Analysis of the Western conservative spectrum in the 21st century

_ Erik Ahrens, editor-in-chief, konflikt Magazin. Frankfurt, 16 December 2021.

The concept of conservatism is claimed from many sides and extends from the middle of society to far into the political right. It is used just as often as a self-attribution as well as an external attribution and is sometimes even used as a polemic: “Why conservatives always lose” is particularly popular among the younger right as a slogan that creates an identity as opposed to “bourgeois” liberal conservatives. I take this as an opportunity to analyse conservatism in four forms.

Kick-off for debate

The Macedonian political scientist Dr. Nikola Gjorshoski provides a possible approach for an analysis of the conservative party spectrum in his research article “The ideological specifics of the variants of contemporary conservatism”.[1] There Gjorshoski suggests four categories to describe the current right-wing policy spectrum, which we will consider below. We adopt its very useful classification but consider the categories in a more differentiated manner.

Right conservatism: nation state, sovereignty, solidarity

Paternalistic conservatism (“paternal conservatism” or right-wing conservatism) places value on authority and the public protective and management function of the state, as well as on social equilibrium between the various classes. As a historical example, the author cites the English Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804 – 1881) with his cross-class “One Nation” maxim. As the American cousin of paternalistic conservatism, we can classify the “paleoconservatism” of the Irish-American author Patrick Buchanan (* 1938), who is named as a central thought leader by the popular conservative activist and commentator Nicholas J. Fuentes, among others.

The most obvious German historical example of this sovereign and socially oriented conservatism is chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who despite all the geopolitical competition associated a certain mutual recognition with Disraeli as well as a similar view of the central role of national solidarity in answering the social question. Contemporary German politicians who can be attributed to this tradition of conservative thought include Alexander Gauland and Björn Höcke from the AfD.

The British paternalistic conservatism of a Disraeli originally tried primarily on the basis of the already established unregulated Manchester capitalism to mitigate its greatest effects on the working class with social policy measures; US paleoconservatism, to which welfare state demands are largely alien, has strong roots in the self-organized solidarity tradition of the Catholic-Irish working class. The central difference between these Anglo-American traditions of “fatherly conservatism” and their German equivalent lies in the fact that the latter can refer to a tradition of state-controlled market economy that goes back to the early phase of industrialization and can thus also aggressively introduce welfare state demands without being involved to break one’s own conservative identity.

Neoliberal conservatism: deregulation, tax cuts, liberalization

Neoliberal conservatism, also known as libertarian conservatism, is at the opposite end of the conservative spectrum. Because of its overlap with non-conservative neoliberalism, this mindset has to be divided into two spheres: the economic sphere, in which it largely corresponds to libertarian demands for deregulation, state non-interference and tax cuts and the cultural sphere, in which it corresponds to liberalism breaks and wants to focus on conservative family and cultural policy. In the latter point it shows similarities to “fatherly” right-wing conservatism, which it is diametrically opposed to on key economic issues.

Central economic policy demands are the minimization of state control, the creation of a free and deregulated market as well as the liberalism of global free trade through the dismantling of protectionist barriers such as tariffs, import and export bans and capital and goods limits. Neoliberal conservatism is very critical of currencies like the euro due to its constitutive authorization by the ECB, but due to its focus on free world trade at the same time an internationally binding standard of value, which is often seen in gold, which is viewed as a “natural asset”. Examples of this variety of conservatism are the managing director of Degussa Goldhandel GmbH Markus Krall,[2] the now digital “Recherche D” and, to some extent, the German party of liberal-conservative reformers.

Neoconservatism: neoliberalism, free trade, interventionism

Neoconservatism differs from neoliberal conservatism primarily through its focus on geopolitics and military interventions. The main aim here is to disseminate structural features of Western societies such as parliamentary democracy, the moral and legal paradigm of human rights, the “open society”, free markets and the willingness to sign free trade agreements with military force. Examples of this form of interventionism can be found in the wars in Afghanistan (2001-2021), Iraq (2003 – today), Libya (2011 – today), Syria (2011 – today), Mali (2013 – 2014) or the blazing conflict in the Persian Gulf (2019 – today). Most of these interventions are and were driven by the Western military alliance under the leadership of the USA and served in the neoconservative sense of spreading “Western values” and their physical materialization in the form of military bases, regime changes and market openings.

In a broader sense, the conflicts in eastern Ukraine (2014 – today) and the ongoing competition between the USA and China, as well as between the Washington-Brussels axis and Russia, can also be classified in this variant of interventionism, with an increasing “conservative” appearance breaks away, insofar as the value arguments, since Barack Obama’s second term in office and especially since Joe Biden’s tenure, have increasingly been based on left-liberal values ​​such as LGBTQ tolerance and less, as was still widespread under George W. Bush, on a Western civilization mandate American leadership. Under George W. Bush in particular, the interventions in the Islamic area were sold to the American public at least as crusades (“crusades”) against Islam and a certain militarism was cultivated, reminiscent of national-authoritarian forms of government.

The incredible adaptability of neoliberal interventionism is shown, among other things, in the complete change in symbolic agitation and rhetoric away from the Christian-conservative and authoritarian appearance of George W. Bush to the left-liberal canon of values ​​of the Biden government, while roughly maintaining the policy of intervention – albeit by itself with the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan also indicates a change of course here.

Christian democracy: historical Catholicism, social partnership, changing values

The political scientist Gjorshoski understands Christian democracy as a special historical form of conservatism in countries with strong Catholic influences; In Germany in particular, the Center Party formed a people’s party of the Catholic minority (1880: 35.9 percent Catholics versus 62.6 percent Protestants)[3] with the Center Party, which played a central role in the Weimar Republic in particular and whose support base consisted of Catholic entrepreneurs, trade unions and farmers’ associations as well as the Catholic church and its media forerunner existed. In terms of its basic orientation and its claim to social partnership, traditional Christian democracy can in some cases be compared with right-wing conservatism, from which, however, particularly in Germany with its Catholic universalism and the resulting demarcation from Prussia, it differed greatly and was far less nationalistic.

With the post-war period and the strengthening of the CDU & CSU Union parties, the essence of German Christian democracy changed: It became non-denominational and at the same time won many former supporters of the right-wing interwar parties, who had now become politically homeless, to join its electorate. The political scientist Gjorshoski, who writes from a comparative international perspective, also credits Christian democracy with a much stronger adherence to fundamental conservative values, as existed in Eastern European Christian democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union (exemplified by the Polish PiS) Western Christian democratic parties, however, were gradually abandoned in the course of the secularization and liberalization of society. From our perspective, the German Union parties, in particular, can best be described as “structurally conservative” by clinging to the institutionalized political and economic structure; a conservative core can only be found at the margins (Friedrich Merz, Hans-Georg Maaßen) and more like a liberal conservatism there – a right-wing conservative stance on the contrary leads to social death in the CDU/CSU.

A “Christian democracy” in the original sense is therefore simply right-wing conservatism in a predominantly Catholic-conservative country. In contrast to right-wing conservatism, however, it lacks a set of values ​​that is independent of the denomination, which is why Christian democracy is also moving to the left with the secularization and liberalization of society. Compared to the German Center Party of the interwar period or the Union parties of the 1950s and 60s, today’s CDU can hardly be described as conservative; rather, corporate-oriented economic policy meets liberal social reform here.

Comparison

A comparison of the conservative trends shows how ambivalent the term is. This is also the reason why the right-wing political camp repeatedly calls for saying goodbye to this term and using other terms instead. In these understanding lies the correct realization that mere conservatism cannot be the answer to changes against which even the right-wingers of the past could not do anything. At the same time, however, it can be said that the concept of conservatism will never disappear because it expresses an essential characteristic of the political right in its core concept: the continuation of the grown realities of family, identity, and nation.

But it immediately becomes apparent that a large part of the so-called conservative spectrum is unable to maintain these inventory values ​​and, in some cases, does not even try to do so. American style neoconservatism even goes so far as to misuse it as a mere populist means to subjugate a conservative public with its interventionism, as it succeeded in mobilizing the southern population for the Iraq war, which was stylized as a crusade. We can also observe parallel developments in Germany when anti-national politicians suddenly speak of “vaccination patriotism” or appeal to the German sense of duty and honour when it comes to accepting Afghan refugees.

The only conservatism that lives up to its name in the sense that it can sustainably preserve family, identity and nation is consequently right-wing conservatism, which corresponds to the paternalistic conservativsm in English-language political science. A Christian democracy in a predominantly conservative-Catholic context can also take on right-wing conservative traits, however, due to secularization and liberalization, even in countries that used to be strictly Catholic, this is only a thing of the past. Liberal conservatism, on the other hand, shares some cultural values ​​with right-wing conservatism, but is entangled in a crippling contradiction: it wants to combat the result of unrestrained freedom by further liberalization, social liberalism with economic liberalism. The neoconservatism of American origin finally sounds liberal-conservative on the outside but can change its profile very quickly depending on the political situation – it is above all an instrumental ideology to mobilize conservative voter segments for politics against their own interests (e.g., US-interventions in the Middle East).

Conclusion

The political right cannot be satisfied with being conservative, because mere preservation would be like mere breathing or mere drinking of water: necessary, but not sufficient. A well-considered decision must be made as to what should actually be preserved – in the context of rights, the triad of family, identity and nation-state – and for what purpose and in which way this should be done. In addition, right-wing politics, like any other politics, must cultivate a progressive element because the world does not stand still and so do developments such as crypto currencies, e-mobility, digital forms of participation, the growing interest in environmental and nature conservation and the new realities in the relationship between the sexes Of course, “from the right” must be understood and addressed like the traditional peculiarities of the right.

In order to allow conservative values ​​to flow effectively and sustainably into social discourse, it is first necessary to clarify what is to be preserved, and then to embed the preserving stance in a comprehensive political program. From the various conservatisms analysed, the most appropriate for a political right is “paternalism” or right-wing conservatism, because with its focus on national sovereignty and balancing solidarity, it covers both vertical (between social classes) and horizontal (between nations) dimensions of political action. In this it overlaps strongly with the structure of right-wing populism, as it recently appeared as an example in the figure of Donald Trump.[4] Just as this temporarily served as a natural springboard for the “paleoconservative” right-wing base in the years 2016-2021, right-wing populism could also serve as a vehicle for right-conservative positions and as a tool for non-right conservatism in Europe.

Notes:

[1] Gjorshoski, N. (2016). The ideological specifics of the variants of contemporary conservatism. Journal of Liberty and International Affairs. URL: https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/bitstream/handle/document/47087/ssoar-jlibertyintaff-2016-1-gjorshoski-The_ideological_specifics_of_the.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y&lnkname=ssoar-jlibertyintaff-2016-1-gjorshoski-The_ideological_specifics_of_the.pdf

[2] Krall M. (2020). Die bürgerliche Revolution. Kopp Verlag. Rottenbutg am Neckar.

[3] Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (2021). Religion und Religiosität in Deutschland. URL: https://www.kas.de/en/web/europa/religion-und-religiositaet-in-deutschland

[4] Ahrens E. (2020). Linke Denker – Ernesto Laclau und der Populismus. konflikt Magazin. URL: https://konfliktmag.de/linke-denker-ernesto-laclau-und-der-populismus/

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