Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Conservative Amnesia

Center-right parties in Europe have forgotten how to be conservative, argues Jan-Werner Mueller, at Foreign Policy, "Europe Forgot What ‘Conservative’ Means":

Conventional wisdom has it that Europe’s social democrats are in terminal decline. In recent elections in Italy, Germany, and France, once proud left-wing mass parties have been reduced to at best getting a fifth of the vote. The obvious flip side of the mainstream left’s decline seems to be that populists but also the center-right are faring well. In fact, this picture is highly misleading. Center-right parties — European Christian democrats above all — face a real crisis. It is increasingly unclear what they stand for, and, unlike social democrats, they are in real danger of being replaced by the populist right.

Social democrats have been struggling because the “Third Way” pursued by leaders such as Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder during the late 1990s left them with an enormous credibility problem. They had not just tolerated but actively furthered finance capitalism; deregulation and increasing inequality happened under the watch of nominally left-wing governments, which today are perceived as having betrayed socialist ideals. But, importantly, it is not really in doubt what these ideals are. As the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn in last year’s British general elections demonstrated, the left can still do remarkably well, under two conditions: Social democrats have to restore their credibility and reorient public attention away from the one issue that is most likely to split its core constituency — immigration. Whether one likes Corbyn’s ideas or not, it is remarkable that a grassroots movement, Momentum, largely captured the Labour Party and effectively erased its toxic association with the widely discredited Blairism.

In somewhat similar fashion, Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been trying to assert an agenda offering better protection for workers and more accessible health care. While this month’s decision to re-enter a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats has temporarily obscured this reorientation, the SPD will likely continue to sharpen its profile as a distinctively left-wing party in government.

If one asks, by contrast, what exactly Europe’s center-right stands for today, most citizens will be unable to articulate an answer. This has partly to do with historical amnesia — including forgetfulness on the part of center-right leaders themselves. After World War II, Christian democrats dominated politics in Germany, Italy, and, to a lesser extent, France. The circumstances were uniquely favorable for such moderate center-right parties, which claimed a religious, though nonsectarian, inspiration. Fascism had discredited the nationalist right; the horrors of the midcentury made many Europeans look for moral certainty in religion; and in the context of the Cold War, Christian democrats presented themselves as quintessentially anti-communist actors. Not least, they suggested that there was an affinity between the materialism of classical liberalism on the one hand and communism on the other — and that they were the only parties that clearly rejected both in favor of communitarian values. It is virtually forgotten today that Christian democratic parties had strong progressive elements — even if one occasionally gets a glimpse of that past: Matteo Renzi, who resigned as leader of Italy’s major left-wing party this month, had actually started his political life as a Christian Democrat.

Above all, Christian democrats were the original architects of European integration. They deeply distrusted the nation-state; the fact that, in the 19th century, both the newly unified Italy and the Germany united by Otto von Bismarck had waged prolonged culture wars against Catholics was seared in their collective memory. European integration also chimed with a distinct Christian democratic approach to politics in general: the imperative to mediate among distinct identities and interests. Ultimately, this quest for compromise among different groups (and, in Europe, states) went back to Pope Leo XIII’s idea — directed against rising socialist parties — that capital and labor could work together for the benefit of all in a harmonious society. Christian democracy had been a creation to avoid both culture war and class conflict.

Little is left of these legacies today. Christian democrats and other center-right parties continue to be pragmatists, but it is often unclear what, other than the imperative to preserve power, animates them in the first place. The European Union’s three main presidents — of the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Council — are all Christian democrats. Yet none of them has advanced a bold vision for the union as a whole. All seem to take it for granted that citizens are wary of further integration. To be sure, this is the narrative right-wing populists push, but evidence from surveys is far more ambiguous.

Whether or not to adapt to right-wing populism constitutes the major strategic dilemma for Europe’s center-right today...
Actually, Christian Democrats today --- think Angela Merkel --- are basically leftists. Yeah, they better learn how to be conservative again, or be relegated to the dustbin of history. They need to conserve their own societies, for one thing. Sheesh.

But keep reading.