British and American conservatism drift further apart

Events this week speak volumes about the state of conservatism in Britain and America.

On one side of the Atlantic, the British Conservative Party is now in bed with the lefty Liberal Democrats, its leader gushing about the dawn of a new politics (see video below). On the other side, the Tea Party has ousted the evidently not-conservative-enough Utah Senator Bob Bennett.

The days of Maggie and Ron, natural Atlantic allies on the right, are long gone it seems. Who thinks Obama and Cameron will get on swimmingly? I certainly do. Further evidence that the British Conservatives now equal Democrats, or, if you prefer, that the Democrats are Conservatives. Interesting times.

This is not to say that all Conservatives are happy with the LibCon coalition, but in Team Tory, the backbenchers do not now drive the party. There is also the non-influence of a public that is largely apathetic, reasonably progressive, and not at all animated by “moral” issues or controversies such as healthcare. Cameron has seized power — and lurched left — the only way he could and there’s very little desire to stop him.

In the US, things seem to work the other way. Driven by a vocal and rich mob of Glenn Beck groupies that the Republican Party leadership seems powerless to stop, US conservatism is trending right (sometimes bizarrely so) at the same time the Tories are claiming the centre. Cameron’s strategy has delivered him government. Can the same be said for US Republicanism?



  1. Two quick points:

    First, part of this is the timing. American conservatism is going through the soul searching of electoral defeat. The Tories did this five or ten years ago. For what it is worth, I don’t see the Tea Party as the basis for a future GOP coalition, so I suspect that in the end they will be marginalized, most likely by a stunning defeat of a Tea Party backed GOP candidate in the 2012 presidential election.

    Second, there is a sense in which the Tories are going to have to be more fiscally conservative than American conservatives. If UK finances are really going to be in order, I suspect that Cameron will cut deeper into the British state than will any American congress, including one with at least one House with a GOP majority, which is possible after the midterms. Our deficit is proportionally smaller, the dollar is a more attractive reserve currency than sterling, and bond markets simply aren’t yet jittery about U.S. finances. On the other hand, if Obama wins in 2012 and his party regains some of the Congressional clout I think it will lose this fall, then Obama could end up being Gordon Brown — the left of center spendthrift who sends his party packing.


  2. >then Obama could end up being Gordon Brown

    I doubt it. Labour’s crash landing wasn’t a bad one, really, and I imagine they might have survived — despite the spendthriftiness — had they not had such an uninspiring leader. Obama is no Gordon Brown.


  3. I, of course, defer to you on the details of UK electoral politics, especially when it comes to the personalities. They all sound British to me — intelligent, understated, and pleasant — and I’m sure I’ve a tin-ear for most of the cultural cues. That said, from 30,000 feet (or from the other side of an ocean), I see a government that spent hog wild in the good times on borrowed money and then lost at the polls when the bill came due.


  4. You are right about that tin ear. I heard Jon Stewart lampooning Gordon Brown in an English accent. Part of the Gordon Brown caricature over here is that he’s a dour *Scot*.


  5. Since Democrats won six out of eight special elections and prevailed twice over Tea Party candidates in competitive districts, I am skeptical if Republicans can make any gains in November beyond the normal midterm adjustments.


  6. Andrew Sullivan pointed out the other day that British conservatism tends to follow Edmund Burke while American conservatism tends to follow Leo Strauss. More importantly, there is nothing like the Christianist right in Europe.

    I would go so far that, in the philosophical sense, conservatism in America is a threatened species. Most of the Americans who claim to be conservatives have more in common with Jacobins than with Edmund Burke.

    Conservatism is skeptical of human knowledge claims. Therefore, conservatives embrace reform over revolution and empiricism over utopian philosophy. American conservatives, on the other hand, elevate ideology over science, especially, when it comes to global warming, sex education, and, most importantly, evolution.

    The last point is especially troubling from a conservative point of view since evolution is the paradigm of the life sciences.


  7. Hellmut: FWIW, I expect that GOP will do quite well in the midterms. I’m not sure how to parse the difference between that claim and the claim that we will simply see “normal midterm adjustments.” Is there some threshold where a shift becomes more than a “normal midterm adjustment”? Where is it?

    That said, I think that the Tea Party, to the extent that it fields candidates or sets the ground rules for GOP rhetoric will mainly be a drag on Republican candidates, absent charismatic, likable candidates like Rubio. For my money, the best thing for the GOP would be for the Tea Party to have some sort of a big, visible, electoral ass whipping, which could then discredit it. I’d say the best way of doing this would be to run Sarah Pallin in 2012 and have her get clobbered by Obama, except that a second GOP ticket with Pallin on it would squander a lot of credibility with centrist voters.


  8. Sullivan’s contrast strikes me as a bit glib. Indeed, I suspect that as often as not global claims about “American conservatives” are more about scoring rhetorical points than describing some core identity. The right in the U.S. is a pretty heterogeneous place; a mix of politicized evangelicals, conservative Catholics, western libertarians, libertarian intellectuals, Straussian neo-cons, big business conservatives, small business entrepreneurs, and the odd old school fiscal conservative. We’ve even got the occasional Russell Kirk reading, Burke quoting type. Given the demographic and geographic sweep of the United States this isn’t all that surprising. (The same sort of heterogeneity exists on the American left.)

    Imagine that you had to create a political party of the right in Europe that stretched from Lithuania to Ireland and Norway to Athens. It would have to respond to the concerns of the City of London, blood-and-soil Balkan nationalism, German Christian democrats, Little Englanders, and so on. The party would have to contest real elections at all levels of government and operate in electorally responsible institutions. (In other words, pan-European EU parties are NOT a good example of what I am talking about.) It would be an incoherent circus most of the time as well.

    For what it’s worth, I’m none too enamored of the American right at the moment, which seems to be going through a bout of severe incoherence. I fear that the GOP is going to become like the Democrats of the 1980s. For myself, I’d love to see the emergence of a skeptical, fiscally disciplined, market-oriented reformist kind of conservatism. The kind of Manichean rhetoric coming out of the Tea Party movement strikes me as a mixture of healthy concern about government finances and utter batshit craziness.


  9. I’m not sure how to parse the difference between that claim and the claim that we will simply see “normal midterm adjustments.” Is there some threshold where a shift becomes more than a “normal midterm adjustment”? Where is it?

    That’s a good question. This table appears to summarize the data well.

    I stuck them into a spread sheet. On average, the president’s party loses about 26 members of the House and 3.5 Senators in a midterm election.

    Median losses of House seats occurred in 1982 with 26 seats. Median losses of Senate seats occurred in 1966 with 4 seats.

    The sample size consists of only 19 cases. Therefore, there are limits to how much one can reasonably infer from the data.

    We could include midterm elections before 1934, however, since the Roosevelt era transformed the office of the presidency, that would not improve the data situation.

    If the data were more abundant, we might have wanted to measure differences in terms of standard deviations from the mean to determine the defining thresholds of extraordinary gains.

    In this case, that renders nonsensical results, which is a function of the small sample size. The interquartile range, which is a reliable substitute for plus/minus one standard deviation around the mean, renders a low of plus 2 and a high of minus 8 Senators for the presidential party. For the House, the figures are minus 4 and minus 48.

    As it is, assessment of extraordinary opposition success remains somewhat of an art. However, unless GOP gains are substantially higher than the median losses (26 House, 4 Senate), I would scratch it up to the usual pattern of midterm losses.

    I hope this stats lecture makes sense. Please, follow up if I am too obtuse.


  10. I hear what you say about diversity, Nate, but would be careful of taking it too far. After all, Americans have shared the same political institutions for hundreds of years and have fought many wars together, some of them quite big.

    Even if you date the origin of the American nation state to the Civil War, that’s still older than its German counterpart, which is in some ways more diverse than the United States. Mind you, there are American conservatives that could find a home in any conservative party in Western Europe such as Senator Dick Lugar or the commentator David Brooks.

    I find it interesting that you are describing American conservatism in tribal rather than ideological terms.

    Philosophically, the foundation of American conservatism is actually quite narrow if not impoverished. In part, the neocons and libertarians were so influential because their funders had no ideas of their own and needed justification to lower taxes, embark on imperial adventures, and privatizing as much government as possible.

    Self-interest can only take you so far. At some point, you need ideas. People who have money pay “conservatives” who have ideas. That’s most manifest not only in the Washington “think” tanks but also the Virginia university system, which has skillfully benefited from servicing “conservative” needs for scholarship.

    Beyond ideas, in a democracy you need numbers. Since before the days of Shakespeare, jingoism helps in that regard. What is uniquely American, however, is the enduring view of local majorities that liberty somehow legitimizes the domination of minority populations.

    Be it in the South, the Midwest, or the Rocky Mountain West, the struggle against the 14th amendment and the American nation state unites groups who actually hate each other such as Mormons and Southern Baptists, for example.

    For the latter point, the best work is probably the award winning book Issue Evolution: Race and the Transformation of American Politics by Edward Carmines and James Stimson.


  11. “I hope this stats lecture makes sense. Please, follow up if I am too obtuse.”

    Cool. Numbers. They. Are. So Pretty.


  12. Hellmut: I suspect that there is a confirmation bias at work in your reading of American conservatism, particularly in your libel of the glorious Virginia public university system ;-> and your equation of suspicion of government with naked self-interest. For what it is worth, I would also think of the American left in largely tribal terms, e.g. public sector unions, northeastern academic elites and the intellectuals in the hinterlands who ape them, african-americans, etc. etc. In this sense, I suppose that I think of political movements in terms of coalitions with interests and biases (ideas is perhaps a bit two strong). Ideology is an intellectual game played by news junkies. It neither describes the way the world works nor the motivations of mass political movements.


  13. Of course, you can describe any political alliance in tribal terms. In that sense, there is something to the claim that American conservatives are tribal but so are liberals. But that’s besides the point, isn’t it?

    A comparison of American and Western European conservatism is interesting because the Democratic party has European counterparts while most of the Republican party does not.

    In Britain, the counterparts of the Democratic party encompass the Liberal Democrats, the leadership and the bulk of the Conservative party, and smatterings of the Labour party. Most elements of the Republican party only have a few Conservative backbenchers who share their view.

    To be sure, the likes of David Brooks and Richard Lugar would fit right in with any conservative or bourgeois party in Western Europe but those two are on the fringes of the Republican party.

    The heart and core of the Republican party has no counterparts in the Western European mainstream: not in Britain, not in France, neither in the Mediterranean nor in Scandinavia.

    That is the phenomenon that requires explanation. “Your guys are just as bad as my guys” does not cut it because it fails to meet the logical requirements for variation. If Democrats are just like Republicans, why is it that there are Democrats but no Republicans in so many countries?


  14. I don’t think that I am saying “Your guys are just as bad as my guys.” (I also probably reject what seems to be your implicit assumption that ideological divergence from Europe is a pathology in need of explanation and condemnation.) When I say that I also see the Democrats in tribal terms, I am trying to be even handed and fair. I don’t necessarily see tribalism as bad. I see it as inevitable. I’m also not sure why it is beside the point or philosophically or ethically impoverished, although to be sure I am very bad and stupid person. I am not sure what you are looking for in terms of an explanation. Some sort of ideological genealogy? If you are looking for sources of the ideological differences between the American right and the European right, I would point toward a couple of things.

    1. Religion is far more vibrant in the United States. I suspect that this is largely a result of disestablishment and the heavy, early influence of various forms of radical Protestantism in America, e.g. Puritanism, Anabaptism, etc. European religion was far more dominated by Catholicism, Magisterial Protestantism, and establishmentarianism.

    2. The American experience with World War II was fundamentally different than in continental Europe, which leaves Americans with a very different attitudes towards the use of military power. It also means the nationalism has an entirely different set of associations in the United States than in Europe. American nationalism — at least in the public mind in the United States — wasn’t poisoned by Nazism, Facism, and the various violent extremism of the European right in the early 20th century.

    3. During the nineteenth century America was a country of cheap land and expensive labor, while Europe had expensive land and cheap labor. The result was that during the nineteenth century America never developed a large scale European style proletariat, and with it the various kinds of working class politics that infuse much of the European left. Many of the bits of the Democratic party that seem familiar to Europeans are the vestiges of an anemic proletarian politics in the United States that never really got off the ground.

    4. Related to this, liberalism in Europe always struggled for space between working class politics of the left and blood-and-soil nationalism on the right. In contrast, in the United States, liberalism dominated to the virtual exclusion of working class politics and various forms of organic nationalism. Much of what you see on the American right are various extreme forms of liberalism. In this sense it is the mirror image of those bits of the European left that trace their genealogies back to various kinds of radicalized proletarian politics which seem so bizarre to Americans.

    Finally, I think that I would also contest the notion that Democrats find easy analogues in Europe. Take the example of military force. I think that the Obama administration is far more comfortable deploy troops, drone attacks, etc. in advancing American policy than would be say a German social democrat. Likewise, there is no analogue within the Democratic party to much of the European left, particularly those bits of it that are heavily indebted to Marxism — e.g. the Left Party in Germany. In this sense, I suspect that I see less of a yawning ideological gap between the Democrats and the GOP than you do. To be sure, there is a gap — and rhetoric suggesting an even larger one — between certain bits of the highly motivated GOP base and the Democratic base. On the other hand, American electoral institutions tend to drive parties to the political center, which over time pushes the parties toward one another, much to the consternation of ideologues.


  15. WOW, call it what you want, but you two sound very leftist in your thoughts and theory’s. Conservatives are nothing more than true followers of the US Constitution, which by the way allowed the US to surpass every nation like those that have been around far longer then the US. Your thoughts on the subject are very clear and very predictable Hellmut. And Nate, you saying that Sarah Palin would lose quite large to Obama is a joke and the facts to do support your claim. The facts would be the jump she gave Centrist McCain during the election and current tracking polls.
    There was only a 4% difference between the GOP and Dems and that should be solely contributed to Palin joining the ticket.

    Secondly, the Tea Party which was created by Ron Paul supporters mainly Libertarian Conservatives which are far to the Right. This is what we need today to defeat the socialist movement that has been making it’s way here since Woodrow Wilson and FDR. Europe and Japan are the perfect examples of what creating a socialist society has done for them. Japan in a deep recession for over 10 years!

    Another factor about US politics that is convienently left out is that our Congress was controlled for nearly 50 years by the Democratic party but much of that time a GOP President was in control which limited them.

    The British society will never be fixed until a true and hard lining real Conservative steps in, which I thought Cameron was suppose to be. The people need to understand that paying 50 to 70% of your money into all the different tax codes is what is hurting them and Britain as well as the rest of Europe and most other countries around the world. The US suffers from one horrible tax that has hurt our country and economy and it happens to be the second highest tax in the world, the Corporate Tax. Britain enjoys a 10% difference along with most other 1st world countries if not in the 20% range.

    But I again ask the question, how is it that the US system of Capitalism has allowed us to surpass in nearly every category all countries that have been established long before the US and allow our currency to become the world’s backing? Obviously, the Democrats who believe in a socialist European society is not the way to go and it is being justified to this day.

    Real Conservatism is following the path our founders laid before us in the US Constitution. The same path that Thomas Jefferson tried to help France with but did not follow and look where they are now. It’s quite simple but it is far easier for many people to receive money for free than work for it.

    I believe it was your Englishwomen, Margaret Thatcher, who understood the problems with Socialism in Britain and Europe best with her famous quote, “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money [to spend].”


  16. But I again ask the question, how is it that the US system of Capitalism has allowed us to surpass in nearly every category all countries that have been established long before the US and allow our currency to become the world’s backing? Obviously, the Democrats who believe in a socialist European society is not the way to go and it is being justified to this day.

    Good to meet you, Max.

    The United States surpassed European countries long before market fundamentalism took hold. Among the founding fathers George Washington and Alexander Hamilton shaped American economic policies the most.

    They were mercantilists. Washington, Hamilton and their allies believed that the state ought to behave like a good merchant. They codified that belief in Article 2, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, which assigns the federal government the power to regulate international and inter-state commerce.

    Working for George Washington, Alexander Hamilton conducted an activist commerce policy that interfered heavily with what we would call the market today. Hamilton instituted aggressive tariffs to limit imports and raise money for the federal government.

    Unlike James Madison, Hamilton also believed that the General Welfare clause of the United States Constitution supported an activist federal government.

    It is a misconception, I am afraid, to assume that the founding fathers agreed about the role of the federal government generally and specifically with regard to economic policy. It is safe, however, to point out that none of the major figures at the Constitutional Convention was a follower of Adam Smith, whose ideas had only just been published in 1776 and were considered immoderate, if not radical at the time.


  17. The United States surpassed Britain economically during the 19th century not because of free markets. In fact, by many measures, perhaps the most important ones, America was a much more protectionist country.

    The United States prevailed because its population was larger and grew faster, because it enjoyed the geo-strategic advantage of three coasts on two oceans, a larger natural resource base, and the absence of social constraints. In the absence of the class system, America continues to unleash unparalleled creativity.

    Between 1945 and 1990, however, both Sweden and Japan enjoyed greater economic growth than the United States. All three of those countries are market economies. However, Sweden and Japan regulate the market to a greater extent on the margins than the United States.

    Empirically, markets are a great way to organize an economy efficiently. However, on the margins, the ideal of the market can sometimes be better realized with marginal regulations that level the playing field so that everyone can participate.

    It seems to me that fairness and inclusion is what America is all about. There used to be a time when the United States was more inclusive than any European country. That was, in a large part, the secret to American success.

    If we want to sustain the American way of life, which is very expensive, inclusion and fairness will remain key.


  18. “Conservatives are nothing more than true followers of the US Constitution,”

    That one made me throw up a little.


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