Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The great divide in Western conservatism

The Atlantic recently published an excellent piece by Professor Peter Beinart, discussing the divisions within the American Republican party over policy towards Russia. It makes a distinction between ‘ideological’ conservatives, primarily loyal to liberal-democratic values, and ‘civilizational’ conservatives, who prioritise the defence of Judeo-Christian culture and civilisation. The former, which include the likes of George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and John McCain, tend to be suspicious of Russia and other countries with authoritarian leaders, and desire to spread the liberal-democratic form of government around the world. The latter group, which contains figures like President-elect Donald Trump and his chief strategist Steve Bannon, are primarily interested in defending ‘Western’ culture and civilisation from external threats, chiefly ‘radical Islam’ (or Islam itself), and see Russia under Putin as an ally in this struggle.

Professor Beinart’s analysis can, I think, be expanded beyond the American Republican party to cover Western conservatism in general. Admittedly this is not a totally fresh perspective. It has long been argued that conservatives can be divided between populists and free-market liberals. Between ‘nationalists’ and ‘globalists’. This analysis may be somewhat simplistic, but it is also extremely useful.

All Western conservatives want to preserve and enhance Western civilisation. But there is a key disagreement on what constitutes the core of this civilisation. For ‘ideological’ conservatives, who were until quite recently the overwhelmingly dominant body, its liberal-democratic values. They attribute the success of Western nations to democratic institutions and practices, the rule of law and market economics. They also tend to believe, at least to some extent, that these values are potentially universal and exportable, and thus often favour an interventionist foreign policy. By contrast ‘civilizational’ conservatives define Western civilisation primarily in cultural terms, with Judeo-Christian values at its core. This is usually combined with a dose of nativist nationalism, and sometime (as in the case of Trump) with some focus on white identity politics. Civilizational conservatives tend to be much more suspicious of foreign influences, which could erode their countries Judeo-Christian values, and are correspondingly less interested in foreign interventions unless undertaken in naked self-interest.

Until quite recently ‘ideological’ conservatism was so dominant within the mainstream conservative movement, or its elite at any rate, that those who adhered to ‘civilizational’ conservatism could largely be ignored or dismissed as cranks and bigots. This is no longer the case. As someone who believes the core of Western civilisation is liberal-democratic values and institutions, making me an ‘ideological’ conservative, the revival of this rival breed of conservatism over the past couple of years has been something of a shock. Over the next few years, it could well become rather more than this.

The revival of ‘civilizational’ conservativism has many parents, and has been going on, partially hidden from view, for longer than a lot of people realise. For some time now a significant section of the public, in both Europe and America, have clearly been concerned with the level of cultural change taking place due to immigration. The ‘ideological’ right, like the centre-left, have largely failed to address this concern. Both are fundamentally pro-immigration, and less concerned about cultural change. For the left this is primarily due to internationalist principles and a belief in individual rights. For the ideological right immigration is seen as useful to business, and is supported on free market principles. In addition the ideological right belief that liberal-democratic values are universalist means they tend to believe that immigrant communities can be integrated into Western societies with relative ease.

The civilizational right disagree. They are suspicious of immigrant communities’ ability to assimilate into Judeo-Christian civilisation, and so tend to view substantial migrant flows as a threat. And like it or not, and on the whole I don’t, a significant proportion of the general public agrees with them. Meaning that views which were once on the fringe of conservatism have moved into the mainstream.

We can see the rise of ‘civilizational’ conservatism across the West. Most prominently it has recently triumphed in America, with the election of Donald Trump running on explicitly anti-Hispanic and Islamic immigration platform, and promising to promote Judeo-Christian culture (and attacking anything which seeks to undermine this as ‘political correctness’). The picture is similar in Europe. Civilizational conservative parties (usually described as ‘populists’) are gaining ground across the continent. In Eastern Europe they are already in Government in both Poland and Hungary, with the governments of both countries portraying the 2015 refugee surge from the Middle East as a threat to Christendom.

In Western Europe the situation is similar, with civilizational conservative parties topping polls in France, Austria and the Netherlands in recent months. Even in the UK civilizational conservatism has seen a resurgence, with some (though far from all) ‘Leave’ campaigners making explicit reference to it during the EU referendum debate. The focus on Turkey joining the EU for example, was clearly responding to concerns which go quite a bit beyond raw numbers. My personal experience when campaigning during the referendum was that, for a section of ‘Leave’ voters, the vote became a change to voice their displeasure at the level of cultural and demographic change which has taken place in the past 30-40 years. More free-market orientated ‘ideological’ conservatives would be mad to ignore this. 

In short ‘civilizational’ conservatism has made a strong resurgence in recent years, in response to immigration levels and associated cultural change, and could well grow further in the next few years. More traditional conservatives such as myself, as well as the left, need to recognise and acknowledge these concerns, or risk being swept away by them. There is no shortage of ideologies in the dustbin of history. We need to make sure ours isn’t next.

If you found this piece interesting you might like to follow me on Twitter @JBickertonUK. 

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