Reinventing conservatism sounds like an oxymoron. How exactly would you reimagine a political philosophy that — as its intellectual father, Edmund Burke, expounded more than two centuries ago — largely consists of opposing radical reinventions?
And yet a drastic rethink is what center-right politicians in much of Europe urgently need. After all, their main standard-bearer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is on the way out, and youthful aspirants like former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz suddenly look like damaged goods.
Merkel’s Christian Democrats, in particular, are now writhing through two awkward internal debates. Who should become their new leader, following the drubbing they received in September’s election after the feckless candidacy of Armin Laschet? And, linked to that question, what should the CDU stand for?
At first blush, the causes for the conservatives’ woes may seem to be personal. In Germany, Laschet ran a feeble campaign. In Austria, Kurz stands accused of corruption, which he denies. In Italy, the center-right’s long-running travails are hard to explain without the antics, foibles and sleaze of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
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And yet, there are also fundamental forces at work. As western societies become more secular, religious affiliations (the C in CDU, for example) are losing their grip on voters. And as cosmopolitanism, immigration, feminism and other trends change societies, the counter-reaction is channeled most convincingly not by the conservative center but by the populist or authoritarian far right, as embodied by the likes of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Conservatives therefore find themselves in an uncomfortable no-man’s-land between these fronts. Some, like Merkel, try to embody pragmatism, competence and moderation. But that often looks like woolly and content-free centrism — Merkel’s German critics have for years been debating whether she can even be considered conservative at all. Others, like Kurz, flirt with the populist fringe, which bears its own risks.
Nor is climate change — the biggest political challenge of the coming generations — an obviously good fit for conservatives. Yes, the late British philosopher Roger Scruton argued that “conservatism and conservation” naturally belong together. But today’s Greens see that argument more as an etymological pun than a policy platform. Many voters of the Greta Thunberg generation yearn for big and radical answers to what they see as an existential threat.
If conservatism is anything, however, it’s skepticism about big and radical answers. This was expressed most persuasively by Burke, the British philosopher who was to conservatism what John Stuart Mill would later be to liberalism or Karl Marx to socialism.
Writing in 1790 when the continent’s progressives were still starry-eyed about the French Revolution as an apparent expression of the Enlightenment and human reason, Burke instead predicted that it would end in blood and tyranny. Within a few years, the Jacobins sent thousands to the guillotine, and before long Napoleon took over. As the late Christopher Hitchens put it, Burke grasped that “revolutions devour their own children and turn into their own opposites.”
That doesn’t mean that Burke or other conservatives oppose reform or progress as such. On the contrary, he thought that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” But they fear sudden ruptures, including big reforms that come out of the utopian — and to conservatives, arrogant — visions of intellectuals or politicians. Burkean change is instead gradual and accommodates the accumulated wisdom of the past while correcting its follies.
This epistemological modesty puts conservatism at a disadvantage next to socialism and liberalism. Whereas the latter two are reasonably coherent ideologies, classical conservatism is more of an attitude — a “non-ideology,” as it’s been called.
Take something as basic as state planning. Socialists love it, because they deem it necessary for redistribution and social justice. Eco-socialist Greens also like it, to correct market failures and save the climate. Liberals — in the proper sense of the word, not its American contortion into love of “big government” and what not — reject planning as inimical to individual freedom. But Burkean conservatives, while sympathetic to the liberal view, would also reject liberalism’s categorical rejection. After all, if a plan is empirically shown to work, why not?
That said, there are genuine differences in worldview. Socialists see society primarily through the prism of class — the rich and the poor. Liberals see individuals yearning to be and stay free. Conservatives, meanwhile, emphasize the family and other organic communities.
This can make them seem paternalistic or excessively cautious. Merkel, for instance, long opposed same-sex marriage, until she cleared the path for a parliamentary vote that legalized it in 2017.
In the real world, where zeitgeist smashes into cultural and historical quirks, these labels get confusing. American founding fathers like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were definitely Burkean conservatives, with their fear of mob rule and such. But the modern G.O.P. with its anti-tax, small-government fixation looks to Burkeans more like liberalism or even radicalism, as did Thatcherism in the U.K. Trumpism has nothing to do with conservatism at all, and is probably mere thuggery.
The center-right parties of continental western Europe, moreover, are big-tent amalgamations of several traditions.
The German Christian Democrats, for example, certainly have a strong conservative streak. But they also include a pro-business wing that is best labeled liberal, and even an egalitarian legacy arising out of Catholic theology.
The big question is whether conservatives in all their stripes can give convincing answers to new problems. In principle, there shouldn’t be a contradiction between modernity and conservatism, progress and tradition, technology and values, the market and the climate. Bavarian conservatives, for example, have since 1998 used the compelling slogan “laptops and lederhosen,” and it’s often worked for them at the polls.
And yet the zeitgeist — as observed at this week’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, for example — seems to call for a different political style, one that is pragmatic and nonetheless also open to big and radical ideas. Too bad Edmund Burke isn’t around, because he was, ironically, quite good at having those.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”