Essay

January 06, 2022

Conservatism in the Age of Rage

Traditional center-right conservatism dominated Western politics for much of the post-war period. However, increasingly divided, it now faces new rivals on the hard right.

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he delivers a speech during the annual Conservative Party Conference, in Manchester, Britain, October 6, 2021.
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Conservatism offers a striking puzzle. Its voice is divided and its inner conflicts are intense. Yet it continues to dominate party competition in the liberal democracies of what used to be called the West. Drawbacks that might cripple a less adaptable tradition have rarely for long dented the modern right’s grip on power.

To take four large representative nations in no special order, France’s center-minded conservatism is fighting to hold ground against a hard-right insurgency. A German counterpart, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), has eaten into Christian Democrat bedrock and embedded itself, despite recent losses, as an established party. In the United States, the Republicans have driven out social and cultural liberals. While in the United Kingdom, the Conservatives have adopted a nation-firstism that, among voters, is ethnically tinged.

Habitual in-fighting over strategy and ideals will as a rule split or cripple most movements. Shepherding disparate interests and varied classes tends eventually to break even successful coalitions. From those simple maxims a fractious right looks exempt. Its taste for civil war has proved little hindrance to enduring conservative success at winning and holding office.

Those successes are often downplayed or denied. From the left, that is to be expected. As the party of progress, it holds tight to a faith that the future is on its side and that conservative success is hence passing or illusory. Self-diminishment from the right, by contrast, is tactical. Win after win, it plays the victim or underdog. Few pantomime characters are more popular on the right than the virtuous conservative set upon and traduced by liberal oppressors. One right-wing American publisher complained recently, "the conservative movement" was about to face "a level of collective discrimination by the institutions of our society" not seen, he believed, since the days of racial segregation. Plausible or laughable, self-disguise of the kind has to be seen through if the conservative puzzle of success in division is to be unpicked. In or out of office, its prospects remain strong. Given its divisiveness, how can that be?

Hard Right on the Rise

In France next year, in the presidential election voters of the right—the majority—will choose among a popular, anti-immigrant firebrand, Éric Zemmour; the National Rally (re-branded National Front); Republicans (Gaullists and liberals who long dominated the Fifth Republic right); and Emmanuel Macron, a centrist incumbent claiming to be neither right nor left.  

The Republicans in the US, when picking their presidential candidate in 2024 will, if wise, tell former President Donald Trump: “Thanks for all you’ve done for our party, now goodbye.” They are not about to drop the anti-liberal, no-compromise Republicanism that pre-dated Trump and which, as an opportunist maverick, he adopted only to secure the top prize. Winning the White House in 2020 made Democratic victory look more than it was. The Republicans advanced in the House. They control 30 of 50 state governments and hold a majority on the Supreme Court.  

In the United Kingdom, the label “hard right” shocks only those misled by a conservative talent for masking radical upheaval as English moderation and common sense. Under a charismatic improviser, Prime Minsiter Boris Johnson, the Brexitized Conservative party has purged or driven into retirement its pro-Europeans, previously a majority of the parliamentary party. It has a big parliamentary majority against a weak, divided left. That Brexit (2016), party purges, and a Tory landslide (2019) occurred democratically, lawfully, and peacefully could not conceal that they added up together to a stunning coup from an underestimated hard right.  

Only in Germany does the familiar centrist alternation of mainstream right and mainstream left appear still reliably in play. Yet there, too, the electoral base of the center-right—the Christian Democrats—has shrunk. While they took the chancellorship, the center-left Social Democrats, were also weakened at the polls and needed to enter a coalition with smaller parties to pursue their “agenda of progress.”

Conservative or not, readers at this point may rub their eyes in disbelief. In the party thickets described above, have the labels “right” and “conservative” not been ignorantly or mischievously muddled? Surely conservatism is not the right. Of it perhaps, but not the same. The right, it must be insisted, is one side of a familiar party-competitive spectrum, regularly decried as out-of-date, unusable, or overtaken yet in public argument always returned to and indispensable. Conservatism, by contrast, is not a spatial marker on that changeable party spectrum but a body of judicious ideas, together with a public temperament or palette of civic virtues, none of which is found in the noisy radicalism of the present right. So, it may be objected, with ample citation from conservative annals.    

Good Sense and Moderation

In the preferred literary-philosophical canon of the right—from Burke, Hawthorne, Rehberg, and Taine in the 19th century to Aron, Kristol, Marquand, and Oakeshott in the 20th—the conservative is celebrated for good sense and moderation, acceptance of life’s limitations, low expectations of politics, and, above all, a quiet scorn for fond liberal hopes and over-intellectualized doctrines.

The right’s pantheon of modern leaders celebrates not splitters, dreamers, or sectaries but unifiers and gatherers—for example, Adenauer, Churchill, De Gaulle, Eisenhower. In its stoic self-image, conservative statecraft requires wise handling of the social contest, defense of law, and prudent management of unavoidable change. An English proto-conservative, Lucius Cary, said this in the early 17th century. A stalwart of Christian Democracy in Germany, Norbert Blum said it again in the late 20th. It was repeated countless times in between. If asked for conservatism in a phrase, you will be told: don’t resist change on principle but welcome it only when necessary.

In some ground-floor, pre-political sense, the conservative impulse does reflect a wariness about change—that universal human desire for order and stability, for tomorrow to be like today. Politically, conservatives have indeed spoken up for order and stability: for prevailing distributions of property, for the rule of law, for familiar customs, for smooth-running economies that pay the bills and fill the shops. Yet from the later 19th century on, those very aims obliged conservatives to embrace what they had earlier feared and shunned, modern market capitalism, that great machine of innovation and prosperity that forever turns society upside down and creates unfamiliar new tomorrows. Once early conservatives ceased to be out-and-out rejectionists of modern life—those “gallant cavaliers,” in Byron’s words, who “fought in vain / For those who knew not to resign or reign”—conflict of aim stamped its character.

A Split Character

Although conservatives mock the left for its dreams and ideals, theirs is easily the higher bid. Conservatives promise national community and global markets; social peace and meritocratic struggle; competence in office and distrust of government; traditional culture and ceaseless cultural change. A shrewd and open-eyed conservative, Edward Luttwak, captured that split character 25 years ago. In an article predicting the right’s present intestinal warfare, he ironized on the standard two-tone speech at conservative banquets, which lauds unchecked market competition in the first part and mourns the loss of community and family values in the second. Nimble or not, every modern conservative is a circus-rider cantering the ring with one foot on a pony called “Capital” and the other on a pony called “Tradition.”

It is those historical tensions, not verbal carelessness or conceptual muddle, that make it hard to catch the right in a few phrases and that help explain why conservatives themselves are shy of doctrine if not proud to deny a need for one.

Understood as a political practice or tradition, conservatism like any other has three things: a history, followers—politicians, backers, voters, publicists—and an outlook to guide them. “Ideology” is another word for outlook. It’s a matter of ear. Although an “ism,” conservatism has an outlook but is not itself an outlook, let alone a temperament or political morality. No more than liberalism or democracy can conservatism be reduced to voter attitudes, personal psychology, or economic interest. Conservatives must first defend the Haves, it is true. They fail if they fail there. That does not make the Haves their only concern and, besides, who the Haves are changes as the distribution and character of property changes. Nor can conservatism be volatilized into a justificatory philosophy, save perhaps the negative sort favored in Burkean or Oakeshottian mood, which insists that conservatives do not need one.

At their origin early in the 19th century when modern party politics began, liberals were suspicious of authority, confident in human capacities, hostile to rank and status, and friendly to competition, be it in commerce, ideas, and science, or public argument—that last, for liberals, being the life blood of politics. Liberal thinkers refined those commitments variously as liberty, progress, and equality in an open society. For conservatives—liberals’ first opponents—society was harmonious, competition suspect. They took a low view of human moral and intellectual capacities. Respect in conservative eyes was due not to everyone regardless but to merit or excellence, whether earned or unearned.

A Common Foe

As educated, moneyed elites of white men, liberals and conservatives alike soon faced a common foe in democracy, and not just at the polls. Properly understood, democracy extended liberal promises—a say in government, voice in economic life, and freedom of judgment in ethics and culture—to every last citizen, whoever they were. There is liberalism for the few and liberalism for all. Liberalism lays out the feast. Democracy draws up the guest list.

That democratic foe gave conservatives and liberals bonding points. A now familiar hybrid was spotted early, for example by David Hansemann, a German liberal, who wrote in 1848, “What was liberal … is conservative; and ex-conservatives happily link up with ex-liberals.”

If, as intended, success here is understood narrowly and descriptively as a superior grip on elective office—not better provision than available alternatives of a fair, decent, or good society, let alone superior respect for international justice—then the right’s success since 1945 was notable. In the French Fifth Republic, the elected presidency was held by the right for more than 40 years—and those not on the right, Mitterrand and Hollande, were of the palest left.  In Britain the Tories governed alone or were the majority party in coalition governments for 82 of the 126 years from 1895 to 2021. In the US, appearances were more even. Republicans won 17 of 32 presidential elections (1896-2020). Seeming balance masked that until the 1970s, Democrats split between liberal Northerners and conservative Southerners. In the German Federal Republic since 1949, Christian Democrats have held the chancellery in 51 of 72 years. Crude measures, true, but not a record to be taken as evidence of failure.

Post-War Dominance

Since 1945, the right’s record breaks into three periods. From 1945-1980, the mainstream right accepted the left-liberal model of welfare capitalism fought over since 1930s. From 1980 to the early 2000s, it adopted a radical economic liberalism of free markets and smaller government. In a third period since, a divided right is no longer sure what it stands for.

The right’s late 20th-century dominance was due to three main factors. One was conservatism’s characteristic adaptability and skill at stealing rivals’ clothes. A second was the left’s growing weakness, for well-known reasons: industrial decline, union shrinkage, working-class votes for the right, fragmentations of identity politics, left-intellectual neglect of economics and society for concerns of culture and philosophy.

The last reason for the right’s success in those two earlier periods was an ability to keep its conflicts under control. Eisenhower Republicans kept Taft Republicans in check, Nixon held together Northern business and aggrieved white Southerners-turned-Republican, Reagan smiled at every Republican camp—hawk or dove, hard money or soft, Sunbelt or Rustbelt, religious or secular. British Tories leashed their empire loyalists and anti-immigrants as well as the hangers, floggers, and anti-gays vainly resisting a liberal cultural tide. The conservative mainstream in Germany and France side-lined or absorbed the remnants of a recalcitrant, anti-democratic right—irksome in Germany, dangerous, notably over Algeria, in France.  

In this third period, the right has lost control of its conflicts. Its adaptability is proving little use. For what any longer should it adapt to? Its historic rival, the left, continues to splinter and decline. The post-1989 “anarchy” of states has further robbed the right of a guiding framework. Conservatives are not alone in their bewilderment. No tradition—liberal left, illiberal left, green—has a settled or convincing narrative. Yet since conservatism is the stronger force, conflict and lack of direction among conservatives is likely to have heavier consequences.       

Into this vacuum has come the hard right. It is not a new right. Its slogans, themes, and appeals are old. They go back through the 20th and 19th centuries to historic splits on the conservative right, back to conservatives’ never-resolved ambivalence about capitalist modernity, and its first champion, political liberalism. Nor is the hard right a far right. For “far” suggests fringe and the hard right has left the fringe to become a regular, established part of the party contest.

It needs stressing loudly that despite sharing elements of a common ancestry, the present hard right is not fascist or even, save at its fringes, neo-fascist. Fascism was historically specific and outside the framework of multiparty politics to which the hard right, for all its disruptive radicalism, belongs. Nor is it populist in the loaded and misleading sense that contrasts elite parties with parties of that mythical construction, “the people.” Populists are “outs” seeking to replace the “ins.” They speak as the voice of “the people” but share privileges and education with the rivals they decry.    

An Unnatural Pairing

The hard right is an unnatural pairing of small-government, socially permissive libertarians who favor economic globalization with nativist conservatives preoccupied by cultural identity and national decline. The libertarians are typically self-assured, border-blind people who downplay the need for social anchorage, the nativists people disoriented by capitalist upheaval and craving security. Each makes a target of unmerited expertise and self-serving authority. For the libertarian right, the people will be better off freed from the grip of a big-government political class. For the nativist right, the people will be better off freed from out-of-touch, foreigner-friendly cosmopolitans. The hard right did not fall out of the sky. It intensified nation-minded, counter-liberal strains in the 1980s-2000s right. The hard right promises bigger government and lower taxes, help for working people, and a free hand for business to invest where it wishes and come or go as it pleases.

The hard right owes much to bewitching rhetorical themes. One is national decline, especially cultural or demographic. Another is capture by the nation’s foes, whether inside—notably liberals, with their greed, godlessness, and lack of patriotism—or outside, notably the wrong kind of immigrant. The flipside of capture is deliverance, by a party and leader speaking for the national people. Condensed into the cry “Our nation first,” the hard right is often called nationalist. That is wrong. It is internationalist in understanding that nation states cannot self-isolate but must work with each other. The hard right wants the nation to work in the world on the nation’s own terms. It abandons multilateralism, that is, for the dream of unilateralism. Tying those other themes together is victimhood. It bridges settled privilege and resentful dispossession. Wealth is presented as victim of a grasping, intrusive state, the dispossessed as used or ignored by hypocritical liberals.

A Lasting Shift      

The hard right is not a temporary distortion but a lasting shift in the post-1945 party-political framework of liberal democracy. Its party manifestations will vary, its electoral fortunes rise or fall. The causes that gave it rise will remain. They include the pull of its own powerful themes and the push of repeated failure within liberal democracies to confront social inequity and restore public belief in government and expertise.

Whether the center-right has the will and resources to reclaim the conservative mainstream is far from certain. Scholars such as Brian Girvin and Daniel Ziblatt have written eloquently of what could be called a conservative veto on liberal democracy. As a compromise between capital and labor, liberalism and conservatism, its health requires a confident, complacent right.

Today’s right is neither. The hard right is unduly prone to what the German intellectual Peter Sloterdijk has called the characteristic public emotion of the day, namely rage. The old center-right seems voiceless and depressed. The left is too weak and divided to serve the right as its dialectical Other—a necessary force to resist or adapt to. In that absence, those two moods of a divided right—rage and depression—should worry everyone.

Edmund Fawcett worked for The Economist for 30 years. He is the author of Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition.