Argument

Europe Forgot What ‘Conservative’ Means

If the center-right doesn't reclaim its mission, it will soon be swallowed by populism.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at the European Commission in Brussels on February 23, 2018. (OLIVIER HOSLET/AFP/Getty Images)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at the European Commission in Brussels on February 23, 2018. (OLIVIER HOSLET/AFP/Getty Images)

Conventional wisdom has it that Europe’s social democrats are in terminal decline. In recent elections in Italy, Germany, and France, once proud left-wing mass parties have been reduced to at best getting a fifth of the vote. The obvious flip side of the mainstream left’s decline seems to be that populists but also the center-right are faring well. In fact, this picture is highly misleading. Center-right parties — European Christian democrats above all — face a real crisis. It is increasingly unclear what they stand for, and, unlike social democrats, they are in real danger of being replaced by the populist right.

Social democrats have been struggling because the “Third Way” pursued by leaders such as Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder during the late 1990s left them with an enormous credibility problem. They had not just tolerated but actively furthered finance capitalism; deregulation and increasing inequality happened under the watch of nominally left-wing governments, which today are perceived as having betrayed socialist ideals. But, importantly, it is not really in doubt what these ideals are. As the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn in last year’s British general elections demonstrated, the left can still do remarkably well, under two conditions: Social democrats have to restore their credibility and reorient public attention away from the one issue that is most likely to split its core constituency — immigration. Whether one likes Corbyn’s ideas or not, it is remarkable that a grassroots movement, Momentum, largely captured the Labour Party and effectively erased its toxic association with the widely discredited Blairism.

In somewhat similar fashion, Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been trying to assert an agenda offering better protection for workers and more accessible health care. While this month’s decision to re-enter a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats has temporarily obscured this reorientation, the SPD will likely continue to sharpen its profile as a distinctively left-wing party in government.

If one asks, by contrast, what exactly Europe’s center-right stands for today, most citizens will be unable to articulate an answer. This has partly to do with historical amnesia — including forgetfulness on the part of center-right leaders themselves. After World War II, Christian democrats dominated politics in Germany, Italy, and, to a lesser extent, France. The circumstances were uniquely favorable for such moderate center-right parties, which claimed a religious, though nonsectarian, inspiration. Fascism had discredited the nationalist right; the horrors of the midcentury made many Europeans look for moral certainty in religion; and in the context of the Cold War, Christian democrats presented themselves as quintessentially anti-communist actors. Not least, they suggested that there was an affinity between the materialism of classical liberalism on the one hand and communism on the other — and that they were the only parties that clearly rejected both in favor of communitarian values. It is virtually forgotten today that Christian democratic parties had strong progressive elements — even if one occasionally gets a glimpse of that past: Matteo Renzi, who resigned as leader of Italy’s major left-wing party this month, had actually started his political life as a Christian Democrat.

Above all, Christian democrats were the original architects of European integration. They deeply distrusted the nation-state; the fact that, in the 19th century, both the newly unified Italy and the Germany united by Otto von Bismarck had waged prolonged culture wars against Catholics was seared in their collective memory. European integration also chimed with a distinct Christian democratic approach to politics in general: the imperative to mediate among distinct identities and interests. Ultimately, this quest for compromise among different groups (and, in Europe, states) went back to Pope Leo XIII’s idea — directed against rising socialist parties — that capital and labor could work together for the benefit of all in a harmonious society. Christian democracy had been a creation to avoid both culture war and class conflict.

Little is left of these legacies today. Christian democrats and other center-right parties continue to be pragmatists, but it is often unclear what, other than the imperative to preserve power, animates them in the first place. The European Union’s three main presidents — of the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Council — are all Christian democrats. Yet none of them has advanced a bold vision for the union as a whole. All seem to take it for granted that citizens are wary of further integration. To be sure, this is the narrative right-wing populists push, but evidence from surveys is far more ambiguous.

Whether or not to adapt to right-wing populism constitutes the major strategic dilemma for Europe’s center-right today. What is widely considered the greatest success of populist forces until today — Brexit — was not brought about single-handedly by Nigel Farage, then-leader of the UK Independence Party. Farage crucially depended on the support of establishment conservatives such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Where centrist conservatives have refused to endorse a populist cause or candidate, the latter has simply not succeeded. Think of the 2016 Austrian presidential election. In the end, a self-declared “man of the people,” Norbert Hofer of the populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), had to concede defeat to a Green Party economics professor with dubious ethnic heritage — an unlikely winner, had it not been for the fact that many Christian democrats had clearly come out against Hofer.

Austria also illustrates the dangers of the second possible strategic response to populism. Many conservatives have thought that they could “contain” populism by including populist parties in government or by selectively drawing on the program of populist parties. When Christian democrat Wolfgang Schussel entered a coalition with the Freedom Party in 2000, he provoked an outcry across Europe. In office, the FPO exhibited constant infighting, incompetence, and even corruption. It duly crashed at the polls, and Schussel was celebrated as a Machiavelli of the Alpine Republic. There was just one problem: A few years on, the FPO regained its old strength. In fact, today it is back in government as the junior coalition partner of the Christian democrats.

Meanwhile, in Italy, the populist Lega (formerly Lega Nord) has already beaten Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (nominally a Christian democratic party), under whose wing it had been taken in the 1990s. While the National Front in France is currently going through a crisis, its ideas are clearly winning, as the new leader of the nominally centrist Republicans, Laurent Wauquiez, is shamelessly copying Marine Le Pen.

Containment is a strategy with uncertain outcomes, except for one: Selectively endorsing the policies of right-wing populists lends these policies respectability in the eyes of centrist voters. (“If Christian democrats are supporting it, it can’t be a far-right thing,” citizens are likely to tell themselves.) As a result, in countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, the whole political spectrum has shifted to the right on issues including immigration — but not because electorates consciously and comprehensively endorsed such a shift. The opportunism of the center can have fateful long-term consequences for political cultures as a whole.

And then there is collusion. Think of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, a regional party permanently allied with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Its leaders have effectively sheltered Europe’s most significant far-right politician, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, from outside criticism — even when he has been busy dismantling democracy and running hate campaigns against refugees, as well as against the Hungarian-born hedge fund manager and philanthropist George Soros. True, some German conservatives might actually admire Orban’s advocacy of “family values” and the vision of a distinctly Christian Europe — positions that have become alien to Merkel’s followers. But Orban’s portrayal of Brussels as an enemy of the European people is simply incompatible with traditional Christian democratic ideals of continental unity.

In the end, the reasons for collusion are utterly cynical. The German car industry keeps getting sweet deals from the Hungarian government, and the large delegation from Orban’s party in the European Parliament bolsters the faction of the European People’s Party, the supranational formation of the continent’s Christian democratic and center-right parties.

Cynicism is not new in politics. But the center-right’s ideological disorientation makes it all too likely that it will opt for one of the three fateful options in confronting far-right populists: outright collaboration, the idea of containment through copying, or collusion. Of course, there is nothing wrong with conservatives doing what social democrats are already attempting to do: sharpen their profile after long periods of centrist coalitions where the differences between parties have become blurred. But this does not have to mean opportunistic adaption to populists who will always claim that they and only they represent the “real people” or “the silent majority” in contrast to allegedly corrupt elites. This year, one of Merkel’s Bavarian allies, Alexander Dobrindt, called for a “conservative revolution” as a necessary answer to the supposed “left-wing revolution of the elites” — a call hard to comprehend, given that his own party has been in power in Berlin continuously since 2005. This kind of culture war rhetoric, and the opportunism of the mainstream more generally, is far from the pragmatism and desire for mediation that Christian democrats once exhibited. It is also far from the actual ideas for which the center-right once stood. What the great liberal intellectual Lionel Trilling once observed about U.S. conservatism — that it amounted to mere “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas” — is increasingly true of Europe’s center-right. If this trend continues, it spells bad news for the EU as a whole.

Jan-Werner Mueller is a professor of politics at Princeton University and also a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna. His latest book is What Is Populism?

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