The End of Conservatism: How the Ideology of Reagan and Thatcher is Fading Away
When I say that conservatism is fading away, I must first make clear what it is I mean. The conservative temperament is as old as civilization itself and will always be with us. So long as there is political and social change, there will inevitably be some people who are more skeptical of it than others. What I mean by conservatism is something more specific. Namely, I am referring to a political and intellectual coalition that came together in the aftermath of the Second World War and gained (at least partial) political ascendancy in the English Speaking world from the 1980’s onward. This ideology combined a belief in shrinking the size and function of government, expanding the role of the market and the private sector, opposing post-1960’s liberal social attitudes, and engaging in a more hawkish and assertive foreign policy. It was best embodied by the Presidency of Ronald Reagan in the United States and of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom.
The past few years have been ones of immense political turmoil in much of the English-speaking world. Although the Trump and Brexit sagas are by no means done unfolding, it may be possible for us to examine some of the fallout and make some general conclusions.
If you had asked me four years ago about the state of conservatism, I might have used terms such as ‘stale’, ‘ossified’, ‘out of touch’, or ‘unwilling to change old dogmas in light of new circumstances’. The general theme being that, although I had many serious concerns about the state conservatism was in, I still understood that it was a powerful force in political life that needed to be engaged with. I’m not sure if this is true any more. In America, Trump blew up the party of Reagan. But the fact that such an obviously grotesque and unserious figure was able to unseat the GOP’s conservative establishment reflected much deeper problems, problems that the party had been papering over for at least a decade.
The fact is, much of what traditional conservative parties like the GOP stood for prior to Trump had been discredited in the minds of voters and among serious intellectuals who might have been inclined to support a centre-right party. Obviously, leftists would always have opposed any conservative program, but there was indeed reason in the aftermath of the George W. Bush Presidency for those not inclined towards leftism to wonder whether the conservative ideology of the 80’s was suited to the problems we now faced.
In economic policy, the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath fatally undermined the conservative claim that financial deregulation would yield immense benefits and also served to remind us how vital government central banks are in maintaining macroeconomic stability. The Bush tax cuts of the early 2000’s failed to deliver the economic prosperity that their proponents claimed they would. The shock to the American manufacturing base of imports from China in the early 2000’s undermined the mantra that free trade would benefit all. (It’s easy to forget this now, but this actually used to be a conservative position.) And growing inequality and stagnating real incomes undermined claims that the rising tide of the market economy would lift all boats.
In social policy, social conservatism has suffered one near total defeat after another. In the 1990’s, the American religious right decided that gay marriage was the hill they needed to die on. And die on it they did, being thoroughly defeated and discrediting themselves to a whole new generation with much more liberal attitudes on sexuality. It’s hard to see what issues social conservatives have in the 21st Century that do not look like losing battles.
In foreign policy, conservatives in the early 2000’s went all in on the Iraq War. An enormous amount of political energy was devoted to promoting and defending this disastrous misadventure. (One might object here that centre-left figures such as Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair also supported the Iraq War. This is fair, but I would counter that these were essentially centrist figures who were conservative on many issues at a time when conservative ideas were ascendant.) This misadventure proved doubly discrediting when the supposedly existential threat of radical Islamic terrorism proved to be much less serious a threat than we were told it was in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
All the things I’ve mentioned seem relatively obvious. They were all obvious ten years ago. Yet the conservative movement’s failure to grapple with or even acknowledge these problems has meant that they have confined themselves to irrelevance, both politically and intellectually. In their place have arisen a new batch of populists, some hucksters, some genuinely sinister ideologues. What they have in common, though, is a tendency to recognize the problems I have outlined above, even if their answers are often odious.
No figure better encapsulates the new post-conservative (my term, not theirs) populist firebrands of the right than the Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Perhaps unique among Fox News/Conservative Talk Radio folks, Tucker is actually smart enough to know that the kind of nationalist populist politics he is offering is in many respects a clean break with the recent history of American conservatism. This is aptly demonstrated by a recent segment on his show where he does a direct attack on free market ideology. He has also been vocal in his criticism of neoconservative foreign policy. Tucker has called himself a ‘nationalist’, and is for better or worse (mostly worse) one of the most important thought leaders on the modern American Right.
Traditional conservatives who think that things can go back to Reaganism as usual once Trump is gone are deluding themselves.
Conservatism is not only shrinking from its populist right, but from its moderate left. The ‘Never Trump’ movement may be small in terms of the general population, but in terms of intellectual heft it includes many of the right’s most serious voices. Disgusted by both the new nationalist Trumpist right, as well as conservative complacency with this administration, these intellectuals have drifted towards the centre. In doing so, they have become increasingly freed to break with conservative orthodoxy, since they no longer feel the kind of partisan loyalty that would normally keep such intellectuals in line.
This shift is best shown by looking at the transformation underway at the formerly libertarian Niskanen Center, a think tank in Washington DC. Niskanen’s new ideology is reflective of a change in belief among many libertarians, neoliberals, and some centre-righters more generally, regarding the size of government. These intellectuals do not see the size of government per se as being a problem and support many progressive efforts such as government redistribution, carbon taxes, and a greater government role in healthcare. They see inequality as a problem and support (non-extreme) efforts to mitigate it as well as reduce poverty. At the same time, they believe in free trade and immigration which puts them at odds with the new nationalist right.
It is my contention that in the coming years, conservatism as we have come to know it will fade away, its current members drifting into either the nationalist right or the neoliberal centre. I suspect most voters will drift into the former and most intellectuals will drift into the latter. But when we speak of the conservatism of Reagan and Thatcher, we may soon be speaking in the past tense, for it is an ideology whose time is up.