Where Have the Conservatives Gone?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Conservatives are people politically who are anti-change, anti-reform, who want to preserve things as they are, or return to the way things used to be not so very long ago. Conservatives always represent the time just passed or the time being passed. In the age of the industrial revolution, the conservatives were agrarians who mourned the loss of pastoral life. When the progressive era came along, the conservatives were capitalists who pushed back against the unions and labour reform. Nowadays, however, the left no longer pushes new social programmes, new reforms, or new ideas. Today, right wing politicians like Paul Ryan and David Cameron are the ones supporting things like “welfare reform”, “NHS reform”, “social security reform”, “Medicare reform”, and other reform policies that would change the state structurally, altering elements of it that have been in place for in many cases well over half a century. There is nothing conservative about wanting to change these policies. Change is, inherently, anti-conservative. So where have the conservatives gone? That is today’s topic.

In reality, the left is now a conservative movement. In the United States, the only serious major reforms attempted by the Obama administration were health care reform (passed in watered down, debilitated form) and financial reform (same thing). The Labour Party in the UK passed a couple notable reforms early in its time in office (minimum wage, devolution), but otherwise only made changes the Conservative Party in Britain would have also been happy to make (university tuition fees, light touch financial regulation, higher state spending during the boom years). More and more left wing parties find themselves not innovating but opposing the innovations of the right.

The right wing has come up with huge sweeping reforms, proposing school and medical vouchers, changing the way welfare and entitlements work, privatisation, legalising new financial services, and on and on and on. If you read the Republican Party Platform, it’s chalk full of reforms. Mitt Romney might as well have Obama’s 2008 slogan, “Change” for himself. In contrast, the Democratic Party Platform has very few new ideas or policies at all, and mostly defends the status quo. Even seemingly new policies like Obama’s stimulus package were based on Keynesian economic principles that have been around since before World War II. Keynesian economics were standard operating procedure in the fifties and sixties. It is the left these days that harkens back to the economic policies of the past, when inequality was lower and we were fighting the “war on poverty” with things like the square deal, the new deal, and the great society. Now the left settles for preventing the right from shrinking the state further as best it can–it resists the right’s changes without proposing changes of its own. It is conservative of the economic policies of FDR and his political descendants against the Reagan Revolution. Just look at that phrase, “Reagan Revolution”. What sort of conservative party embraces the world “revolution”?

It has fallen to the left to be the sceptics of change who point out the flaws and dangers in the reforms proposed by others. The left defends the withered, decaying welfare state. Sure, the left may still be progressive on issues like gay marriage or abortion rights, and the right wing parties still occupy the conservative positions on those issues, but the social issues are minor and peripheral next to the fundamental questions of economic distributive justice.

Now, one might be quick to point out that the right’s reforms are not particularly good, that they move us back towards the policy agenda pre-FDR and pre-Attlee rather than forwards, and this may very well be so. But if this is so, the right is now trying to move society backwards two developmental phases instead of one. Whereas conservatives have traditionally been predominantly middle aged or elderly people extolling the virtues of the society in which they grew up, the right today is full of people who were never alive pre-FDR, who have no concept of what the pre-welfare state economy had to offer. It is the left that now desires to do things the way they were done 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 years ago. The right has spent the last thirty years trying to reconstruct periods older still–perhaps the twenties, or perhaps the gilded age of  the late nineteenth century.

Perhaps what we really have is the conservative left and the reactionary right, in which both sides pine for the past, but the left’s past is closer and more elements of it remain in the status quo, influencing the left toward preservation, while the right’s past is further off and requires more change to get back to.

In both cases, what we really have is an abdication by both sides of the political spectrum in all western countries from any desire to make forward progress, to create a future that is in any substantive way better than or different from generations past. It is perhaps the first time in western history that the political scene has been so stale and so without dynamism since before the industrial revolution, perhaps not without coincidence. Industry brings with it change in the economic facts of life and forces political policy to reform and reinvent itself. What we have seen is that not only in the United States, but in all western countries, and even in non-western countries, industrial activity is accounting for smaller and smaller shares of output:

Simultaneously, the rate of economic growth has been slowing:

Perhaps the decline in industry is contributing to a decline in growth, which inhibits progress and changes to our economy and society and consequently, creates a world in which everyone is a conservative of varying extreme. Perhaps instead of asking where the conservatives have gone, I should have asked the same question–but about the progressives.