Image: via Tyler Merbler, Wikimedia Commons.
Across the Western world in the past few years there has been a political trend toward the radicalization of once-mainstream conservative political parties. Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party and the presidency in 2016 pushed the party to the far reaches of the right. His subsequent defeat in 2020 has if anything accelerated its radicalization, to be manifested in 2024 through a Trump redux campaign or the candidacy of a Trump-like radical such as Ron DeSantis. In Britain, the 2016 Brexit referendum precipitated the transformation of the Conservative Party into a weirdly Jacobin-like plebiscitary vehicle to enforce the popular will on the resistant institutions of British life. In Italy and France, mainstream conservative parties have been shunted aside altogether by more radical far-right parties: the neofascist Brothers of Italy, now in office, and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. Even social-democratic Sweden has seen the far-right racist Sweden Democrats eclipse mainstream conservatives as the second largest party.
And in Canada, a caucus coup ousted the would-be centrist Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, replaced by Pierre Poilievre on a platform far to the right of any previous Conservative iteration, with massive grassroots support. In the heartland of Canadian conservatism, the very conservative Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was pushed out in favour of the most radically right-wing premier Canada has ever seen, Danielle Smith.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan turned the Republican Party rightward, as did Margaret Thatcher with the Conservative Party in the U.K. Thatcherism and Reaganism, as economic doctrines, replaced the tacit postwar social contract between capital and labour with a new class war from above, the confrontational enforcement of neoliberalism. Even after Reagan and Thatcher went out of office, neoliberalism was largely accepted by the Bill Clinton Democrats and Tony Blair’s “New Labour.”
But if triumphant economically, the new conservatism faltered on what had been its second front – the culture wars launched during the Reagan years. At the end of the millennium, both the United States and Britain seemed on a cultural trajectory in which issues surrounding race, gender and sexual preference were increasingly legitimate elements of broad progressive social trends that provided weakening support for social conservative policies.
Out of power, and marginalized on the cultural front, conservatives grew increasingly discontented and fractious. Increasing polarization of the two U.S. parties was the result, a tendency that has accelerated in the 21st century to reach levels not seen since the years leading up to the Civil War in the mid-19th century. With the election and reelection of a Black Democrat as president, the deep racism of America, from its very foundation through Civil War and the racial violence of the late 20th century, revived the culture wars of the recent past, encouraging a generalized backlash against progressive social change on all fronts. In the Trump era, this became central to the Republican philosophy.
Ironically, as the culture wars revived, the post-Reagan neoliberal economic consensus was deteriorating, as a result initially of the financial crash of 2008 and subsequent Great Recession, and then of the global pandemic. Throw in the looming climate crisis underlined by the increasing incidence of extreme weather catastrophes, and it became clear that the simplistic policy prescriptions of the neoliberal consensus were no longer making sense. After having been shunted to the margins by triumphant and largely uncontrolled capitalist globalization, states and governments were being called back into service to deal with unprecedented challenges that “free” markets and private corporations were incapable of meeting on their own.
Conservatives failed to articulate a creative renewal of Reaganomics, instead drifting into outright ideological incoherence. There was no “Trumponomics” to replace Reaganomics. Instead there was a mishmash of old-fashioned protectionism and yet more tax cuts for the superrich, delivered with bluster and bravado and with no evidence-based policy analysis.
Nor was the challenge to conservative shibboleths handled any more intelligently by conservatives outside the United States. When Liz Truss succeeded Boris Johnson as British prime minister, she brought down a minibudget that was undiluted 1980s Thatcherism, with massive tax cuts for the wealthy even as U.K. inflation reached double-digit levels. Thatcher-like, Truss had instructed the United Nations that her “trickle-down” economic plan was the model that everyone else should follow. Instead her plan precipitated almost unanimous shock and outrage, within Britain and in international financial markets, which reeled at the dire implications. As the former Labour leader Ed Miliband put it, “Tories put their trust in markets, but markets have no trust in the Tories.” What had worked for Thatcher in the 1980s was a prescription for disaster in the 2020s. Truss was forced into a humiliating about-face and retreat within days of her minibudget, and then into resignation after a scant few weeks in office.
The incoherence of radicalized conservative economic doctrine should have provided the democratic left with a golden opportunity to develop an attractive progressive economic alternative in tune with the challenges of the 21st century. It has failed to do so. Instead of an emergent new economic paradigm, Western countries contend with conservative incoherence on one hand and, on the other, mildly left-centre regimes like the Biden administration or the Trudeau Liberals, governments that are not conservative but present no clearly articulated ideological alternative.
To paraphrase Yeats’s “Second Coming,” the worst among conservatives, with their wild and jumbled ranting, “are full of passionate intensity,” while the centre-left best “lack all conviction.” There is a reason for this, and it is associated with the revived culture wars.
Neoliberalism always lacked one crucial component of a truly popular movement: passion, as opposed to interest. Neoliberalism regards people as homo economicus, producers and consumers of goods and services. Its emphasis on the free market as the most efficient allocator of resources is based on a Benthamite calculation of the greatest good for the greatest number – so long as the “good” is defined strictly in material terms. Yet the secret of the success of both Reaganism and Thatcherism lay in access to something beyond pure neoliberalism: nationalism. Reagan whipped up American patriotism around a renewed Cold War, while Thatcher seized on the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands to launch a jingoistic little war on the far side of the earth that got her reelected.
The Trump phenomenon was fuelled by the raw emotion of white male working-class racial resentment and the faux nostalgia of “Make America Great Again,” with fundamentalist religious fervour a driving force. By 2022 a tribalized Supreme Court put in place by Trump had scrapped Roe v. Wade and red states were launching a full-scale onslaught on abortion and women’s rights. Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale had gone from sci-fi political dystopia to Republican agenda in a breathtakingly short time. In the U.K., the radicalized Tory party rode a wave of English nationalism to detach Britain from the European Union. It remains to be seen how the emotions aroused by nationalism and religion can be sustained – and how, in the United States, they can be managed and contained without erupting into civil disorder. But the economic failings of radicalized conservatism must be balanced against the evident positives drawn from the wells of national and religious passions.
All the more so when liberal and social democratic forces have singularly failed to gain any purchase over the symbols of God and Nation, partly out of understandable aversion to their reactionary implications, but also partly from a deeper failure to build a progressive paradigm that could tap into the potential for social solidarity inherent in collective aspiration. Liberals and social democrats, as much as neoliberals, have learned to treat people primarily as consumers rather than as citizens. Radicalized conservatives have a perverse grasp of the political potential of looking beyond homo economicus.
Make no mistake, it is a perverse grasp, and fundamentally undemocratic. Populist nationalism posits a false idea of the people as a monolith (the “real” people), consigning opponents to illegitimacy. The people are victimized by liberal elites who intend to “replace” them with undeserving minorities and immigrants. When radicalized conservatives fall short of electoral success, as when Trump loses to Biden, the answer is to deny the very possibility that the People could reject their Tribune. Mendacious mythology of the “stolen election” has seized hold of the Republican Party, two thirds of whose supporters believe, without a shred of evidence, that Trump won the 2020 election.
Radicalized conservatism threatens the fundamental institutions and processes of democratic politics. The congressional inquiry into the January 6, 2021, invasion of the U.S. Capitol and the attempt by defeated presidential candidate Donald Trump to overturn the clear result of the 2020 election by violent insurrection has cast a spotlight on this sinister dimension of the new conservatism.
Democracies have formal constitutions, but crucially they also have what might be called unwritten rules that make democratic politics viable and sustainable. Among these are the rule of law (loyalty to the constitution overrides loyalty to particular officeholders), respect for the institutions and processes of government even when those you disagree with have won office by election, recognition that rights always involve matching obligations, and trust in one’s fellow citizens that political differences will never undermine the common good of the polity as a whole. A key test for these democratic preconditions comes when voters decide on a change in government. A peaceful, orderly and lawful transfer of office and power from one party to another indicates a healthy democracy.
This is precisely what January 6 called into question. Some see the rising spectre of a new civil war, remembering that the Civil War of the 1860s was brought on when the southern slave states refused to recognize the election of Abraham Lincoln. An actual civil war may be a stretch, but its very plausibility indicates how far radicalized conservatism has travelled from its roots. Once conservatives were the guardians of inherited institutions and tradition; now they have become disrupters and wreckers. Once conservatives warned of the threat posed by left-wing ideology; now zealous, humourless ideologues congregate on the right of the spectrum.
Canada had its own January 6 moment when the so-called “Freedom Convoys” blockaded the Canada-U.S. border and occupied the centre of the national capital for three weeks. Among their demands was that the Liberal government be removed from office and replaced by a coalition of opposition parties and convoy leaders, a clearly insurrectionary proposition. Pierre Poilievre has vociferously and uncritically backed the convoys, even marched with them, linking his promises to “free” Canadians with the “freedom” slogan of the protesters.
On their own, the January 6 attackers and the Freedom Convoys amounted to little more than semi-organized rabbles. When supported by one of the two leading mainstream political parties, they become extremely dangerous forces threatening the democratic system itself. There is a chilling historical analogy that should be borne in mind. The democratic German Weimar Republic collapsed in 1933 when Weimar conservative parties made the fateful decision to call Adolf Hitler to the Chancellery on the tragically mistaken notion that they could control the Nazi Party’s violent street power for their own conservative ends. Instead of riding the tiger they ended up inside.
This is not to say that either a Trump America or a Poilievre Canada will result in a 21st-century fascism. It is to say that when radicalized conservative parties play with violent, insurrectionary forces outside the parliamentary gates, the very foundations of democratic politics are threatened.