The long read: The traditional right is clinging on to power but its ideas are dead in the water
Conservatism is the dominant politics of the modern world. Even when rightwing parties are not in power, conservative ideas and policies set the shape of society and the economy. Ever since the transformative 1980s governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher with their new fusion of disruptive capitalism and social traditionalism the assumption in Britain, the US and far beyond has been that conservatism is the default setting of democratic politics.
Even when other parties have been in office, leaders such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton have continued with the conservative project of privatising the state and deregulating business. For decades, armies of rightwing activists with rich financial backers and many allies in the media have successfully spread and entrenched conservative ideas.
Many of conservatisms opponents have come to expect that, somehow, it will always prevail. Despite the spectacular failure of Theresa Mays premiership and the unpopularity of her divided party, the contest to succeed her is likely to dominate British politics this summer, as if the identity of the Tory leader is its weightiest matter. The Republican Donald Trump, despite the most consistently bad approval ratings of any modern US president, is widely thought to have a good chance of re-election. In todays otherwise unstable, fast-changing political world, conservatism has an air of permanence.
Yet this aura has led to an overconfidence about conservatisms underlying health. In Britain and the US, once the movements most fertile sources of ideas, voters, leaders and governments, a deep crisis of conservatism has been building since the end of the Reagan and Thatcher governments.It is a crisis of competence, of intellectual energy and coherence, of electoral effectiveness, and perhaps most serious of all of social relevance.
This crisis has often been obscured. The collapse of Soviet communism in the 80s, the apparent triumph of capitalism during the 90s, the western lefts own splits, dilemmas and failures, and the ongoing surge of rightwing populism have all helped maintain conservatisms surface confidence. Meanwhile, the rightwing medias fierce, enduring faith in the ever-more distant politics of Thatcher and Reagan has helped delay the moment of recognition that those politics have grown obsolete. The right is still winning elections, from India to the European parliament, but transatlantic conservatism as we have known it since the 80s pro-capitalist, anti-government, controlled by the traditional parties of the right may be dying.
The signs of this crisis have been around for years, for those who cared to see them. In Britain, the Conservatives last won a solid general election majority 32 years ago, in Thatchers final landslide victory. The Republicans have won the popular vote only once in the last seven presidential elections: in 2004, in the afterglow of George W Bushs deceptive early successes in the Afghan and Iraq wars.
The numbers are haunting, says Charles Kesler, a leading conservative political scientist who teaches at Claremont McKenna College in California. The Republican party has been telling itself for decades that it is on the verge of becoming a majority party. It has long been a central claim of conservatism that it represents what Richard Nixon called the silent majority. Yet over recent decades, says Kesler, all those hopes have been disappointed.
Since the 90s, Britain and the US have steadily become more urban, multiracial, more connected to other countries, and, in some ways at least, fairer to women. Meanwhile, support for the Tories and the Republicans has grown ever more concentrated in towns and rural areas, and among white men. While Reagan and Thatcher looked forward as well as back, promising both to build a new world and to restore an old one as in Reagans famous 1984 campaign slogan Its morning again in America conservatism has since become increasingly imprisoned by nostalgia.
The Tory party has doubled down on [exploiting] older peoples feelings about the modern world, says Andrew Cooper, Conservative peer and co-founder of the polling and social research firm Populus. The party has got itself on the wrong side of a huge values divide. Across Britain, he says, people under 45 have an increasingly open, meaning liberal, worldview. This liberalism will not fade as they enter old age, he predicts a shift on which conservatism has long relied because it is largely pragmatic: a response to a more diverse and interdependent world.
In 2012, the Republican senator Lindsey Graham summed up conservatisms problem with modern demographics and social attitudes more bluntly, saying: Were not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.
In the UK, Conservative party membership has been dwindling for decades. At its peak, in the early 50s, it was 2.8 million. Last year, it was 124,000 and the party received twice as much money from dead members, through wills, as from the living. Katy Balls, political correspondent of the usually pro-Tory Spectator magazine, described the Tories last year as a zombie party.
Intellectually, the movement certainly seems barely alive. A sense of entropy hangs over the rightwing thinktanks that used to show conservative governments how to change society. These institutions have grown old together: the American Enterprise Institute was founded in 1938, the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1955, the Heritage Foundation in 1973, the Centre for Policy Studies in 1974, the Adam Smith Institute in 1977. Despite all the setbacks for their free-market project the financial crisis, the diminishing returns of capitalism for most people, the collapse of such once-lauded examples of outsourcing and deregulation as Enron and Carillion, the failures of privatised services ranging from trains to probation the thinktanks answer to every problem has remained essentially unchanged: lower taxes, less regulation, smaller government.