed up conservatism’s problem with modern demographics and social attitudes more bluntly, saying:” We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term .”

In the UK, Conservative party membership has been dwindling for decades. At its peak, in the early 50 s, it was 2.8 million. Last year, it was 124,000 and the party received twice as much money from dead members, through wills, as from the living. Katy Balls, political correspondent of the usually pro-Tory Spectator magazine, described the Tories last year as” a zombie party “.

Intellectually, the free movement of persons certainly seems scarcely alive. A sense of entropy hangs over the rightwing thinktanks that used to show conservative governments how to change society. These organizations have grown old together: the American Enterprise Institute was founded in 1938, the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1955, the Heritage Foundation in 1973, the Centre for Policy Studies in 1974, the Adam Smith Institute in 1977. Despite all the setbacks for their free-market project- the financial crisis, the diminishing returns of capitalism for most people, the collapse of such once-lauded examples of outsourcing and deregulation as Enron and Carillion, the failures of privatised services ranging from develops to probation– the thinktanks’ answer to every problem has remained essentially unchanged: lower taxes, less regulation, smaller government.

George
George Osborne and David Cameron on the night the latter became prime minister in 2010. Photograph: Andrew Parson

” The Tories, both in government and more generally, seem to have stopped talking and thinking about economics ,” wrote Stian Westlake, until January an adviser to a succession of Tory pastors, in a widely shared article last month. Britain’s rightwing intellectual life, he wrote, had become ” performative ” rather than practical:” play-acting and position-taking rather than fighting the real battles “. Cooper describes the current conservative intellectual landscape as” a desert “. For years, rightwing politicians and strategists ought to have straying it and determining only mirages. These promise a new conservatism, one that will make the movement modern again, or restore its broad appeal, or reunite its radical and traditional cliques, which have been acrimoniously growing apart ever since Reagan and Thatcher left office.

But these visions of renewal have melted away. The” compassionate conservatism” briefly promoted by Bush, the Big Society optimistically sketched by David Cameron, the anarchic “deconstruction” of the state advocated by Trump’s bombastic consultant Steve Bannon, the anti-metropolitan conservatism proposed by May’s equally confident and ill-fated adviser Nick Timothy: all have been tried and quickly abandoned.

” There’s an effort to find a winning formula ,” says Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind, probably the most acclaimed recent volume on conservatism.” They’re cycling through all these notions, faster and faster. They’re running out of options .”


As a political practise and philosophy, conservatism is famously durable and flexible: hard to define precisely. For centuries, many conservatives have insisted that their politics is about preserving things and avoiding ideology. But in practice the most effective conservative politicians have often done the opposite.

Robin, who is on the left, argues that behind the facade of pragmatism there has remained an unchanging conservative objective:” the maintenance of private regimes of power”- usually social and economic hierarchies- against menaces from more egalitarian forces-out. Once democracy arrived, conservatives were faced with a harder task, he argues. They needed” to construct privilege popular”- or at least popular enough for them to hold office.

Under Reagan and Thatcher, conservatism’s solution to this conundrum was to promote a Darwinian but supposedly all-inclusive capitalism that was meant to keep the economy evolving while also preserving the social structures that conservatives favour, such as the traditional household. Yet since the 80 s the economic benefits of this model have steadily become thinner and more narrowly distributed; meanwhile, its social costs have increasingly been felt by conservative-inclined interest groups, such as storekeepers and people living in small towns.

In this unsettled, disillusioned political surrounding, conservatives have depended more and more on extraordinary means to win power: the constrict and partisan supreme court ruling that awarded Bush victory in 2000, the last-minute coalition with the Liberal Democrat that stimulated Cameron prime minister in 2010, the Russian assistance that helped Trump narrowly outflank Hillary Clinton’s lumbering campaign in 2016.

At the same time, conservative administrationshave tried to tilt the electoral process against left-leaning social groups such as the young, the transient and recent immigrants. Registering to vote and voting itself have been made more difficult, with more documents necessitated, despite little evidence of electoral fraud.

Conservative parties retain their legendary will to win, but winning seems a greater and greater strain, and is being achieved by less and less inspiring entails.” What does it say about us as Conservatives ,” asks Cooper,” if our only hope for the next generation of voters is that they don’t vote ?”

Belatedly, some on the right have begun to ponder such unsettling questions. Last month the former Tory leader William Hague advised in the Telegraph that his party had” failed to notice that the world outside our ranks[ is] altering “. He concluded bleakly:” I inherited a party in ruins. The next leader got to find even less .”

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Donald Trump at a rally in February 2019 in El Paso, Texas. Photograph: Joe Raedle/ Getty Images

Three years ago, the Claremont Review of Books, a conservative journal edited by Charles Kesler, published a despairing denunciation of” the whole enterprise of Conservatism, Inc”- the well-funded American world of rightwing thinktanks, media outlets and political seminars.” Its sole recent and ongoing success is its own self-preservation ,” wrote the article’s anonymous author, later revealed as a relatively unknown rightwinger, Michael Anton.

The last chance for conservatism to save itself, Anton wrote, was to play” Russian roulette” by supporting the” worse than imperfect” Trump in the 2016 election. Shortly afterwards, Anton was appointed as a spokesman for Trump’s national security council.

The rise of rightwing populists such as Trump and Nigel Farage has convinced many people that populism is conservatism’s latest potent incarnation. But its electoral success may be a sign of conservative disintegrate rather than renewal. Farage and his allies are fragmenting the rightwing referendum- and are even more dependent than the traditional conservative parties on white male rage against a changing world.

The British philosopher John Gray, a close and sometimes sympathetic commentator of the global right since the

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