After reading any number of essays (e.g., here and here) on the lessons American conservatives should learn from David Cameron’s triumph last week in the UK elections, my very first reaction was pure mockery:
Republicans should boast of their successful management of an economic recovery while attacking their opponent’s irresponsibility in office during the last decade and exploiting fears of a regional secession movement. Towards the end of the election cycle they should cannibalize the votes of their coalition partners and execute a surge to 36.9% of the electorate!
There really aren’t many direct lessons to be learned once you look closely at what happened in the UK, are there? It’s a reminder that different political systems, different election cycles, and different traditions mean easy analogies are often wrong.
The different systems are a really big deal. The U.S. system with distinct and coequal branches of the central government means Republicans can control Congress and obstruct the executive branch and its plans and goals without bearing much responsibility for misgovernment. Our system of federalism also creates unusual issues. The ability of Republican-controlled states—with an assist from the independent judiciary—to thwart national health reform would probably mystify Brits.
Different election cycles matter, too. The Tories took over the British government not long after the trough of the global economic crisis, in the same year our Republicans won a historic midterm landslide that nevertheless did not give them national leadership. So that means that while the Tories have gotten credit for improving economic conditions in the UK, it’s the Democrats who likely will get credit here.
Most of all, different traditions and cultures make trans-Atlantic “lessons” especially difficult to find. The persistence of minor parties in the UK means the major parties can offload extremist voters without giving them to the opposition (as the Tories have effectively done with UKIP, which rage and roared but eventually won just one seat in parliament), and set up coalition partners as (to use David Cameron’s term for the LibDems, “human shields” who bear the brunt of public anger at unpopular policies. Republicans have become half-defined by their ideologically rigid factions, which take an enormous amount of energy and opportunity costs to manage.
In one of the better “lessons learned” pieces this week, David Frum notes that the Tories (and also conservative parties in Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have managed to maintain something of an ideological edge without indulging in the GOP’s habit of waging culture wars over reproductive rights and same-sex marriage, and have also accepted that great source of Republican hysteria, universal health coverage, without losing their souls. And beyond those specifics, Frum puts his finger on something that really does make American conservatives “exceptional”: “[W]hat [other conservative parties] all show their American counterparts is that the fear of a tipping point beyond which a state plunges into socialist dependency is utterly misplaced.”
This taste for apocalyptic thinking, however, represents a really fundamental cultural difference between U.S. and other English-speaking conservatives: the central importance of religious conservatives and libertarians, which together almost certainly represent a majority of the GOP rank-and-file. The two groups share an addiction to “tipping-point” alarms that the U.S. is lurching into socialism and secularism—hence the handy label “secular socialists” for the liberal opposition. Add in the distinctive American preoccupation with race, which leads white conservatives to identify that “tipping point” with the demands of shiftless minorities, supported by godless elitist feminists and young people—a.k.a. “the Obama Coalition”—and you have the kind of rhetoric and issue positions that drive David Frum crazy.
No manner of rational argumentation is going to convince evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics to give up their war on reproductive rights, and indeed, they are arguably making big gains in the states and are one Justice away from a breakthrough on the U.S. Supreme Court. They may have to accept same-sex marriage, but only in a context in which they do not have to signal approval or complicity. Meanwhile, the libertarian strain in the U.S. has contributed to the advent of a “constitutional conservatism” that rejects not only expansions of the New Deal and Great Society programs, but the original articles. Given the long and bitter struggle over Obamacare, Frum’s vision of a GOP that can live with universal health coverage seems far away.
A final differentiator is the power of party elites to dictate policy positions and strategy, which is much stronger in the systems of our English-speaking cousins. While local party branches in Britain have some influence, and party conferences on paper have a lot, there’s nothing in the U.S. like the brief, intense, centrally directed campaigns of British parties complete with official party manifestos. Conversely, while back-benchers in Parliament are tended anxiously by party leaders wary of a revolt, there’s nothing like, say, the defenestration of GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by a handful of primary voters in 2014. And while money plays a vastly more important role in U.S., and particularly Republican, politics, Republican Party elites are not always aligned with superdonors, and at present are struggling with at best mixed success in seeking to impose Jeb Bush as a presidential nominee on a reluctant rank-and-file.
And that raises an “exceptional American” practice that is always frustrating to “reformers” in both parties who think they know how to apply lessons learned here and elsewhere in designing the perfect message and agenda: our long general election cycles preceded by long primary cycles, especially at the presidential level. Even the perfect party blueprint has to survive constant adjustments to internal and external opinion and real-life developments. The opportunities for unpredictable things to happen are almost endless. This may be why so many American political consultants like to spend their “off-seasons” overseas. It’s just easier everywhere else, and when it gets harder, as in post-election efforts to craft a governing coalition, the checks have cleared and the consultants are on jets home.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.