Liberals in the US are mourning the demise of the old-fashioned conservatism of the Republican Party aka the Grand Old Party (GOP). It is a rather surreal experience watching and reading liberal political commentators trying to figure out where that conservatism went — especially after former President Donald Trump began to truly stand the GOP on its head by adopting a toxic blend of right-wing populism.
CNN recently ran a special news report titled ‘A Radical Rebellion’. It traced the origins of the malaise plaguing the GOP. However, the malaise is being felt more by the liberals and the Democratic Party than it is by the GOP. The report suggests that the no-holds-barred populism that gripped the White House and the GOP during the Trump presidency, has its roots in the rhetoric of Republican firebrands such as the 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, and Newt Gingrich, who was the speaker of the US House of Representatives from 1995 till 1999.
These two never got close to being elected as president. But their tactics of throwing unsubstantiated accusations at opponents and having no concern about being judged as racist, misogynist, etc., were embraced by Trump, who succeeded in dragging this brand of politics into the mainstream.
The reason why we are seeing liberals investigating the changed nature of the GOP more is because very few within the GOP itself see it as a problem. James Downie, in the April 11, 2021 issue of The Washington Post, writes that “Republicans are stuck with Trump ball and chain.” The large number of votes that Trump received during the 2020 presidential elections — even though he lost — has made it difficult for the GOP to let go of his legacy, no matter how toxic.
A large number of liberals and a handful of Republicans are mourning the loss of the old conservatism of the GOP because it did not produce the levels of polarisation, antagonism and even a backlash against the American democratic system that Trump’s presidency triggered.
Political conservatism’s main promise is one of stability. But in countries like Pakistan it has also become an easy excuse for not doing what is required for a modern nation-state to evolve in a healthy manner
As a political idea, conservatism, at least in Europe, emerged as a reaction against the upheavals of the French Revolution in the late 18th century. In his 1790 pamphlet, Reflections on the Revolution in France, the Irish economist and philosopher Edmund Burke laid the foundations of Western political conservatism by severely critiquing the many anti-religion and anti-tradition excesses of the revolution.
Burke wrote that all that the revolution destroyed was not replaced by anything better, other than terror. To Burke, to be human was to inherit a culture whose moral values needed to be preserved and evolved, instead of being blindly destroyed. But conservatism itself needed to evolve when its main constituencies —the rural folk, landowners, the aristocracy and the clergy — began to shrink in the face of rising numbers of urban middle-classes. These classes were energised by the Industrial Revolution and ‘the Enlightenment’ which emphasised a rational and ‘scientific’ understanding of society, economics and politics.
Thus, by the early 20th century, political conservatism changed tack and begun to identify with nationalism. But because of this, much of it was usurped by totalitarian nationalist ideologies and regimes that emerged in various European countries. European conservatism rebounded after the end of World War II. But it had to adopt certain ‘moderate’ and liberal principles.
Conservatism in the US had a somewhat different trajectory. Till the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1932, conservatism in the US was largely associated with the Democratic Party. The GOP, at least between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, had a better record of initiating progressive social and economic policies. But under Roosevelt, the Democratic Party turned left. The turn was a means to address the crisis American capitalism found itself in post-1929’s Great Depression. The GOP, on the other hand, began to move to the right.
More or less, this alignment remained till the election of Trump. The GOP advocated less government expenditure on social projects even though, till the 1970s, it too was committed somewhat to retain welfare programs introduced by Roosevelt. Post-World War II, the GOP also became more supportive of an interventionist stance in international affairs. The Democrats supported more government spending on social programmes, liberal social values and the need to put human rights at the heart of America’s foreign relations. Indeed, Trump tried to bulldoze these, but he also sabotaged the GOP’s traditional conservatism with a populism that shook the very foundations of American democracy.
Those on the left and liberal sides often struggle to sustain ambitious economic and social programmes. This requires unpopular tax policies. However, it is even tougher for populism to actually follow up on what it promises. More than anything, populism is about fiery rhetoric and impulsive promises. These never come to fruition. And even when an attempt is made, the results are chaotic and disruptive — the two things classical conservatism abhorred, as did the GOP’s traditional conservatism.
Conservatism is sceptical of the inherent human goodness that liberalism believes in and wants to energise. Conservatism promises little so that it can keep expectations in check and retain a status quo that is working. Its main promise is to provide stability. But it can also become an excuse for an unwillingness to break new ground.
Take Pakistan as an example. Almost all governments since 1947 understood the Pakistani polity as being conservative. This is the standard understanding. Till the early 1970s, though, attempts were at least made to soften this perceived conservatism. After the 1970s, however, this conservatism became an excuse. No dictatorship or democratic regime was willing to push for legislation that is vital for a modern nation-state to evolve in a healthy manner.
Why wasn’t it done? Well, ‘because we are a conservative society’ became the standard reply. It is this perception that has not only made politicians and rulers shy away from introducing progressive legislation, but has done the opposite by introducing some entirely reactionary laws. Why? Well, because we are a conservative society.
The US too is largely considered to be a conservative society. So is China. Yet, this never stopped them from taking enough chances and become economic and scientific giants. Western conservatism of yore did not reject science and innovative economic ideas. But today it has been the bigger victim than liberalism of the recent outbreak of right-wing populism in Europe and the US.
In Pakistan, it is business as usual: we are not willing to push forward because, well, ‘we are a conservative society.’ So let’s just keep standing still.
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 13th, 2021