Conservatives world over lose winning culture
Trump’s mid-term success obscures right-wing losses
What do the US mid-term elections tell us about the future of conservative politics, and the conservative cultural movement, in the US, in Britain, in Australia and in the West generally? They actually tell us a great deal, and mostly it’s pretty bad news.
But first, make no mistake. These results were a good outcome for Donald Trump. Elected by the mechanics of the electoral college with three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016, and relentlessly attacked and vilified by everyone but conservatives ever since, Trump proved that he is neither an aberration nor an illegitimate president.
This election definitively disproves the idea that an overwhelming majority of Americans bitterly oppose Trump and all his works, and that those who did vote for him are suffering grave buyer’s remorse. Trump nationalised the elections as far as possible, made himself the centre of the debate and held Republican losses in the House of Representatives to well within the normal mid-term setback for the party in office.
Much more spectacularly, he gained several Senate seats. When there is a big anti-incumbency vote the party in power typically loses Senate seats. All of this reflects Trump’s tactical agility and effective aggression. It also reflects the fact the Republicans, much more than the Liberals in Australia or the Conservatives in Britain, are very good at the technical side of electoral politics. They get out their votes, they raise money, they leave as little as possible to chance.
Politics is downstream of culture. The West’s political crisis of today reflects and is caused by the antecedent cultural crisis
But let’s try to take a couple of steps back. Trump’s tactical effectiveness and the Republicans’ technical virtuosity together tend to conceal the fact that, overall, the conservatives are losing in America and across the West.
Here is a central reality. Politics is downstream of culture. The West’s political crisis of today reflects and is caused by the antecedent cultural crisis. Whether you call them the culture wars or something else, conservatives are broadly losing the arguments about the meaning of life, the purpose of society, the manner of politics and the nature of the good life. As they lose the culture, they will surely in time lose the politics.
That doesn’t mean the Left will be forever triumphant. I have often quoted the insight of Ross Douthat: if you don’t like the religious Right, wait until you meet the non-religious Right. The sterility of the contemporary Left’s view of the human condition will lead to reaction. But that reaction may not come in the civilised tones of a Robert Menzies or a John Howard. It may have about it the tone of voice of an angry mob. It will be anger untempered by grace. It is most likely to be ultranationalist.
It is a grave mistake to demonise Trump, but there are traces of all this in Trump.
The old and previously enduring consensus of modern liberalism has broken down. On the Left it has been replaced by the febrile and insane, and ultimately destructive, doctrines of postmodernism. On the Right it is challenged by a pre-modern outlook, some of which is a retreat to tradition, some of which is an ugly indulgence of anger and an answer of minority identity politics with white identity politics.
How, specifically, do the US mid-term elections bear on this? The turnout was unusually high at 47 per cent, or about 110 million voters. In the Senate, perhaps 12 million more people voted for Democrats than for Republicans. Each state has an equal number of senators — two. So Wyoming, with fewer than 600,000, people has two senators — just like California, with 40 million people.
Rural people are more conservative than city people, so the Republicans get a lot more senators. Similarly, Democrats were defending many more “safe” Senate seats than were Republicans, so naturally their vote was higher.
However, in the House of Representatives, all 435 districts were up for election. Democrats won the popular vote by more than 7 per cent, or nearly eight million votes. Although a direct comparison is not strictly possible, to put it in its nearest Australian terms, that would mean a two-party-preferred vote for the Democrats of 53.5 per cent against 46.5 per cent for the Republicans. In Australia, this would produce a landslide for the Democrats.
The reason it doesn’t in the US is because state legislatures control federal congressional districts and fiercely gerrymander them. But in time this
gerrymander will work its way out of the system.
Australia, like the US and many Western societies, used to have a pro-rural gerrymander in its electoral system. This meant that conservatives were falsely reassured that they still had strong majority support while they had in fact lost it. In 1972 Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party won only eight seats from the Liberal-National coalition of Billy McMahon to secure a majority of 67 to 58, even though Whitlam’s Labor won 52.7 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote, a result that today would give a government a landslide.
Once British Conservatives enjoyed a similar advantage. Modern politics is wiping those old pro-rural and pro-conservative gerrymanders out of the system everywhere. Although the US Senate, like the Australian Senate, will always have a bias for small states, in time the Democratic voter majority will yield Democratic election victories.
Trump remains entirely competitive for the next presidential election in 2020, especially if the Democrats choose a left-wing candidate, but three critical midwest states that Trump won narrowly in 2016, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all went decisively Democrat. He could not possibly win re-election without those states.
Moreover, culturally as well as politically, the Republicans dominate only one big state, Texas. They narrowly won Florida but it’s always lineball. California and New York are profoundly and pervasively Democrat. So is Illinois mostly. These long-term trends are very difficult for Republicans.
In Australia, the conservative government of Scott Morrison is by no means defeated and will certainly fight hard, but in truth it probably has a 15 to 20 per cent chance of re-election. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, the most leftwing Labour leader in modern British history, with a long record of supporting communists and terrorists, stands on the brink of government, supported by an even more left-wing party in the Scottish Nationalists, whose chief mission is to tear apart the United Kingdom.
A decent, conservative woman, Theresa May, daughter of the manse, devoutly AngloCatholic, the picture of modest personal behaviour and irreproachable decency in her own life, is a dead woman walking, who at last year’s election transformed a safe majority government into a minority government forever teetering on the edge of the abyss.
Why are conservatives losing the big arguments in the West?
There are structural and strategic reasons, and tactical reasons. Consider a few.
All over the West, the Left is dedicated and systematic in capturing institutions. This is especially evident in big universities. Conservative academics have been all but cleaned out of humanities departments in mainstream universities. In Australia we have a Monty Python satire situation in which the Ramsay Foundation cannot give away tens of millions of dollars to a public university to teach a degree in Western civilisation, because Western civilisation in the Western academy is considered to be a synonym for genocide, rape, torture, sexism, colonialism, imperialism and all the rest.
At Oxford University last year, the student body at Balliol College banned the Christian Union from participating in “freshers’ fair” because this might threaten, intimidate or “harm” students, because Christianity is associated with Western civilisation, and Western civilisation is synonymous with genocide, rape, torture, etc.
The madness of the modern Left is truly breathtaking and completely beyond parody. For may years it has been left-wing dogma that children are not harmed by divorce, that pornography does not lead to sexual crime, that violence on film and television and social media does not lead to imitative violence in the real world. And yet at the same time the Left holds that a Christian Union stall would be intimidating to freshers and that the study of Shakespeare’s Othello needs trigger warnings because of the treatment of characters of colour.
But while it is easy to lampoon this madness, conservatives have found it impossible to counter it effectively.
The US is better at the creation of conservative culture than Britain or Australia, partly because it is much more dynamic about creating new institutions. So there are many liberal arts col- leges in the US that focus on the great books of Western civilisation. There is just one in Australia, Campion College, although there are a number of Protestant Bible colleges and the like in the process of transforming themselves into general higher education institutions. They don’t have the scale to challenge the Left’s cultural hegemony but they will keep the torch burning. Only in the US do such initiatives operate at scale.
Then there is the sheer technical and political incompetence of much of conservative politics. Conservatives don’t believe in identity politics and they don’t believe in quotas. This is because they have a profound, doctrinal and sound belief in the universalist principles of citizenship and indeed of humanity. Conservatives do, however, believe in diversity. But they are not very good — in fact they’re bloody awful — at practising diversity.
It was perhaps the worst mistake of the Abbott government to begin its first cabinet with one female minister. Those forces who tried valiantly to reform the offensive provisions of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act were incompetent fools not to find, recruit and prioritise champions of this reform of Chinese and Indian and other minority backgrounds. This is the merest common sense.
Throughout Britain, the US and Australia conservatives are riven over immigration. In truth, immigration is a wholly conservative policy. Run properly, it builds up the nation, it develops the economy, it lifts living standards, it enhances national security and it gives life and meaning to the universalism at the heart of all decent conservatism.
But all conservatives are rightly opposed to illegal immigration. That is a popular position, even with most immigrants. But conservatives are often so clumsy in their arguments, and sometimes tacitly want the support of the genuinely prejudiced, that they seem often to be arguing against people on the basis of their ethnicity. Trump is particularly prone to this, even though opposing illegal immigration is sound in principle and an electoral winner.
However, this issue can provide false hope. A Republican governor of California in the 1990s, Pete Wilson, won one election by opposing Hispanic immigration. He mobilised white voters against Hispanic immigration. But he also convinced Hispanics that the Republican Party was their enemy and after he left office Republicans have never recovered in California.
Good political leadership, of course, can affect culture, both by encouraging institutions and by shaping debate.
The frightening lure of white nationalism that remains only a small minority of Trump’s support is inherently wrong in principle, against conservatism and extremely dangerous for conservatives. Because older folks are much more conservative than younger folks, winning tactical victories by appealing to mass wisdom against popular foolishness may work for a time but does not build a long-term movement.
But the real elephant in the room of conservative defeat is the decline of religious belief. Britain is already a majority atheist nation. Only 15 per cent of Brits identify as Anglicans. Only 3 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds identify as Anglicans.
In the US, religious belief is stronger but in similar decline. In 2007, 78 per cent of Americans described themselves as Christians, while 16 per cent said they had no religious belief. Seven years later, 23 per cent had no religious belief and 70 per cent said they were Christians, a radical decline off a large base.
In Australia, in 2006, 64 per cent were Christian and 19 per cent had no belief. A decade later, only 52 per cent were Christian and 30 per cent had no religious belief.
In all three societies, it is the older cohorts who believe. Younger cohorts have a majority of nonbelievers and they are not acquiring belief as they age.
Here is a bitter truth. In the end you cannot sustain a conservative culture in the face of the collapse of transcendent belief.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of signs of hope. The best strategic approach is the Irish one: situation desperate, advance on all fronts.
Conservatives believe in diversity. But they are not very good at practising diversity