Fighting for the future of conservativism

By Nicholas Wapshott
May 13, 2014

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech to placard waving Conservatives during an European election campaign rally at a science park in Bristol

Establishment Republicans have been delighted by the victory of Thom Tillis, their favored candidate in last week’s North Carolina primary. After expensive advertising campaigns by establishment bagmen like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, mainstream conservatives believe they have a candidate who can beat Democrat Kay Hagan to win a valuable Senate seat in November.

Some commentators see Tillis’s triumph as a sign that other impending GOP primary races will also deliver electable candidates. Having watched the Senate slip from Republican grasp in 2012, as Tea Party candidates such as Todd Akin in Missouri, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Richard Mourdock in Indiana depicted the party as too extreme, they say the Tea Party is in retreat.

Not so fast. The experience of conservative parties elsewhere suggests that when pragmatists triumph over dogmatists, the dogmatists either regroup and go on to overwhelm the moderates, eventually making the party their own. Or they set up their own party — and trounce the moderates at the ballot box.

ThatcherThat is happening in Britain. The Conservatives, once Britain’s natural governing party, find themselves about to be pressed into third place in the European Parliament elections. They will be runners-up not only to the Labor Party but also to the populist United Kingdom Independence Party, their ideological nemesis. Like the Tea Party, the Independence Party has set itself up as the true conscience of conservatism.

There was a time when the European left was riven over dogma, with middle-ground Social Democrats jostling with hard-line Socialists. In Britain through the 1970s and 1980s, there was a three-way split, with middle-of-the-road Labor candidates noisily fending off assaults from the far left as well as Social Democratic reformers. This left Margaret Thatcher’s Tories free to win three elections in a row.

In France the left was terminally split between the Socialists and the Communists — to the delight of the conservative Gaullists.

In both Britain and France, the rift on the left has been healed. Having suffered defeat after defeat, the moderates galvanized themselves and either purged their ranks of unelectable dogmatic Socialists or, in France, put their Communist rivals out of business for good. Pragmatism finally triumphed over dogmatism.

While the left was wising up, however, conservative parties on both sides of the Atlantic that used to win elections by giving short shrift to ideology began busily acquiring dogma.

In Britain, the Tories abandoned centuries of pragmatism and embraced Thatcherism — a heady cocktail of free-market ideas, suspicion of foreigners and a strident dislike of the centralizing powers of the European Union. This is the British equivalent of states’ rights.

In the United States, a first run at radicalizing the Republican Party was made by the libertarian-minded Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who won the GOP presidential nomination in 1964 but was trounced by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In defeat, the ultraconservatives did not give up. They instead transferred their affections to Ronald Reagan, an acceptable face of ideological conservatism who won the presidency twice in a row.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan share a laugh during a meeting of the Allied leaders in New YorkBoth Reagan and Thatcher introduced into their previously practical parties a market-based doctrine. They began lauding the works of Austrian economists, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, and University of Chicago economists, in particular Milton Friedman.

Thatcher was so ardently committed to textbook conservatism, she used to hand out a book list to her Cabinet. She even had Friedman teach them a lesson in monetarism.

For those who wondered where Reagan’s ideas came from, he referred them to his decades of Saturday radio broadcasts. There he had laid out the tenets by which he thought the United States should be governed.

Both Reagan and Thatcher suggested that answers to political problems were to be found in texts. Both left their parties an inheritance of profound divisions between moderates and ultraconservatives. The fissures continue to run through the Republican Party, distracting from their primary purpose — winning elections — in favor of being content to lose rather than abandon ideological principles.

In Britain, after Tony Blair’s Labor Party took three elections in a row, the Tory warring factions papered over their differences. The bitter disagreements over how to run the economy, over immigration and over Britain’s role in Europe still remain, however.

The failure of the fundamentalists within the British Conservative Party to represent the wishes of ultraconservative voters led to the rise of the populist Independence Party, with an anti-immigrant, anti-European Union, anti-establishment platform that threatens to drive the Conservatives to defeat in the general election next year.

Republican political consultant Rove speaks with the National Journal's Brownstein during the fifth annual Washington Ideas Forum at the Newseum in WashingtonThe Republican Party finds itself in a similar dilemma, riven between old-school, pro-business conservatives who are moderate on such things as immigration reform and states’ rights, and the Tea Party, an angry, populist, grass-roots movement that holds to an anti-big business, anti-Wall Street, anti-immigration, pro-states’ rights agenda. All GOP candidates, particularly presidential wannabes, must be measured against this.

Devotion to dogmatism proved disastrous in the 2012 presidential primaries. The Republican Party was presented with a number of candidates who would say or do just about anything to win approval from the vociferous Tea Party.

The establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, could not disguise the discomfort with which he was obliged to abandon his middle-ground positions, where most American voters feel comfortable. By Election Day, however, it was too late to recast himself as a moderate. He lost.

Fresh from their primary victory this month in North Carolina, establishment Republicans led by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus are  hoping to defang the Tea Party by limiting the number of televised presidential primary debates. They seek to limit the damage the divisive process does to the image of their nominee among general-election voters.

Already, Tea Party members smell a rat. They feel, with justification, they are being sold down the river, as they have so often been in the past. The stage is set for a post-2016 showdown in which the Tea Party either defeats the GOP establishment for good and conquers the commanding heights of the party – or, like Britain’s Independence Party, they break away and start fielding candidates of their own.

The complexion of the 2016 contest is therefore becoming clearer. Assuming that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally agrees to champion the Democrats, we can look forward to a prolonged campaign in which the main thrust of the Republican assault, irrespective of who wins the GOP primary race, will be Libya (Benghazi) and Lewinsky (Monica).

For Republicans, however, it is do or die. If they fail to win and Clinton serves two terms, the soul of the Republican Party will be up for grabs. Whether the moderates or the dogmatists win that final battle will determine the future of conservatism in the United States for decades to come.

Nicholas Wapshott is the author of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage, and Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.

 

PHOTO (TOP): Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech to placard waving Conservatives during an European election campaign rally at a science park in Bristol, May 8, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

PHOTO (INSERT 1): British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher points a finger as she answers questions at a news conference in London, June 8, 1987. REUTERS/Roy Letkey

PHOTO (INSERT 2): British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronadl Reagan share a laugh during a meeting of the Allied leaders in New York, October 24, 1985. REUTERS/Chas Cancellare

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Republican political consultant Karl Rove speaks at the fifth annual Washington Ideas Forum at the Newseum in Washington, November 14, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

 

 

23 comments

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Mitt Romney lost the election for two reasons: 1. Disdain for average Americans. 2. Lack of courage by not standing-up to the Tea Party and instead standing-up for the middle class. He just cared more about being president than the good he could do once he became president.

Posted by writergolfcoach | Report as abusive

To suggest, “the soul of the Republican Party will be up for grabs” is so very disingenuous because it has no soul to lose.

Posted by holterltd | Report as abusive

The fate of all conservatism is in doubt. A variety of forces drive ever more unequal wealth distribution. Some of those forces are fostered by the most fortunate among us, and some of those forces result from the apparent impact of technology on job creation and job qualifications. As inequality grows, social cohesion diminishes.

Conservatism is about conserving the past and the present. In the face of growing inequality, such conservation protects the financial interest of fewer and fewer citizens. Therefore, conservatism can win elections only by appealing to voters on non-economic issues. That is a weak position from which a party must begin campaigns. But conservatives have negligible control over that.

Add to that the classic failings of democracy–or should I say “classical” failings, since the great Plato analyzed them to a tee about 2,400 years ago.

Put them together and what do you get? You get crap in the present, and scant hope for much better going forward. The only hope is experimentation with different approaches to democracy, which can engage more effective participation of an informed and involved populace. Call me sentimental, but I think 80% of the people want to do the right thing, and would choose to do so if they had the time to understand the decisions and the issues. Not everyone can have the time, but we can create a situation in which a representative sample of citizens are paid to take the time. I mean a sample, not a group of elected professionals, who survive by raising money. That money must come from the top 10% of the income distribution, so those money-dependent professionals are NOT a representative sample of citizens.

I don’t see this as likely to occur. Do any of you disagree?

Posted by benfct | Report as abusive

Nicolas,

Your article is weakened by not defining what “conservatism” is. Not having done that, there is no basis for assessing where contemporary conservatism is and who, if anybody embodies its principles and policies.

Your starting point for this should be von Hayek because he explains the dual forces that have, historically, fought to predominate (see “The Constitution of Liberty”).

The fundamental starting point – both historical and economic theoretic – is classical liberalism. That translates politically into: (1) free markets; (2) protection of private property; (3) freedom of expression; (4) absence of coercion.

Today’s political parties that claim to be “conservative” are no longer that. They fail to actively support and assure any of the 4 points above.

There are fewer and fewer markets that are in any sense “free”; having been hampered by various forms of state intervention. There is little to no protection of private property as it is nationalised, confiscated, fettered by over-riding public policies and regulations, taxed, and subject to violations of privacy under any number of coercive legislative acts. There is massively diminished freedom of expression due to laws that embed “political correctness”. There is overwhelming state coercion as ever more restrictions are imposed on individuals in the pursuit of their legitimate private lives (witness the invasion of the state into the daily lives of families)

The dominant trend of the post WW2 period has been the ever widening and deepening presence and power of government over the economy and people’s behaviour. This insidious impact has been encouraged and actively pursued by all so-called “conservative” parties (with the sole exception of the Tories under Thatcher).

Hence, the reason why today, in the UK, so many commentators on the web speak of “Lib/Lab/Con.

Conservatism, meaning the active pursuit of the 4 points above, is dead. Cameron and his acolytes are in reality Social Democrats.

Posted by Cantillon | Report as abusive

YOU ARE CORRECT SIR! THE CITIZENS UNITED DECISION DRIVES A STAKE THRU THE HEART OF THE TEA PARTY. HOW CAN THEY COMPETE IN THE MONEY WAR WITH THE BUSH PARTY? THEY CAN’T.

Posted by lysergic | Report as abusive

We have become about as cruel as we will without revolution. Thus the GOP must shrink since most of their appeal was to the sadists who want to punish everyone here on earth for their sins against god. This was the strength of the GOP, not any of that other stuff. I know the youths of today are without morals, but to expect them to hate jews, or blacks or homosexuals like the old GOP is not viable. The youths are also without a clue on political and financial matters, so it’s difficult to appeal to them using any kind of real information. The TV brainwash machine has worked too well, and now we, excuse me, you, will pay the price. The way the GOP can appeal to the young voters is to show them how a few facists can make lots of money and live a debauched life. You then suggest that they can have that if they join the facist forces who will take from the workers and old people what they deserve because they are strong and able to kill and take. Of course, very few will survive, but they won’t be bright enough to know that until it is too late, if in fact they ever do know.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Mr Wapshot…what you fail to acknowledge is that the national elections are driven by the urban centers (which tend to lean Democrat) while the Senate and House elections are driven more locally.

Thus, the Dems (Hilary) could win the next national election, but it surely does not ensure the demise of conservatives. Like the current situation, the Senate Democrats have shown they are incapable of governing rationally (see Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi repeatedly go off the deep end) with air-cover from the MSM, while informed voters rely less on the MSM and look to the variety of perspectives on the internet.

If there is anything to be learned from the current situation is that divided government inside the Beltway is performing as designed. We have already experienced one party with majorities in both house of Congress and the White House–and voters ensured that disaster was killed with the midterm elections in 2010.

While the press may complain about gridlock, it’s actually saving the American citizen from politically motivated and damaging legislation that serve to penalize that same citizen (to the benefit of the political and financial elite.)

Now, if we can only get the POTUS to appreciate the fact that there are constitutional limits on his power, we’d all be a whole lot better off. Just think, his recent appointment to FNMA/FMAC is now espousing the same mortgage rules that contributed to the recession in the first place. The man is not stupid, he just doesn’t give a damn.

But this POTUS never lets politics get in the way of a disastrous decision–middle age guy with a middle school mind. (Apologies to al middle schoolers.)

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Words say what they mean. Conservatives are trying to conserve something. What? The present power arrangements, naturally. 490 of the Fortune 500 companies, all five of the U.S. services, nearly every major university and all but a half dozen or seats in the Senate are held by white men. Add in every major news outlet, nearly every municipal police force and there it is. When women, Latinos, blacks and gays say they’re conservative, they are simply going for themselves, not some abstract value system. Liberals are often addled and hypocritical, but no one does it for money and power. Conservatives do.

Posted by Bagehot | Report as abusive

GOP will have to choose between Wall Street and Kentucky. As we have seen, trying to pander to both is not sustainable. The republican party has lost 60% of its market share since Reagan’s time, among the next generation of voters (18 – 40). This is due almost exclusively to the GOP allowing itself to be hi-jacked by the religious right (anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-immigration, etc.) They can keep it up if they like. But soon, gerrymandering and voter exclusion tactics will not be enough to overcome their shrinking market share.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

The U.K. & U.S. are different in a lot of ways. For one thing, Labor is much more focused on class justice than the Democrats. For another, Tories actually find the largest British religious sect, the Church of England, more of an irritant than an ally. One last thing: unlike the Tories, the Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections. They have a monarch, we have an electoral college. So that’s one thing in common: absurd holdovers from another century.

Posted by Bagehot | Report as abusive

@Bage Your “feelings” that only conservatives are motivated by power and money does not withstand even basic scrutiny.

Starting with the POTUS and his wife, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. There are not enough digits on this website to list all the liberal politicians who went to Washington with little in their pockets and walked away with tens of millions in their pockets. And that does not include the volume of liberal donors who preach redistribution only after they have made their millions to secure their influence. Look it up and see how far down the list the Koch Brothers are relative to the libs favorite financiers.

You only serve to reinforce the point that critical thinking skills are in short supply on the “progressive” agenda.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

@COindependent
Actually the Obamas were already fairly comfortable when they got to the Beltway though much of that was Michelle’s earnings. As for Pelosi, she married Paul Frank Pelosi 50 years ago, who runs a venture capital and real estate outfit in SF: again a political spouse benefiting from the other’s earnings. Probably the best example for your side is LBJ: he came in stony broke and left worth about $40m. Are there rich progressives? Of course. Tom Steyr already has pledged to raise $100m to get Democrats elected this November. Movie people like Katzenberg, Redford and Reiner are upfront in using the power of the purse. Only, unlike the Koch brothers, it isn’t to get regulators to lay off their industry. Phonies? Maybe. But they’re already rich. The Democrat Party isn’t making them richer.

Posted by Bagehot | Report as abusive

Biggest conservative problem is the religious/tea party wing. Control that, you control your own future. Let the church cancer continue to grow and you die. It’s really that simple.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Frankly, I doubt there really is such a thing as conservatism or liberalism, except as broad characterizations of where interest groups fall within a range of preserving the status quo and changing the status quo. This is muddied, however, because modern “conservatives” such as U.S. tea party groups and the U.K.’s UKIP are about changing that status quo. Historically, political groups that have sought to change the status quo by resetting it to what they view as a more ideal status quo of past days have an inauspicious (some would say dark) track record.

Rather than use labels like “conservative” or “liberal,” it makes more sense to think in terms of interest groups. The key to political success in a democratic system is offering a program that appeals to more than half of the electorate. That is where conservatives in the U.S. have been at a disadvantage — while most people don’t like to pay taxes, most people also want government services. A balance has to be struck.

Trying to define politics in terms of ideology or philosophy is a losing proposition. Ideologies tend to be false, and most people (including politicians) don’t understand philosophy.

People have to accept the fact that political disagreement are nearly always about who gets money. Once that proposition is accepted, we can get past the unsustainable political gridlock, not only in Washington but in state capitals as well.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

The future of conservatism is shrinkage. Unless they can drop the tea party / religious nonsense. The GOP has lost 60% of the market share in the next 2 generations of voters (ages 18-40). Those voters now choose the Democratic party 2:1 over GOP, due largely to the GOP’s platform supporting discrimination against gay people, immigrants, pot, abortion-seekers…. you name it.

And the old conservatives are dying off daily. Just from a business perspective alone, the future is not good for the GOP. Shrinkage.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“…the Tea Party, an angry, populist, grass-roots movement that holds to an anti-big business, anti-Wall Street, anti-immigration, pro-states’ rights agenda.”

Actually many of it’s candidates are funded by big business and only pretend to be anti-big business and anti-wall street.

Posted by RynoM | Report as abusive

“…the Tea Party, an angry, populist, grass-roots movement that holds to an anti-big business, anti-Wall Street, anti-immigration, pro-states’ rights agenda.”

Actually many of it’s candidates are funded by big business and only pretend to be anti-big business and anti-wall street.

Posted by RynoM | Report as abusive

I don’t know much about the GOP but I suspect that the British Conservatives are in trouble (perhaps). All political parties are alliances of groups, and the Conservatives are no different. The present Conservative constellation was born in the Edwardian period when the free-market business interests that had been the bedrock of the Liberal Party joined the old Tory Party based on social conservatism (including dislike of Johnny Foreigner). This was because the Liberals were trying to woo the new working-class electorate with welfare. The New Conservatives responded with the first attempts at immigration controls under the 1905 Aliens Act.

What is now arguably happening is the break up of this grouping, with the social conservatives and working-class Tories shifting to UKIP and the ‘economic Tories’ staying with the Conservatives. But is UKIP a viable new home for these forces? Time will tell.

Posted by ejhiggs | Report as abusive

the current brand of conservatism out there needs to die a slow death. It is not in line with “liberty and justice for all”. It only care about cash and wealth for me… and my morals are better than your morals… and it thwartw any attempt at government if its not in power…

The youth of this nation will not stand for it once they truly see this zebra’s stripes. In ten years the GOP will be irrelevant unless it moves to the center…

Immigration reform is justice for all… Affordable care act is justice for all… w/o affordable care act – only the wealthy could get the insurance they need..

Posted by michaelryan | Report as abusive

@Bage Look up Pelosi’s past legislation, starting with the fish processing facilities in Samoa, that specifically benefitted her husbands investments (he owns the only processing facility in Samoa.) Also, look up Harry Reids real estate “investments” where he did not put up any cash, and the peddling of influence where his son’s law firm benefitted.

As for Obama’s money…did you know that Michelle’s job at the hospital was never filled after she left? That shows how important that job was….to the tune of $200K a year. Also, it was documented that she was part of the “patient dumping” scheme, where they literally shipped destitute patients to other hospitals to keep their costs under control.

Now, I am not saying Republicans are saints. But the graft, largess, and influence-peddling is not confined to one party. Remember, Chicago and Illinois have been Dem controlled for decades. Our POTUS, nor the FLOTUS, are not stupid–they learned to play the game well.

@ Michael Did you see the latest financial report on the POTUS? He’s one of the 1% libs believe are only part of the Republican party. If any one person epitomizes the “in it for me” mantra, you can start by looking at the lead resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW in Washington DC. How are those rose-colored glasses doing?

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

@Bage Look up Pelosi’s past legislation, starting with the fish processing facilities in Samoa, that specifically benefitted her husbands investments (he owns the only processing facility in Samoa.) Also, look up Harry Reids real estate “investments” where he did not put up any cash, and the peddling of influence where his son’s law firm benefitted.

As for Obama’s money…did you know that Michelle’s job at the hospital was never filled after she left? That shows how important that job was….to the tune of $200K a year. Also, it was documented that she was part of the “patient dumping” scheme, where they literally shipped destitute patients to other hospitals to keep their costs under control.

Now, I am not saying Republicans are saints. But the graft, largess, and influence-peddling is not confined to one party. Remember, Chicago and Illinois have been Dem controlled for decades. Our POTUS, nor the FLOTUS, are not stupid–they learned to play the game well.

@ Michael Did you see the latest financial report on the POTUS? He’s one of the 1% libs believe are only part of the Republican party. If any one person epitomizes the “in it for me” mantra, you can start by looking at the lead resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW in Washington DC. How are those rose-colored glasses doing?

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

GOP = doomed. Too religious and nutty now.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Why call it “conservatism” these days? Maybe back in the old days but, now, a better term is fascism.

Posted by explorer08 | Report as abusive