7 votes

The crisis within conservatism: Since the 80s, the right has increasingly relied on media bubbles, wedge issues, resistance to social change and making electoral participation harder to hold power

1 comment

  1. Kuromantis
    (edited )
    A long article on how conservatism has gone berserk. This was posted here about a year ago, which I figured is long enough. I think the 3 most fundamental problems with conservatism (or at least...

    A long article on how conservatism has gone berserk. This was posted here about a year ago, which I figured is long enough.

    Conservatism is the dominant politics of the modern world. Even when rightwing parties are not in power, conservative ideas and policies set the shape of society and the economy. Ever since the transformative 1980s governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – with their new fusion of disruptive capitalism and social traditionalism – the assumption 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 state and deregulating business. For decades, armies of rightwing activists – with rich financial backers and many allies in the media – have successfully spread and entrenched conservative ideas.

    This crisis has often been obscured. The collapse of Soviet communism in the 80s, the apparent triumph of capitalism during the 90s, the western left’s own splits, dilemmas and failures, and the ongoing surge of rightwing populism have all helped maintain conservatism’s surface confidence. Meanwhile, the rightwing media’s fierce, enduring faith 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 80s – pro-capitalist, anti-government, controlled by the traditional parties of the right – may be dying.

    In Britain and the US, once the movement’s most fertile sources of ideas, 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.

    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

    Since the 90s, 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, support for 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 imprisoned by nostalgia.

    “The Tory party has doubled down on [exploiting] older people’s feelings about the modern 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 shift 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 50s, 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”.

    As a political practice 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 threats from more egalitarian forces. Once democracy arrived, conservatives were faced with a harder task, he argues. They needed “to make 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 inclusive capitalism that was meant to keep the economy evolving while also preserving the social structures that conservatives favour, such as the traditional family. Yet since the 80s 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 shopkeepers and people living in small towns.

    In this unsettled, disillusioned political environment, conservatives have depended more and more on extraordinary means to win power: the narrow and partisan Supreme Court ruling that awarded (W.) Bush victory in 2000, the last-minute coalition with the Liberal Democrats that made 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 administrations have 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 required, 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 means. “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?”

    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 conferences. “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 decay rather than renewal. Farage and his allies are fragmenting the rightwing vote – and are even more dependent than the traditional conservative parties on white male rage against a changing world.

    Meanwhile, the rightwing media magnate Rupert Murdoch ordered the creation of America’s first national television channel essentially devoted to anti-Democrat, pro-Republican propaganda: Fox News began broadcasting in 1996. Together, these developments marked the beginning of the modern conservative media bubble. Inside it, as the historian of the American right Rick Perlstein put it in 2005: “Conservatism never fails. It is only failed.” Conservatism had become a faith; any failures by the right were blamed on a lack of belief.

    One way for conservatism to hang on to power is to play clever electoral games. “For a long time, the Tory party has been very successful at squeezing out marginal gains,” says Cooper. “They’ve been smarter than other parties about the process that draws constituency boundaries. And they’ve fought wedge elections” – ie, finding and pushing issues that divide other parties’ potential supporters, such as the possibility of a coalition between Labour and the Scottish Nationalists, which put some English voters off voting Labour in 2015.

    In elections and in government, conservatives have also shrewdly – often shamelessly – appealed to their core supporters. The Tories’ austerity measures have not been applied to pensioners, who are more likely than other age groups to vote and much more likely to choose the Conservatives.

    In the US, as the political analyst Thomas Frank noted a decade before Trump’s win, the Republicans have often “chosen to wage … battles where [complete] victory is impossible”, such as over immigration, so that “their followers’ feelings will be dramatised and their alienation aggravated”. The purpose of Trump’s proposed border wall is less to keep immigrants out – there are countless other entry points – than to keep his base feeling besieged.

    With that core vote mobilised, with its electoral impact maximised thanks to a US voting system that disproportionately represents small towns and the countryside, with the Democratic vote minimised thanks to gerrymandering and voter suppression, and with the conservative media grinding away, the American right will continue to eke out election wins. A similar dynamic may keep the Tories winning general elections in Britain. Their 2017 campaign may have been hopeless in most ways, but in one it was highly efficient: despite getting only 2% more of the vote than Labour, they ended up with 20% more MPs.

    Gray still believes a new conservatism is possible – but sees no sign, so far, of anyone coming up with the right formula. “What has not emerged anywhere,” he says, “is a conservatism that protects the things that the market threatens, without being illiberal … or a conservatism that travels light, without being burdened by economic theory … or a conservatism adapted to how most people are actually living.”

    I think the 3 most fundamental problems with conservatism (or at least the ideal of competition and capitalism) that need to be solved are that;

    If they allow those at the top to wriite the rules they will just write them to benefit themselves and thus making the idea that people are competing in a level playing field and winning based on merit, the core ideal of conservatism becomes hollow.

    Society has become too complicated for hierarcies to be easily ascendable on your own and these hierarchies have become multi-layered, meaning that even if a conservative society manages to achieve a high and equal level of social mobility across all classes, some people will inherently need to ascend more steps in the hierarchy to get to the top because the hierarchy is so tall, which is inherently unfair and not 'meritocratic'.

    3: Social hierarchies based on arbitrary/intangible factors like age, race, sex, gender, religion, height don't fit onto fair competition and inherently can't work with fair competition.

  2. Comment removed by site admin