The Magazine

The World’s Dumbest Conservatives

How to turn a successful majority coalition into a perpetual election-losing machine

Nov 19, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 10 • By SAM SCHULMAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In 2012, American conservatives occupied themselves with the stately process of challenging a sitting president. While we were enjoying the pomp and ceremony which just ended, European conserv-ative parties and governing coalitions have been quietly disintegrating. The disease runs through the free-market conservative coalition that governs Germany, and erupted last week in the Netherlands at what should have been a moment of triumph for the leading free-market party, the VVD. It also afflicts the conservative-led government of the United Kingdom and Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party in France, which lost power in May and June after 10 years of holding the presidency and a parliamentary majority.

Cameron and Merkel

Angela Merkel’s rigid determination to defend the euro and the eurozone countries with every bit of her citizens’ wealth is still popular. But her desertion of free-market principles and her adoption of radical Green nostrums has just about ground her coalition partner, the venerable Free Democratic party, into oblivion. A classical liberal party, the FDP has served as the free-market conscience of a number of governments before Merkel’s. It typically received from 6 to 10 percent of Bundestag votes in the ’90s. In the mid-2000s, as Germany’s market liberalization paid dividends, its share of the parliamentary vote rose to 15 percent. But as Merkel pushes her coalition in the direction of social-democratic policies, voters blame the FDP for her sins. New polls show its support has fallen by 75 percent; should it fail to clear the 5 percent hurdle for Bundestag seats, it will vanish. Merkel’s next government partner will be a left-of-center party, and the conservative half of Germany’s political spectrum may have no political voice at all.

The U.K.’s David Cameron has been trying to hold together a coalition between his own Conservative party, which he seems to loathe, and his tiny left-wing partner the Liberal Democrats, who loathe him. Cameron’s performance has alienated increasing numbers of Tory MPs, 53 of whom voted against their own government last week. In late October, polls agreed that Labour will win the next election with a 110-seat majority. Last week Cameron begged MPs who wanted more conservative policies to observe the U.S. election. Obama won by running to the center, he told them, while Romney ran an extremist campaign. Thanks to his training in PR, Cameron ignored the fact his analysis was the opposite of factual, and that Romney’s stubbornly centrist campaign cut Obama’s 2008 margin of victory substantially, which would be highly significant in a parliamentary system.

In September, Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, was standing on top of the world. His VVD had shed its alliance with the Freedom party of Geert Wilders: unpredictable, populist, in favor of free speech, Israel, America, and gay rights, and opposed to the EU and the encroachment of sharia law upon Dutch Muslims and social norms. Dutch bien-pensants in the media congratulated Rutte for his wisdom, and in the September parliamentary election, the VVD won 41 seats, enough to lead a government. Rutte ignored centrist parties and chose the PVdA, the mainstream social democratic party, to govern with. The new “Purple” government neglected VVD core principles of entitlement to one’s own income and announced that health care premiums would be income-adjusted, hitting middle-class Dutch families hard. The result? Screaming headlines in last week’s VVD flagship newspaper, De Telegraaf: “Desperate VVD Seeks Way Out: The largest party in the government desperately searches for a way out of the misery which it created.” As the journalist Joost Niemoller wrote, “the VVD is not interested in ideas, but solutions. Rutte accepted his coalition partner’s desire to level incomes because it didn’t occur to him to consider how this conflicted with his own party’s core ideas. Only when half the electorate deserted them were they prompted to make the intellectual effort​—​which they will announce next week.”

At least Cameron, Merkel, and Rutte still cling to power, no matter the abandonment of principle. In May, France’s voters, who largely agreed with the nominally conservative ideas of President Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, fired it. The UMP had controlled the presidency and often the chamber of deputies since Jacques Chirac was elected in 1995, when he led the UMP’s predecessor party, Rally for the Republic. Sarkozy was vulnerable because his 2007 presidential platform was Schwarzenegger-like: cracking down on crime, liberalizing work rules and limits on weekly hours, and lowering taxes. Alas, he governed as Schwarzenegger did as well. He pushed reforms until students and unions pushed back, then lowered his flag and declared mission accomplished. After 17 years of infinitesimally conservative rule, the public had had its fill. Sarkozy did better than expected, but he lost to the Socialist party’s François Hollande, who boasted, like Harding, of his normalcy. French journalists, far to the left even of our own, couldn’t wait to quote the cliché coined by the 1950s Socialist premier Guy Mollet when he said, “We’re lucky to be running for reelection against the dumbest conservatives in the world.” After the second round vote in May, the media promptly fired or demoted several popular conservative columnists and on-air commentators. The UMP naturally turned on itself.

The media explained that a left-wing government was long overdue and hungered for by the French -public. French conservatives weren’t so sure. The two-round system by which French presidents are selected enabled a detailed look at the actual electorate between the two election days. Anyone who was not a reporter could see that at least
46 percent​—​perhaps as much as 48 percent​—​of voters were right-of-center, 43 percent left-of-center. Looking at these numbers, Parisian conservative politician Bernard Debré declared, “We are not only the dumbest, but the most pretentious right wing. And more: the most selfish and the least diligent.” How could they have lost?

Ten parties faced off against one another in round one: The major players were the Socialist party on the left, and the two big right-wing parties, Sarkozy’s UMP and Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN). The Socialists and the UMP won the right to go to the second round with vote counts of 10.3 and 9.8 million respectively, together 56 percent of the total voters who chose a party. Coming third was Le Pen’s farther-right party, with 6.4 million (if you don’t count the astonishing 9 million blank ballots cast). To win the second round, Sarkozy had a right-of-center pool of 7 million additional first-round voters consisting of Le Pen’s following and supporters of a smaller conservative party.

Hollande’s Socialists and the French media had no objections to electoral alliances with the smaller parties on the left, however extreme: Communist, neo-Stalinist, and anti-Semitic (“anti-Zionist”) parties were welcomed. But they brought Hollande only 5.5 million more voters. Up for grabs were the 3.3 million voters for a centrist group led by an ex-Sarkozy associate, not rightists but certainly anti-socialists. Adding only the avowedly right-wing and left-wing voters to the first-round winners would give Sarkozy 16.8 million supporters, Hollande 15.8 million.

Was the deciding second round close? It was neither close nor right-of-center. Sarkozy did indeed add 7 million votes to his first-round total. But Hollande received the votes of 7.7 million. The partie le plus bête had earned its name. National Front supporters who didn’t stay home likely divided their votes between the two frontrunners. For a number of good reasons the UMP gave her, Marine Le Pen had refused to give a “voting directive” to her supporters to back Sarkozy. The first was that in an ambush clearly organized by Sarkozy’s party just six weeks before the first round, Le Pen suddenly found it almost impossible to get the 500 signatures of French mayors she needed to qualify for the ballot​—​signatures that even eccentric little parties normally have no trouble collecting. While she chased after mayors willing to sign in the glare of media publicity, Sarkozy seized the opportunity to run to the right. He promised to do what he had neglected to do in his first term: check immigration, reform welfare, and institute law and order policing and justice. Simultaneously, Sarkozy’s surrogates announced that if Le Pen made it into the second round, UMP supporters should vote for the Socialists rather than Le Pen​—​whom they styled as extremist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic, when in fact she was the only candidate who had committed herself to treat  Israel as if it had the same standing as non-Jewish states.

Sarkozy’s surrogates denounced Le Pen’s extremism, but not that of Hollande’s Stalinist allies. Le Pen’s policies might be regarded as conservative in France, but her views on regulation, protectionism, and immigration would place her firmly in the ranks of Blue Dog Democrats here: Recently she demanded a government takeover of France’s biggest automaker, Peugeot. For that matter, the UMP’s official observers at the Republican convention this August informed American reporters that their party was to the left of Obama. Nonetheless, had Sarkozy and Le Pen reached a private accommodation, a right-of-center government would now be presiding. Sarkozy’s capitalist and neoliberal supporters would have had to join hands with Le Pen voters, Catholic and Protestant traditionalists, French patriots who deplore the expulsion of French history from the schools and the rush to multiculturalism. Both sections would be glad to come to terms on immigration, which has never been put before French voters, and in any case, 93 percent of France’s Muslim citizens support the Socialists.

Such an alliance is in fact all but impossible in France, not because of the inherent differences, but because the cultural left won’t permit it. According to the historian and law professor Frédéric Rouvillois, it was the cagey old socialist François Mitterrand, himself a colleague both of Pétain and de Gaulle, who devised the divide-and-conquer strategy in the ’80s. There was a social and educational split between the urban, civilized, and business-oriented conservatives and
the rural, religious, and patriotic right-wing. Institutionalize this split, and the left would rule. Now, as Rouvillois observed in April, “the conservatives, even when they’re in the majority, continue to be paralyzed by the political-moral malediction laid against the so-called ‘extreme right.’ The Machiavellian genius of Mitterrand allowed the FN to siphon votes from the center-right, and at the same time [taught elites to utter] perpetual anathema against any alliance between the UMP and the FN. This weakened the conservatives and regularly opens the doors of power to left-wing governments supported by electoral minorities.” Now an unquestioned aspect of French public life, Mitterrand’s strategy ensures that conservatives who have every incentive to work with one another and learn to tolerate one another’s differences have become estranged from one another and beholden to elite opinion-makers. The UMP remains what Le Figaro columnist Ivan Rioufol calls a machine à perdre.

Watching the collapse of these European governments​—​either losing power or becoming slightly more buttoned-up versions of the left​—​should be instructive to American conservatives now engaged in a furious battle to blame someone for the failure of the GOP’s closest shot ever at defeating a Democratic president running for reelection. The GOP’s Sarkozyites now blame House leaders who didn’t treat the Democratic House minority as if it were a majority. Of course the minority status of the House Democrats is a direct result of the electorate’s militant unhappiness with President Obama in 2010​—​an unhappiness expressed again last Tuesday by cutting Obama’s popular vote margin from over 9 million in 2008 to 3 million in 2012. GOP Sarkozyites deplore the effective and venerable compromises that have been reached between social conservatives and accountability-based policy wonks in education, health care, and other areas.

Our Sarkozyist Tendency seems ready to declare that opposition to open immigration​—​or legal abortion​—​should not be tolerated. They are willing still to accept the votes of conservatives who have a negative view of immigration, but they read the polls and believe that many Hispanics are pro-immigration, and they yearn for the votes the GOP is not getting. Although they are pro-business, it’s unlikely they know the profit and loss ratio of courting Hispanics in this fashion. There is a “revenue upside”​—​how many votes the party will gain with a grand immigration reform​—​but there is also an expense side, i.e., how many votes would be lost by alienating anti-immigration conservatives. Our Sarkozyites shun the intellectual work of understanding how they might alleviate the concerns of anti-immigrationists. Might some acknowledgment that promises made to them, even by such honorable Republicans as Senator John McCain, have often been broken? Might they recognize that Hispanic “targets” are also perfectly capable of discerning when opportunism and insincerity drive a political decision, rather than conviction?

Pro-choice and pro-life Republicans​—​both of whose voting blocs have propelled conservative presidents to office​—​have a common interest as well. Both need a political regime that allows their arguments to be heard, because both groups want to persuade voters to adopt their view, rather than leaving such matters to a coin-toss from a judge’s bench. Those, like me, who tend to favor immigration, need to assure those who think that’s crazy that we are absolutists about the right of the nation’s voters to determine immigration policy, and no one else. We ought all to agree that we demand legislative solutions accountable to voters, not merely fashionable notions that appeal to an unaccountable elite.

Even those who live in Cambridge might recognize something else. The concern social conservatives have with the definition of marriage and exactly when a child’s life begins is an expression of something all conservatives and even mainstream Protestants share: that the family is a crucial but terribly fragile institution with an enormous impact on human well-being and economic success. Social-science-oriented free-market types know this about the family as well as committed Christians: They merely approach the issue from a different direction. We need to fashion a moral and intellectual Hyde Amendment (the fiscal Hyde Amendment wasn’t a bad idea either) to allow both sides in the GOP coalition to converse with one another rather than despise one another​—​or, worse, to think they can win elections or govern the country without one another.

Sam Schulman, a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard, last wrote on the right to die.


Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers