The Conservative Path Not Taken

When you point out to Republicans that most conservative parties in other countries in the developed world manage to keep their souls while accepting things like legalized abortion, same-sex marriage, modest limits on gun rights, and universal health coverage, they just intone “American exceptionalism” and change the subject. But playing off David Cameron’s smashing electoral victory last week, David Frum makes the more nuanced point that parties of the Right elsewhere are pretty damn conservative when it comes to some other issue-areas:

* The parties are all unapologetically nationalist—an especially important stance in the United Kingdom, whose sovereignty is endlessly infringed upon by the European Union. In particular, all advocate an immigration policy determined by the national interest, not the interest of would-be immigrants. The Cameron Conservatives have pledged to reduce net immigration below 100,000 people per year. Tony Abbott’s government [in Australia] has halted the kind of migration now convulsing Europe with a “no exceptions” policy against illegal immigration by boat. Canadian immigration policy is determined by a points system aimed at selecting migrants who will flourish economically in the country, with the result that Canadian immigrants—like U.S. immigrants before 1970 but not U.S. immigrants today—attain higher levels of education than the Canadian-born population.

* The parties are tough on terrorism, extremism, and international disorder. David Cameron has defined the security threat facing the U.K. as not only “violent extremism”—the Obama formulation—but all ideological movements that reject democracy and equal rights, “whether they are violent in their means or not.” And while making clear that the West has no quarrel with Islam and its believers, Cameron, unlike Obama, has been willing to state explicitly that the extremism that threatens Western democracies is, obviously, “Islamist extremism.”

In other words, U.S. conservatives don’t have to give up their nativist and neo-con tendencies or even the Islamophobic portion of their culture-war portfolio, to move along into the 21st century–but they do have to give up some other things:

Center-right parties in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have all made peace with government guarantees of healthcare for all. These conservatives do not abjectly defend the healthcare status quo; they attempt to open more space for competition and private initiative within the health sector. But they accept that universal health coverage in some form has joined old-age pensions and unemployment insurance in the armature of an advanced modern economy. In this, their American counterparts are the true outliers…..

These parties have updated for the 21st century their core message of respect for family, work, and community. None seek to police women’s sexual behavior or to impose restrictions on women’s reproductive choices. All have accepted gay equality, with Australia on the verge of a parliamentary vote to permit same-sex marriage. They are parties comfortable with racial inclusion and competitive with ethnic-minority voters—the Canadian Conservatives particularly so; people of Chinese origin are Canada’s second-largest non-white ethnic group, and in the country’s 2011 election, Canadian Conservatives won two-thirds of the vote among Canadians who speak Cantonese at home….

Unlike their U.S. counterparts, these conservatives don’t fetishize the music, fashion, or religious practices of some of their voters in a way that prevents them from reaching all of their potential voters….

[W]hat they all show their American counterparts is that the fear of a “tipping point” beyond which a state plunges into socialist dependency is utterly misplaced.

I think Frum has touched on a really, really raw nerve in this last observation that illustrates why U.S. conservatives aren’t going to take his advice (other than their tendency to blame everything other than their ideology for electoral setbacks, and to treat electoral victories as a sign they’ll never lose another election!). The rhetoric that leads Republicans to demonize “Obamacare” does indeed rely on a “tipping point” narrative that may well be the glue that unites the GOP’s libertarians and cultural conservatives: the former think we’re lurching into socialist serfdom, the latter that we’re plunging hellwards towards the Apocalypse. Important elements of both factions cannot get around race: the idea that the lesser breeds represented by Barack Obama are being seduced by elites also represented by Barack Obama to take over the country and the culture, in league with un-American forces abroad. And the urgency that lashes conservatives into political activism is the belief that the “tipping point” has already arrived and time for reversing it is running out.

Perhaps there is more of a constituency for Frum’s kind of conservativism–which we might could loosely call Rudy Guiliani conservatism, albeit with a less positive attitude towards the immigration policies of the last Bush administration–than you’d normally think. But some very powerful forces, financial and emotional, will resist any shift towards Canadian-style, British-style, or Australian-style conservatism, even as some conservatives in those countries worry their own leaders have become too “American.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.