In its final weeks, Donald Trump’s failed presidency sunk to previously unimaginable lows.
Even before the rioting on Capitol Hill, the first such action triggered by a sitting U.S. president, Trump became the first elected incumbent to lose re-election in nearly thirty years. In fact, he was only the fourth one since 1900, and the first one ever to fall short by more than seven million votes. Trump also became the sole head of state to be impeached twice.
What comes after the devastating Republican defeat, which is still denied by a majority of the party’s voters?
Analysts and commentators roughly fall into two camps:
(1) “Trumpism lives on”: Despite Trump’s abysmal record, some are proclaiming that the populist movement he created is in fact not dead. Some even see the man himself running for president again in 2024, keeping a chokehold on the seventy million who voted for him.
(2) “Back to old-line conservatism”: The alternative position is that Trump–and similar populist figures elsewhere–were a short-lived aberration. Soon, the story goes, conservatism is going revert to the Reagan/Bush blueprint, or a similarly “establishment friendly” variety.
We are convinced that both predictions are wrong.
In fact, Trump’s failure has not only killed populism but also buried conservatism as a whole.
Our chain of reasoning follows a three-step argument:
(1) Trump, as well as populists around the world following his blueprint, ushered in a permanent ninety-degree shift from “left vs right” political debate to “open vs closed”
(2) Trump’s historic defeat discredited the “closed” model for good, leaving the battlefield to be claimed by different versions of the “open” model, but certainly no longer the “left vs right” kind of argument
(3) In the wake of Trump, no version of “conservatism” remains that is both intellectually coherent and electorally relevant
Points (1) and (2) have been extensively covered elsewhere.
In short, the electorate no longer divides along economic lines (ie, “working class” vs “middle class”) but along sociographic segments–in particular, age, race and education. “Trumpism,” like populism elsewhere, appeals to the fastest shrinking societal segment–older white voters without a college degree. It is therefore consigned to electoral oblivion.
Point (3) deserves deeper analysis, though. We are going to examine what “conservatism” means in the first place, aiming to identify a coherent, electorally viable fallback position beyond Trumpism.
When The Economist deplored the death of conservatism at the hands of jingoistic populism, not many shed a tear. In fact, the world’s most trusted news source got its premise wrong: it weren’t populists like Trump that killed off conservatives’ glorified 1980s legacy. They didn’t even bury it. All they did was put fresh flowers on the grave.
To understand the demise of conservatism one might benefit from trying to grasp the nature of the beast. Voters and analysts alike are confused about what it means to be “conservative”. Much of the disarray is in fact nurtured by self-proclaimed conservatives for reasons of political expediency. But no matter which definition one may choose, conservatism won’t have much to offer–at least not in terms of clarity, relevance or future prospects.
As per the taxonomy below, the first distinction one needs to make is whether the term “conservative” shall be understood in a philosophical or a political context. Both realms offer two manifestations that illustrate distinct viewpoints even though they are often lumped together.
Through a philosophical lens, a conservative might be someone who is primarily concerned with maintaining the status quo (i.e. a “traditionalist”), or, according to The Economist, someone who prefers to moderate change through established institutions (i.e. an “institutionalist”). Both viewpoints are not mutually exclusive although each one does carry its own flavour.
In the political arena, however, a different understanding of “conservatism” prevails. In a Western context, an economic conservative is in favour of free market capitalism, relying on low taxes and limited government spending. A social conservative, however, is primarily concerned with proving the superiority of his nation, race, religion, as well as maintaining state authority.
We will show that the failure of conservatism is caused by a lack of clarity of its philosophical angles as well as divergence of its political axes.
We will duly cover each aspect in turn.
The modern era has witnessed ever accelerating change. Pick any 50-year period since 1500, anywhere in the world: colonisation, industrialisation and democratisation have reshaped societies from London to Luxor, from Berlin to Bangalore. This happened before we became aware of two even more recent booster rockets of change: globalisation and digitisation.
The accelerating rate of societal and political change is driven by exponential progress of technology. Society and politics barely keep pace with innovation. This implies that any desire to “conserve” things as they are leads to ever greater disappointment. Granted, it might be politically expedient to suggest that the inexorable momentum of change could be stopped, reversed or just slowed down, when it obviously cannot. Any attempt to preserve societies in aspic only deepens future disruption.
Let us look at an example from Europe. Since 1750, Germany and France have seen nine different political incarnations. On average, both countries collapse or change fundamentally every thirty years. And yet, both nations seem like anchors of stability compared to their eastern neighbours. A “traditionalist” in 1985 Moscow would have been a Stalinist. In 1995, a defender of the status quo would have been a free marketeer. By 2005, our “conservative” would have become an oligarchist, trying to maintain the privileges of a new billionaire class having emerged since the 1990s.
Even when limiting our analysis to the early 2020s, there is no universally accepted meaning of the term “traditionalist” or “conservative”. Today’s defender of the status quo in Havana would be an unrepentant communist. In Beijing, she would most likely to be a state capitalist. In Stockholm, a social democrat. In Tehran, a theocrat. You get the picture.
The “traditionalist” position is painfully dependent on its temporal and geographical context, subject to dramatic change, and therefore useless in terms of providing guidance for the future.
When confronted with their evident failure of “preventing” change, self-proclaimed conservatives occasionally respond that they are not opposed to change in principle, but rather want to “channel” or “moderate” it through “established institutions”. Using such vocabulary, advocates and apologists of conservatism aim to subliminally associate their cause with organisations of public life whose existence is generally not questioned, such as parliaments or courts of law.
But herein lies the rub: what does actually count as an “institution?” How about the Catholic church, for example? For some, it is a bedrock of community life, and thus, an institution. For others, it is an unaccountable gang of paedophiles. If that example is too pedestrian for you, consider the Ku Klux Klan: defenders of “original” Confederate culture or racist murderers? How about IBM–a timeless corporate IT giant or a dinosaur from the age of punch cards?
The problem with institutionalism is that everyone can call whatever they like an “institution”. Conversely, they may simply deny “institutional” status of organisations they don’t approve of. This is because there is no generally accepted threshold of when an entity becomes an “institution”. In an age of everyone and their dog launching their own social media groups, institutionalism is drowning in an ocean of arbitrariness.
The “institutionalist” position is therefore intellectually dishonest and unsuitable for similar reasons as the “traditionalist” view.
(3) Economic conservatism.
One would be hard pressed to identify any worldview that lost more credit during the past twenty years than economic conservatism. Its core ideas–deregulation, free trade, low taxes and modest government spending–were celebrated as having ended history in the early 1990s.
Most of those policies were retained or even extended when the Reagan/Thatcher era gave way to “third way” politics embodied by Clinton, Blair, Hu and Schroeder. Rebranded “free-market liberalism”, economic conservatism was seen as lacking a credible alternative.
Three financial crises later, younger voters, in particular, are drawn to septuagenarian socialists of the Sanders and Corbyn variety. Widespread perception of inequality has taken hold, even though a giant global middle class is making unprecedented gains in real income.
Many Western working class voters turned against free markets. The main driver behind their disenchantment is a growing lack of educational investment since the 1990s, resulting in lower average IQ scores, and hence, lower productivity growth across the Occident.
Nevertheless, it is remarkable that the strongest economic regions of the U.S. the UK, or France, for example, have swung away both from populism and free-market capitalism. Fast-growing city economies, in particular, have been among the first to turn their backs on Conservatives in the UK and Republicans in the U.S. alike.
One of the reasons for urban disenchantment with governments of the Johnsonian and Trumpian variety might be their abandonment of anchor principles of economic conservatism. Free trade and multilateral cooperation, for example, still hold sway in cities that benefit from them. Does this make cities more “conservative”? Most likely not.
Looking ahead, the contrast between subdued OECD growth and the rise of Asia in terms of infrastructure, education and economic output means that Western blue-collar voters might be feeling even more heat from global competitive pressure. Surprisingly, for some, this led to an embrace of…
…(4) Social conservatism.
If material gain is hard to come by, a certain type of voters seeks validation by other means. This is exploited by politicians calling themselves “social conservatives”. They do so by virtue of appealing to the imagined identities of “left behind” voters, such as nation, race, religion and gender.
Less charitably, these voters are referred to as RUMBAs: Racist, Uneducated, Misogynistic, Bigoted and Authoritarian. The key to understanding them probably lies in the second letter of the acronym: a lack of education often entails a limited exposure to social groups that are different from one’s own in terms of nationality, skin colour, background or creed. Especially in rural areas, this leads to demonisation of the “other” by exploiting their phobias.
Anti-science sentiment among socially conservative voters is particularly instructive. Not only do about a third of U.S. voters believe that the world has literally been created in seven days, they even consider their “knowledge” superior to “deluded” followers of Darwin in thrall of a global anti-religious conspiracy.
Voters of low educational achievement not only tend to underperform in emerging knowledge societies but also hold racist, sexist, religious and authoritarian attitudes more frequently than college educated voters. The same holds for a refusal to wear masks during the covid-19 pandemic.
However, social conservatism has probably seen its final flicker of relevance. The segments it appeals to are in decline both absolutely and relatively, although they tended to be among most researched demographic groups since 2016. With the page turned on Trump, it is time for the so-called “elite” of journalists, intellectuals and city dwellers to stop being afraid of “flyover country” and its archaic values.
Social conservatism, regardless of its variant (racist, sexist or biblical), is on its way out.
As of today, it is impossible to sketch out a potentially “winning” version of conservatism for the 2020s and beyond. While politics remains unpredictable (see Trump, Donald, and Brexit, UK), there is evidence for conservatism’s terminal decline, regardless of its particular flavour.
Traditionalism and institutionalism have revealed themselves as arbitrary and dishonest. Economic and social conservatism are in electoral decline, if not freefall.
Just in case another Reagan or Thatcher is out there, will they please stand up?