US conservatives in crisis

11 November 2015

The frontrunners for the Republican nomination are symptomatic of their party's decline, argues Tom Switzer.

Image of Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore

Credit: Gage Skidmore

The right in the Anglo-sphere is in trouble. Last month, Stephen Harper's almost 10 years in power in Canada came to an end. In Britain, much to the chagrin of conservative columnists, re-elected Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has followed New Zealand's John Key along a more progressive path. Meanwhile, the replacement of Tony Abbott with the more liberal Malcolm Turnbull has led some commentators to proclaim a political realignment in Australia.

Nowhere is the crisis of conservatism more evident than in the US. At this stage – and remember we are one year out from the presidential election – the clear frontrunners for the Republican nomination are Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Neither is a political adult: they have never held elective office and they are drawn to controversy as flies are to rotting fruit. Yet, between them, the celebrity billionaire and retired neurosurgeon command about a 40-point polling lead in the party's primary field of a dozen more compelling candidates.

Why? Because, as the distinguished Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson told me on Radio National they say what the party's angry conservative base wants to hear – from absolute support for gun rights to hostile opposition to immigration. Trump has warned that Mexico is "sending" criminals, including "rapists", to the US, while Carson has said the Holocaust "would have been greatly diminished" if German citizens had not been disarmed by the Nazi regime.

The rise of Trump and Carson highlights the crisis of American conservatism. It also suggests a kind of mass death wish. If the party nominates Trump, Carson or Texas senator Ted Cruz (a more polished version of these "outsiders"), the consequences would be dire. Republicans would alienate independents and moderates in a general election, not to mention a fast-growing bloc of Latino voters. And Democrats would win a third term in the White House for the first time since the 1940s.

Not that Republicans are in complete disarray. The GOP controls both houses of the US Congress, 32 governorships out of 50 states and more than two-thirds of all state legislative chambers.

It's just that American conservatism betrays symptoms of a movement in decline. It lacks a national leader. It has lost its capacity for philosophical reflection. And it is riven by factionalism that blows up into far-right-wing primary challenges to incumbent Republicans who fail ideological litmus tests.

No longer is ‘liberal’ a dirty word in US politics
Tom Switzer, United States Studies Centre

A crisis of confidence makes matters worse. Trump's appeal is rooted in a pledge to "make America great again" – a sense that the US is in decline, and that, to reverse its descent into an assisted-living facility for retired great powers, it is necessary to take drastic measures, such as deporting 11 million Mexican immigrants and scrapping any trade deals with developing nations.

By embracing a doctrinal agenda on social issues, moreover, many Republicans are also out of touch with an electorate that is increasingly more progressive. Same-sex marriage, for example, was a fringe issue a decade ago, but it has acquired clear majority support, including among many young Republicans. No longer is "liberal" a dirty word in US politics.

The fundamentals are also working against the American right. Take the path to the White House. In every presidential election since 1992, 18 states and the District of Columbia have supported Democrats for a total of 242 electoral-college votes – just 28 short of the required 270 votes a candidate needs in order to win a general election. By contrast, Republicans have won 13 states, which amount to just 102 electoral votes.

Another challenge is demography. The minority share of the national vote (Latino, Asian and African-Americans) is steadily rising; and these voters are increasingly voting Democrat. Republicans are more likely to be whiter and older voters, and their share of the national vote is declining.

In the Anglo-sphere, notwithstanding Harper's recent loss, centre-right parties remain attractive at the national level. Leaders adapt to changing circumstances and parties reinvent themselves as the centre of political gravity shifts. Turnbull is no John Howard, nor is Cameron a modern-day Thatcherite.

Since Edmund Burke in the 18th century, conservatism has embodied a general attitude towards order and change, defending the former and constraining the latter. In recent decades, right-leaning parties in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Britain have embraced economic change and legislated free-market reforms, but they have done so with a healthy dose of pragmatism. 

What has been called conservatism in the United States, especially since Newt Gingrich's "conservative revolutionaries" took control of Congress in 1994, is very different: a growing paranoia about government (Carson has compared President Barack Obama's health laws to slavery) and a lack of awareness that radical change is fraught with the danger of unintended consequences (think Iraq in 2003).

The upshot is that in this age of political polarisation, a large group of right-wing insurgents all too often blames not just Obama and Democrats, but the "Republican establishment" for the United States' problems.

Trump and Carson represent one outlet for this outrage; tea-party ideologues in Congress are another. And they are aided and abetted by noisy talk-radio shock jocks (Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham​), cable television talking heads (Bill O'Reilly​, Sean Hannity​) and various right-wing political action committees (Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity) whose fundraising depends on provoking perpetual right-wing anger.

All these groups are more interested in doling out the ideological red meat to conservative grassroots than in setting out a governing agenda in the national interest. They also represent disorder, dysfunction and disaster. No wonder Hillary Clinton remains the favourite to win next year's presidential election.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre. This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.


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