Is Conservatism Running on Brand Fumes?
A provocative article in the Guardian, ‘A zombie party’: the deepening crisis of conservatism, is a must read. I am going to focus on a few key observations rather than attempt to summarize it.
Among other things, it also gives some perspective on Brexit, about which I ought to be Saying Something. But we are now in a phase where Game of Thrones level jockeying in the UK appears to have great significance for what happens next. Making sense of that requires more understanding of the fine points of politicking than I have or am likely to acquire.
However, my instinct (and I need to do some pondering to make sure this isn’t being wedded to my priors) is virtually all of that is noise relative to how Brexit will progress (or more likely not). The EU again said it won’t renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement. Boris Johnson, other PM aspirants, and Nigel Farage are nurturing their unicorns of being able to do precisely that.
The Tories don’t have good incentives for being the turkeys that voted for Thanksgiving, um, a General Election, except that enough Conservative MPs loathe Boris so intensely that they’d be willing to send the party into the wilderness rather than have him as PM. However, there is the contrary school of thought that Boris is liked enough in some circles that a snap election would enable the Tories to gain ground. This strikes me as big a potential miscalculation as May’s snap election.
But all of the focus on UK political machinations misses that the UK hasn’t had a crashout due to the forbearance of the EU, and the UK political classes act as if the EU will continue to be oh so accommodating. Even now, way too few pols and pundits in the UK appear willing to say the only way to take a no deal Brexit off the table is to rescind Article 50. House Speaker has declared that of course Parliament will have a say on a no deal, when a solid analysis by the Institute of Government says the reverse.
The EU has better things to do that deal with new UK front men trying to relitigate closed topics. Although Macron’s credibility is weakened by his allies’ poor showing in the EU Parliament elections, France still has a veto, and the prospect of neverending UK Brexit antics might focus a few minds. I still believe that what led the EU to give the UK an extension when France reportedly had two allies in a veto push wasn’t Merkel or EU kick the can reflexes (although they likely contributed) but Ireland. It was very clear Ireland was not remotely prepared for a no-deal. The EU at the 11th hour was looking into transition arrangements, as in fudges, but nothing was even close to being settled. On top of that, as PlutoniumKun pointed out, the early April decision came shortly after St. Patricks Day, when Irish embassies all over the world hold big parties, and use them to sell their agenda, and this year, Brexit would have been top of the list.
So while the UK machinations require some study, my instinct is, as before that a relatively small number of boundary conditions will continue to drive Brexit. In other words, UK politics have gone chaotic, yet it isn’t clear how much impact on outcomes that will actually have.
Now to the Guardian story on conservatism. Its one big shortcoming in my eye is that it focuses on politics and ideology and not very much on economic outcomes, like stagnant worker wages and rising inequality. Another way to think about it is that the Reagan/Thatcher neoliberal wave ushered in a tooth and claw version of conservatism. It sold the false promise that “getting government out of the way” would unleash abundant opportunities for everyone, lifting all boats. We know how that movie ended.
Many of the trappings of traditional forms of conservatism that made its fundamental injustice of preserving the privileges of the ruling classes acceptable were stripped away. No more noblesse oblige. No more caring about the health and welfare of your local community. No more recognizing that the lower orders needed a reasonable degree of stability in order for them to be willing to stay put (in economic terms). And no more defense of families. Laborers sold their services into markets, and that meant they had to be mobile, including uprooting children and moving away from relatives who often provided child care or at least emergency backup, sometimes having partly absentee fathers due to travel, and vastly more women with real careers as a challenge to traditional roles.
The stresses above have only been made worse by the rise of global billionaire class and wannabes that are too obvious about not giving a damn about everyone else.
Parts of the article that caught my eye. This section is a much tamer rendering of the line of thought above:
[Corey] 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.
While true, the deadly Thatcher tenet was, “There is no such thing as society.” In fact, families have a much harder time doing well when they are in fragile communities or hostile settings (like the failed states the US creates with abandon. The neoliberal weakening of communities (adults volunteering at or sitting on the boards of local institutions or playing baseball or volleyball regularly, or going to town meetings) and the greater transience of residents has also hurt families by subtly or overtly reducing a sense (however illusory) of security and stability.
A few days after Thatcher’s death in 2013, I interviewed her former employment secretary Norman Tebbit. A social conservative, like Thatcher herself, he told me he now worried her government had loosened the country morally, not just economically. “I sometimes wonder,” he said, “whether our economic reforms led to an individualism in other values, in ways we didn’t anticipate.”
You mean the looting of government that resulted from the privatization of public services? Or the virtual collapse of the UK civil service as bright young men (and later women) went to the City instead? Or do you just mean high divorce rates among ordinary people?
And this part:
With some justification, conservatives had long prided themselves on their attention to facts, to how people actually lived, or wanted to live – rather than trying to build utopias, as they accused the left of doing. Even the most dogmatic Thatcherites had been keenly aware of social trends such as the rise of individualism, and how they might be politically exploited. But, starting in the 90s, on both sides of the Atlantic, much of the movement “ceased to be empirical”, Gray says. And without an interest in facts, it is hard to govern well for long.
As the Trump era in the US has made all too visible, both sides of the political divide don’t care about reality but about the narratives they can make stick. But not governing well is of little concern since pretty much everyone is out for number one. For instance, if the Democrats cared about governing, they’d be fixated on finding a way to retake the Senate so they could regain control of judicial appointments and be able to nix Presidential nominees to Cabinet posts and the Federal Reserve board. But instead, some viable contenders for Senate seats are instead wasting their time on certain to fail Presidential bids, no doubt with encouragement from somewhere in the party (because Sanders).
Finally, I need to quibble with this part:
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.
Spare me the tears for Team Dem. First, the Democrats are at least partly responsible for gerrymandering. Groups like La Raza were working fist in glove with Republican because La Raza wanted to create minority-majoiry districts. But the creation of particularly Republican congressional districts played a big role in the polarization of American politics, since in some of them, being more extreme was the ticket to getting elected.
Second, as Lambert points out, if the Democrats were serious about getting people to vote, they’d make voter registration a permanent priority. They don’t. That is consistent with their true aim of representing the top 10%. They really don’t want those people…..people who rent, who change jobs a lot out of necessity…to be well represented.
Again, I hope you find the time to digest this meaty piece.