Andrew Potter is an assistant professor at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
One of the stranger aspects of our current political moment is that even as conservative parties are in the ascendancy in North America and across the sea in Europe, there remains a widespread conviction that conservatism itself is in a very bad way.
On the one hand, there’s no question that conservative parties and leaders are doing well, starting with Donald Trump, who may very well win a second term as President of the United States next year. Here in Canada, seven of the 10 provinces are now led by conservative parties, while the federal Conservatives led by Andrew Scheer are polling well going into this fall’s election. They stand a more than decent chance of knocking off Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
So why is everyone so glum about conservatism? Postmedia’s Andrew Coyne captured the general tone of things in a column last month with this opening line: “There can be little doubt that conservatism is in crisis.” This was echoed and amplified by a briefing note in The Economist, which declared that conservatism was “fighting for its life.” In both cases, the supposed threat to conservatism is the wave of reactionary populist nationalism that has swept the West in recent years.
Except what underwrites this narrative is the conviction that the people currently sitting in conservative chairs aren’t real conservatives. As Mr. Coyne argued, conservatives are supposed to believe in things such as the rule of law, limited government and belief in the proper role for markets, family, and personal responsibility. For its part, The Economist recommended a return to conservatism’s core principles as espoused by philosopher Edmund Burke, based in respect for order and tradition and embracing change only when absolutely necessary.
But surely the people best placed to decide who and what counts as conservatism would be those who identify as conservatives, which would include those who run for office for conservative parties as well as those who vote for them. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us, if you want to know what a word means, look at how it is used.
So if you’re wondering what conservatism amounts to in 2019, the sensible thing to do would be to look at what politicians who call themselves conservatives actually say and do, and who they align themselves with. And if what you see is a parade of spendthrifts and wastrels and Nazi sympathizers engaged in an orgy of boorishness, cronyism and relentless vulgarity, who is to say this isn’t conservatism?
Sometimes in life it pays to dumb things down a bit – and in politics it often pays to dumb things down a lot. A few years ago, the American economist Bryan Caplan proposed what he called his “simplistic theory of right and left,” and it amounts to the following claims: Leftists are anti-market on an emotional level, while rightists are, on an emotional level, anti-leftist. What unites moderate Democrats and communists is that markets get on their nerves, and what unites moderate Republicans and Nazis is that leftists get on their nerves. More generally, we can say that to be on the left is to be in favour of doing something, while to be on the right is to be in favour of stopping the left from doing whatever it is it wants to do.
Any theory, no matter how simple, is only as good as its explanatory power. As it happens, Mr. Caplan’s little theory handily explains one of the most perplexing aspects of conservatism today, namely, its opposition to putting a price on carbon. As any number of pundits have pointed out, if conservatives have so much faith in markets, why are they opposed to market solutions to climate change? The answer, of course, is that they don’t really believe in markets. They believe in opposing whatever the left favours. When the left was anti-market, the right loved markets. If the left has now discovered the virtues of markets, then it is up to the right to resist it.
What’s really interesting is that this theory also explains the rise of reactionary populism on the right. The more the left has allowed itself to be ensnared in identity politics and pidgin Marxism, the more the right has dug in its heels, which is bad news for anyone hoping that conservatives will eventually come to their senses and the populist moment will pass. Far from being an aberration of right-wing politics, the vulgarity, the cronyism, and the playing footsie with Nazis is the right’s natural and coherent response to the shifting pieties of the left.
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