To most Americans, “conservative” is interchangeable with “Republican Party.” After all, the GOP has usually been the more conservative side of a two-party system for a century. We also tend to understand who a conservative is based on the root of the word: someone who is cautious and respects the status quo, or, put more strongly, someone who is resistant to change.
But the term has philosophical roots, too, separate from the party. Political parties are fundraising organizations attached to a policy platform. Over time, platforms change. The Republican Party has been around more than 160 years and has changed directions many times, as has the Democratic Party. At its founding, the GOP was abolitionist (a radical position at the time), pro-Union (that is, for “big” government over states’ rights) and for the expansion of individual rights. The GOP became firmly conservative only in the 20th century.
From a European perspective, however, both U.S. parties have been conservative since World War II (that is, both are on the right end of the spectrum of most modern parliamentary democracies), and at the same time, both parties have always been liberal, as inheritors of Enlightenment notions of citizens’ rights, individual liberty and representative government.
But gradual shifts in the GOP over the last two or three decades that culminated in Donald Trump’s election in 2016 have changed all that. The GOP is no longer a conservative party in any meaningful way. It is instead something else, and it needs a more accurate description.
Why should we care what European political philosophy has to say about U.S. politics? Because our politics arose out of that philosophy, and going back to those roots brings clarity.
Most knowledgeable philosophical conservatives today will tell you how unhappy they are with how far the Republican Party has drifted. Some prominent conservatives leaned toward Democrats in the 2000s, such as Catholic conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan, and more have become never-Trumpers, including former Republican strategist Ana Navarro. This is because the GOP of Trump, House leader Paul Ryan and Senate leader Mitch McConnell has become a radical right. That may sound like a contradiction, since “radical” is usually shorthand for the far left, but the seeming contradiction demonstrates how restrictive our notion of the right-left political spectrum really is, and that’s perhaps the most important thing we can learn from looking to our European roots.
The Battle Between Reason And Unreason
The best way to understand these roots is a historical survey of the “long 19th century” (from the French Revolution to World War I) and the “short 20th century” (encompassing both world wars and the Cold War), descriptions coined by historian Eric Hobsbawm. When I teach this period, I frame it somewhat facetiously as an “epic battle between reason and unreason.” In other words, the Enlightenment posed a question to Europe: What happens if we use reason (over tradition or religion) to govern ourselves? Of course, the debate was rarely that stark. Few rationalists were purely so, while proponents of the old ways pointed out how much rationality there was in tradition. Rather, I try to show students how modern European history has been a struggle between these impulses within movements as well as in opposition to each other.
The French Revolution can be seen as a rousing crescendo in the symphony of support for the rationalization of government and society in Europe. It established the notion of rights, individual liberties and the primacy of the secular state. From there we can draw a line to today’s liberal democracies. Both major U.S. parties and most of postwar Western politics have been in this tradition until very recently. But the two centuries following the French Revolution were filled with jockeying over people’s reactions to the cataclysmic event, from “reactionaries” who wanted to turn back the clock to centrists who wanted to keep things as defined in the revolution’s early stage to Jacobins, the leftist radicals who wanted to push rights still further by any means necessary.
This is where our right-left spectrum comes from: three broad categories of responses to the French Revolution. Most of modern Western politics is descended from the center-left responses that accepted rights as “natural” and argued only about who was included, the best ways to translate political rights into liberties and to what degree. On this spectrum, any “conservatism” within a democracy is already a centrist position because it accepts rights and representation, though in a more limited way.
The far-right position in the 19th century was known as “Reaction.” Reactionary religious philosophers like Joseph de Maistre prioritized God’s law over man’s, arguably leaning toward theocracy. Reactionary statesmen like Klemens von Metternich primarily wanted to save or return to traditional power structures and were in this sense “conservative,” though their violent attempts to put down any perceived threat could be described as more paranoid than cautious. Konstantin Pobedonostsev — a statesman and tutor of the future Alexander III, Russia’s most reactionary tsar — made strong rational criticisms of democracy. He warned that representative government diluted power and that the press — not the people or their representatives, who have little say in what writers and editors do — had the power to make or break a democratic society. (Some members of America’s alt-right profess allegiance toward Reaction, though it can be hard to tell when they are sincere and when they are praising autocracy for the shock value.)
As monarchies increasingly failed to stem the tide of Enlightenment secularism, Irish statesman Edmund Burke took de Maistre’s place as a figurehead for mainstream conservative philosophy. Coming from the British tradition, he accepted rights and representation but wanted them limited to a (wealthy white male) few. This was an easier position to accept in a monarchy that was already limited and had inherited the liberal philosophy of John Locke. Burke was appalled by the “vulgarity” of the French Revolution and yet supported American independence. Though Burke’s name is most strongly associated with conservatism to this day, he was a contradictory figure who does not best exemplify the post-Revolution conservatism that dominated propertied classes in Europe and North America in the 19th century.
Most mainstream conservatives were ordinary people who enjoyed some wealth and social position, and didn’t question the systems they were born into. Their priority was to protect what they had.
Take the example of Russian provincial nobleman Andrei Chikhachev, who inherited serfs but recognized it as a system that couldn’t last. He worshiped knowledge, working to expand education for serfs, and he welcomed technological advances so long as they were introduced cautiously. Rather than fearing revolution like a reactionary, he pitied decadent, urbanized Westerners from a place of complacency with his own more orderly (and unequal) rural idyll. If Chikhachev had been born in Boston instead of rural Russia, he probably would have accepted representative government as unquestioningly as he did monarchy, because it was there. He could have been just as pious, just as cautious, just as uncritically patriotic in either system, as indeed most propertied white men were then, whether they lived in a rising democracy or a failing autocracy.
The right wing, in other words, is not one thing. As it has changed over time, it has also varied greatly in degree and emphasis, and in context. There are multiple philosophical sources that inform different streams of thought, many of which end up in surprising places. There is a clear continuity from even the most liberal conservatives to extreme reactionaries (as American political theorist Corey Robin stresses), but there is also a meaningful difference between acceptance of representative government and social change (even if regretfully, cynically or pragmatically) and violent, organized opposition to either.
The Right And the Radical
What can it mean to be both “right” (resistant to change) and “radical” (pursuing extreme change)?
One answer has to do with nationalism.
“Civic nationalism” is a liberal compromise that ties voting and citizenship to the nation and state order, as in the modern U.S. or Britain. “Ethnic nationalism,” in contrast, offers as natural and timeless something that was constructed in the middle of the 19th century. To build a tribal identity around ethnicity, language, history and religion — and use that identity to justify a state (as opposed to a monarchy justified by God) — was new.
Germany is a tragic example of ethnic nationalism run amok. As foreign minister of Prussia in the mid-19th century, Otto von Bismarck added the element of nationalism to the drive for power he inherited from Metternich. Bismarck asserted that German speakers, then spread across principalities and empires, should be united into one German state. He achieved the unification of what we know as Germany in 1871, then acquired overseas colonies and helped perpetuate an arms race with Britain, leading to World War I. The militarization of Germany’s government in this period, along with colonial atrocities, such as the Herero genocide, chillingly presaged the Holocaust before ever Adolf Hitler was rejected from art college.
Nationalism took its strong and ugly grip on Europe during a period of industrialization, expansion of middle classes and the entrenchment of large, bureaucratic governments that consolidated the principles of the French Revolution despite reactionary challenges (the “long 19th century”). Property-owning men increasingly wielded power and accumulated wealth through professions, business and government more than inheritance. But working classes and minorities saw their conditions deteriorate with few gains in political representation. Socialism, developing in response to industrialization, recognized that the liberal focus on rights and the free market was liberating only for some. This led to the idea that only economic equality could bring real liberty ― an idea that terrified the haves and intrigued the have-nots.
Nationalism emerged as a story that could unite whole populations regardless of vast disparities in wealth. And by defining “us,” nationalism also defines who is the “other,” providing someone to blame who is coincidentally not the people enjoying power and wealth. A system that was threatened by the poor and minorities told the poor to hate minorities, leaving minorities to fear the poor.
“A system that was threatened by the poor and minorities told the poor to hate minorities, leaving minorities to fear the poor.”
Nationalism called to our irrational impulses to assuage wrongs brought by (rational) technology and economics. By the 20th century, technocratic, largely secular nationalists used both pseudo-science and appeals to tradition to promote a genocidal agenda to aggrandize their own tribe (Nazism was one variant of fascism). Other fascists in Romania, Croatia, Portugal and elsewhere were explicitly religious and allied themselves wholly with the counter-Enlightenment, harnessing fears of change and difference to unite their nations. These “political religions” are another subtle variation on theocracy.
Where liberal democracy focuses on equal rights and opportunities for individuals to do what they want, short of imposing on others’ rights, socialism focuses on harnessing the productivity of all for the benefit of all, a collectivist perspective. Nationalism is also inherently collectivist because the nation is held above its component parts: the people. The core idea all fascists had in common was the supremacy of the nation over the lives or liberty of its citizens, as well as their nation’s superiority over others. The Nazi use of “socialist” in the full form of its party name, National Socialists, implied this collectivism but, by adding “national,” rejected everything else about socialism that made it socialism: its aim of economic equality without regard to divisions by ethnicity or religion. This appealed to voters who might have been tempted by the economic promise of socialism but recoiled from its rejection of their identity and traditional values.
Fascism And The Right-Wing Fringe
So, was fascism conservative? It had its roots in right-wing movements and appealed to counter-Enlightenment, reactionary values, albeit with a veneer of scientific-sounding rhetoric. It violently opposed both liberal democracy and socialism and strongly favored social hierarchy (inequality defined by race). But fascism was also radical because it embraced a strong bureaucratic government rather than inheritance as the basis for power and embraced technological progress (for its military and economic advantages). Therefore, it was not reactionary, unless we use that term so loosely it no longer defines the people it was coined to describe. But fascism also cannot be called “conservative” without losing that term’s original meaning, since it sought drastic changes by means so “vulgar” as to be unimaginable to conservatives like Burke. So fascism was both right-wing and radical.
In other words, the “left versus right” terms we use to describe our politics (and the political compass variation on it) fail to take into account one of the most important political debates of the 20th century: individualism versus collectivism, with nationalism as the key concept within that debate. Those of us born to the Anglo-American tradition often miss this because our experience is of the seemingly easy compromise position of civic nationalism.
But 2016 has forced Americans to pay attention to virulent nationalism and everything that goes with it. America has always had a resentful, white-supremacist nationalism based on hating the “other” and rejecting liberalism. What changed in 2016 is that a major party embraced this fringe, handed it power and is now refusing to check that power with anything more than a furrowed brow. Whether motivated by cynicism, greed, fear, delusion, helplessness or true belief, by its inaction the Republican Party has abandoned the last vestiges of a conservatism that is skeptical of change, values individual liberty and accepts the premise of representative government. This Republican Party is a radical right containing elements of theocracy (Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the evangelical base) and fascism (the extreme alt-right, who remain unrenounced by the president and who are represented in the White House by Chief Strategist Steve Bannon).
“Whether motivated by cynicism, greed, fear, delusion, helplessness or true belief, by its inaction the Republican Party has abandoned the last vestiges of a conservatism that is skeptical of change, values individual liberty and accepts the premise of representative government.”
Clearly the old schemas ― always imperfect ― cannot capture the tectonic shift in American politics institutionalized by Trump’s election. They are products of the Industrial Age, and so one way to begin mapping our new landscape is to consider how the current information revolution should be central to our understanding of today’s politics.
We could start by appropriating the name “Know-Nothings” for the modern Republican Party, since it’s characterized by its denial of reality (the original Know-Nothings, who took their name from their secrecy, were anti-immigrant nativists). This term highlights a peculiarly postmodern twist this radical right has put on the “big lie” propaganda that Hitler famously recommended. “Alternative facts” don’t just offer an unsubstantiated, and often absurd, narrative; they destabilize the idea that truth exists or matters. Political lying is nothing new, and even lying on this scale has precedents (though only in the worst regimes). Today’s right goes a step further to undermine the value of any knowledge, education or evidence, for a receptive audience that cares only whether the script plays to their team’s advantage or serves as a strike against the other team.
An Anti-Government Government
Liberals and conservatives, in the proper sense of those words, are now both uncomfortably covered by the shade of the never-Trump tent. Both accept the premise of rights and representative government, and watch in horror as norms are flouted daily. A party that used to represent limited government encroachment on individual lives moved ― through a religiously motivated drive to control women’s bodies ― into a new present, where the president, Cabinet and Congress explicitly oppose the government they run in every respect but their personal domination of it. Their voting base ― largely white and evangelical ― cheer the undermining of democracy through voting restrictions and boo defenses of traditional American values, such as freedom of the press, separation of church and state, the right to protest, and checks and balances. These elected officials and their base voters are not conservatives in any sense that doesn’t warp the term beyond recognition.
They are a radical right that recalls earlier radical right movements such as reactionaries, fascists and theocrats. But they are also a new phenomenon. They were elevated to power through hacking, bots, gerrymandering, voter suppression and PACs. The information revolution made it possible for the least knowledgeable and yet most extreme to push themselves to power to dismantle government from within, despite losing the popular vote and continuing strong popular opposition.
We will need new words to describe this, as it continues to develop in unpredictable ways. But one thing is sure: The familiar days of the “right” as cautious men in suits and the “left” as hairy hippies are over. The Cold War, with its comforting clichés about authoritarianism happening to other people, is over.
We’re living something else now.
Katherine Pickering Antonova is an associate professor of history at Queens College, City University of New York, and author of An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia and A Consumer’s Guide to Information: How to Avoid Losing Your Mind on the Internet.