Conservative parties throughout the West are in crisis. This may not be fully understood by simply looking at recent election results, as conservative parties have continued to win elections. But these parties are currently in a state of ideological flux, and their commitment to existing liberal democratic principles and institutions are in noticeable decay. The conventional perception of conservative parties as steady and secure governing hands has made way for a more volatile and agitated form of politics. Parties that have routinely positioned themselves as defenders of the established order have instead become actively hostile to it. Conservative parties, the Economist noted last year, are now “on fire and dangerous.”
This phenomenon is most evident in the United States, where the Republican Party has become a wholly owned subsidiary of Donald Trump; a political actor guided solely by parochial instincts and personal narcissism, untethered to any intellectual understanding of his party’s traditions. The party’s convictions are now driven solely by fealty to the president, regardless of his actions. While Trump may be a singular figure, the tension he represents—between principle and parochialism—has also created the divisions within the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom that were aroused in response to the country’s membership of the European Union.
In Australia, the Liberal Party has been engaged in a decade-long civil war that has seen a number of hostile leadership changes (including against two sitting prime ministers). Although this struggle for control of the party has ostensibly been a battle over the recognition of climate change, that issue is the local proxy for the wider internal problems that conservative parties are facing. In Western Europe, meanwhile, the political systems have provided enough oxygen for radical reactionary parties to form and significantly eat into the electoral support of traditional conservative parties (although they have also drawn support from social-democratic parties).
What has become apparent is that conservative parties—and movements outside these parties that push and pull at them—are now increasingly uncomfortable within the prevailing norms of their societies and political systems. Most worryingly, these parties are demonstrating a notable suspicion towards the restraints placed upon their action by liberal democratic principles; constitutionalism, the rule of law, the protection of individual and minority rights, market-orientated economies, and the scrutiny of the press.
While there is an increasingly clear comprehension of the populist and illiberal impulses that have been developing within Western conservative parties, the question that still requires investigation is: why? Why have parties that have previously characterised themselves as forces for political and social stability transformed themselves into agents of instability? To answer this question, we need to understand what modern conservative parties have been advocating, why these ideas have undermined their own core values and inclinations, and how this has in turn instigated their current agitated and chaotic behaviour.
Modern conservative ideology has a reasonably well-known origin story; in the early-1960s William F. Buckley’s National Review magazine sought to develop a bulwark against the global threat of communism, and began to build a coalition of cultural and social traditionalists with the ardent economic liberalism advocated by the Austrian and Chicago schools of economics to create a new ideological conception of conservatism. The calculation was simple enough; if communism was the all-pervasive hand of the state in a country’s economic activity, then we, as anti-communists, must therefore be staunch free-marketeers. With the elections of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, the project had fully taken root; conservatism was the advocacy of ever-freer markets.
In the period since World War II, the West’s more liberal economic structures had produced far greater wealth and personal freedom than the Soviet Union’s command economy, as well as a number of superior technological advances. This was evidence that liberal democracy—with its essential economic freedom—was a preferable model of organisation. However, as this new ideological conception of conservatism transformed from a Cold War tactic into received wisdom, the inherent incompatibility of the alliance was overlooked. Parties that came to advocate an ever-greater liberalisation never questioned the changes that came with this increased wealth and freedom, nor considered the norms that would shift as people became freer and more able to exchange with one another. They did not even stop to consider whether the results of these exchanges would be suited to a conservative temperament.
In understanding the tensions within what came to be known as Fusionism, it is essential to grasp what conservatism actually is, as it is quite distinct from the prescriptions of socialism, or the principles of liberalism. Conservatism has a more psychological element, it is closely tied to primary human instincts like security, authority, and identity. It attaches itself to ideas, rather than actively forming them itself.
In the early-1960s, British philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote an essay entitled On Being Conservative in which he illustrated this identification of conservatism as a disposition rather than a prescribed set of political ideals. For Oakeshott, a conservative disposition included a preference for “the familiar to the unknown,” and “the tried to the untried.” He wrote that conservatives “will find small and slow changes more tolerable than large and sudden”; and they will “value highly every appearance of continuity.” The conservative, he stressed, was not an “ardent innovator.” This was a perspective also recognised by an assistant professor at Michigan State University in the 1950s by the name of Russell Kirk, whose book The Conservative Mind stressed that conservative instincts were solidly tied to “custom, convention, and continuity.”
This conservative disposition affixes itself to the existing organisational structures of a society and primarily seeks their maintenance. This is why we refer to those within the Soviet Union who were opposed to Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalising reforms of Glasnost and Perestroika as “conservatives,” as they were seeking to conserve the Stalinist state with which they were familiar. The unpredictability of greater liberalisation threatened the Soviet Union’s continuity. In the West, this disposition attached itself to liberal democracy, and until recently sought its defence. Conservative parties embraced liberalism (in both the broad and economic sense, rather than the popular American usage of the term), and as Fusionism became the dominant lens of the conservative movement, these parties became advocates of an ever-increasing economic and structural liberalisation.
In his book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, economist Joseph Schumpeter identified an inherent feature of liberalism that he called “Creative Destruction.” Schumpeter observed that in market-oriented societies there is a constant incentive to create newer technologies, goods, and services. He stressed that the system itself is built on a platform of perpetual innovation, that is “by nature a form or method of economic change, and not only never is but never can be stationary.” Schumpeter described his creative destruction as a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionises the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”
As these ever-evolving technologies enhanced our ability to communicate and exchange, this process of technological change accelerated. From train to car to airplane, from radio to the telephone, to cameras to television to the Internet, to the instantaneous access to the sum of human knowledge, borderless communication, and global retail options we all now carry in our pockets. This is not just creative destruction, but exponential creative destruction—each technological innovation makes the next easier to achieve in increasingly shorter periods of time.
Revolutionary technological changes brought massive social and cultural change. New technologies facilitate a greater movement and interaction of different peoples, and greater exposure to non-traditional concepts. As societies industrialise and then post-industrialise, people move to cities where the economic advantages of these new industries are greatest. Here, there is an ever-increasing closeness and overlap of groups and individuals exchanging, embracing, and learning from different kinds of behaviour. This creates more diverse, plural societies, and people establish identities that are not simply determined by village, family, religion, or tribe. This is social creative destruction, where the custom, convention, and continuity of inherited social norms are also in a perpetual state of innovation. Economic change and social change are inseparable. The former begets the latter.
However, these changes have not simply been confined within states, as traditional concepts of nationhood are also an integral part of this evolving process. As markets liberalised and technology evolved, global comparative advantages were recognised and production chains became increasingly complex. In 1958, to demonstrate how this complexity was developing, the economist Leonard Read wrote an essay entitled “I, Pencil,” which traced the production line of a single pencil. The point of the essay was to highlight that no one person, no matter how intelligent or skilled, was capable of creating an object as simple as a pencil. Read’s argument was that the knowledge to do so was completely decentralised, and by extension, centralised systems (like the Soviet Union) were incapable of the efficient and effective production of goods.
But what Read also—inadvertently—identified was the inherent cosmopolitanism of trade. Read’s pencil begins in the forests of Oregon and northern California, but soon finds itself bonding with graphite from Sri Lanka and wax from Mexico, it picks up rubber from Indonesia and pumice from Italy, and the whole process is fuelled by coffee beans from Brazil. This was not just decentralised cooperation, but global cooperation; a production of goods that transcends national boundaries, and pays little attention to local identities in search of economic agility. The technologies of today are created by an array of infinitely more complex ideas and production lines than Read’s pencil; laying the tracks for an express train of ever-increasing cultural interaction, expanding pluralism, and evolving social norms.
The overarching process by which these billions of different interactions constantly intersect, breed, and reconfigure is known as “spontaneous order.” This concept is not exclusive to economics—languages, ecosystems, and solar systems are also all examples of spontaneous order. Yet the idea rose to prominence in the 20th century via Austrian economists such as Friedrich Hayek as a description of the mechanics of market-based societies and the decentralised knowledge of price signals to demand and supply.
Despite its constant innovation and disregard of tradition, spontaneous order appealed in a roundabout way to a conservative sense of natural order and its suspicion of humanity’s utopian experiments. The idea also found accord with the deep-rooted culture of distrust towards government found in the United States. The concept seemed to place social order in the hands of God; the true architect, a sentiment Kirk described as the “divine intent” of a society, one that supersedes any man-made laws. This appeal was further consolidated with a binary reaction to the Soviet Union’s command economy, and the radical decentralisation that must therefore be desirable by default.
As conservative affiliates came to believe their objectives were best served by ideas such as spontaneous order, economists like Hayek became increasingly influential within conservative parties. Margaret Thatcher is said to have entered a Conservative Party policy meeting and slammed a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on the table while exclaiming “This is what we believe!” However, she, like many other Fusionists, apparently failed to read enough of the book to reach its postscript—an essay Hayek wrote in 1963 entitled “Why I Am Not A Conservative,” an often terse explanation of why his ideas were an uncomfortable fit for the parties that would come to adopt them.
Hayek’s own assessment of conservative instincts correlates—albeit less sympathetically—with that of Oakeshott and Kirk when he writes that “one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such.” Hayek contrasts this with the lassiez-faire liberalism he advocated, which he said is “based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.” His was an advocacy of forces that had no interest in custom, convention, or continuity, a perspective that had only a latent attachment to the wisdom of ancestors, and seemed far more concerned with the innovations of today and the negotiations of tomorrow.
Indeed, Hayek made note that conservatives maintain “a fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces” and this is directly related to their “lack of understanding of economic forces.” This would prove to be his essay’s most prescient observation; the failure of modern conservative parties to fully understand exactly what they have been advocating, and how the outcomes of this advocacy would relate to their own temperaments.
What was missed by conservative political parties as they adopted the concepts advanced by Hayek—and popularised by Milton Friedman—was the sheer radicalism of their ideas. Inherent to these theories was a belief in human capabilities not shared by other philosophies; that human beings are naturally suspicious of authority, they are able to easily transcend group allegiance, and they could feel comfortable within liberalism’s permanent revolution. Their ideas bestowed humans with a perfect rationality, asking people to forgo emotional ties to identity and tradition for a cold, efficient, and abstract universalism.
This adoption of an ever-increasing freedom of exchange—and the dramatic technological and social change that it has produced—has undermined one of the core objectives of conservative parties. As Tom McTague wrote in the Atlantic last year, the purpose of the Conservative Party in the UK—a characteristic that could be extended to a certain degree to other conservative parties throughout the West—was to be “the quiet defenders of the little man from those seeking to impose a different way of life upon him without his consent.” Yet with their evangelical advocacy of freer markets these parties have achieved the very opposite, they have brought a regime of wholesale and incessant change into the house of the little man. And he has become incredibly unhappy about it.
The forces of freer markets; their unanchored spontaneous order, their economic and social creative destruction, and their inherent cosmopolitanism have deeply affronted those of a conservative disposition. With conservative parties accelerating these forces, Fusionism became an ideology in constant conflict with itself, failing to create a harmonious set of ideas to advance, and instead fostering a sense of discord and disorder for these parties’ natural constituents.
These parties neglected to recognise that liberalism’s freedom and wealth creation would need to be accompanied by some kind of compensation for the associated and ever-evolving structural changes. This might have included investment in durable safety nets to provide security to people whose industries would become redundant or relocated, or in an education system and a public discourse that allowed people to understand a shifting world with greater ease and provided them with the necessary tools to adapt economically, socially, and emotionally.
But that is not what these parties have done. Instead they have exhibited a “small government monomania” that has sought to erode state-funded programs that could have assisted people in adjusting to new economic realities. Simultaneously, these parties have fertilised a sense of nostalgic cultural loss, victimhood, and civic disgruntlement, encouraging people to become suspicious and uneasy with how the changes in their societies have progressed. In conjunction with their media allies, conservative parties have preyed upon people’s insecurities, deliberately seeking to confuse and aggravate, making people increasingly agitated, resentful, paranoid, and conspiratorial.
When you step back and see the broader picture, these parties and their affiliates have constructed an extraordinary political project; advancing the revolutionary mechanisms of ever-freer markets, while simultaneously running a counter-revolution against its economic and social effects. This has proved to be a psychological assault on not just their traditional supporters, but also much of the working class, who often share similar dispositions, and have been the group who have most keenly felt the effects of the era’s exponential change. The result has been a retreat into narrow, isolated, and hyper-partisan identities in search of some form of security.
This retreat has found its visceral avatar in Donald Trump. Although Trump’s uniquely self-obsessed personality has meant that he is often depicted as solipsistic and ideology-free, he has been able to harness and amplify the anxieties of those who see change as loss and difference as disorder. He is Fusionism’s blowback; the expression of its internal turbulence and of conservative parties’ failure to advance ideas that could provide a sense of security and reassurance to the public.
As evolving social norms have weakened the traditional authority of churches and dissolved other longstanding civil society groups, as well as creating the revolution in female advancement that has undermined patriarchal structures, conservative parties are now exhibiting signs that they are trying to compensate for these changes to social authority by turning to the state as an instrument to enact social control. This is leading these parties and their affiliates to demonstrate an affinity with autocratic and illiberal regimes like Russia and Hungary, as they romanticise the idea of a “strong leader” who can restore a sense of certainty. The parties that have previously sold themselves as staunch defenders of freedom are now the parties most susceptible to authoritarianism. As Harvard’s Dr Daniel Ziblatt has demonstrated; it is the reaction of conservative parties to the forces of change that decides whether democracy survives.
In 1782, Edmund Burke remarked that “The touchstone of all theories which regard man and the affairs of men is: Does it suit his nature in general?” Fusionism has failed to adequately address this question. It may have served a purpose in building a domestic defence against Communism, but its internal contradictions have been too great to withstand a world without such a rivalry (China’s economic integration with the West creates a unique set of circumstances). If these now nominally conservative parties cannot overcome their current chaotic inclinations, understand the requirements of their own temperaments, and reconcile these with the realities of the day, then these parties themselves will become the primary ideological—and practical—threat to the West.
Grant Wyeth is researcher at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne, and a columnist for the Diplomat. You can follow him on Twitter @grantwyeth.