All About the Base

With the surprising upset victory of David Cameron’s Tory party in the UK last week, David Frum wrote this article noting how conservative parties in the rest of the Anglosphere, specifically the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are all riding high while US Republicans, while doing nicely at the congressional level still seem stuck at the presidential level, preoccupied with a series of concerns that seem to separate them from not only Democrats but the bulk of independent swing voters. The GOP could definitely win the 2016 election. But if they do, it will probably be much more about the difficulty any party has securing a third term in the White House than a real shift in the dynamics which have been in play in the last two election cycles, or arguably the last six.

Each of these parties have managed to stop fighting major parts of the culture war, especially religiously infused issues and ones that center on policing women’s sexual and reproductive lives and focus on fairly conservative foreign policy and making real progress on putting into practice more laissez-faire economic policies which many see as the bedrock of conservatism.

Here’s how David sums it up …

Unlike their U.S. counterparts, these conservatives don’t fetishize the music, fashion, or religious practices of some of their voters in a way that prevents them from reaching all of their potential voters. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, they accept that healthcare security actually supports—rather than inhibits—the entrepreneurial risk-taking of a dynamic free-market economy. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, they have found ways to both enforce immigration laws and to make immigrant populations feel at home politically.

I’ve been doing this long enough to be very wary of drawing too many conclusions or perhaps any conclusions about whether the global center-left or center-right happens to be in the ascendent at any given moment. But the pattern is notable, as well as how US Republicans seem to be moving, if anything, in the other direction from these other conservative parties in English speaking countries, rather than in any way catching up to them.

But I think there’s another, more clarifying way of putting this. None of these other countries has an evangelical base (disproportionately but by no means exclusively based on the South) the way the US does. Whether you call it right-wing evangelicals or “the base” in a more generic sense, this is a major, structural difference between US political culture and each of these other countries. And it is inextricably linked to both the US GOP’s deep strength and its weaknesses.

This is no new point I’m making. It’s been made in different ways over the last twenty years by numerous writers in different ways at different moments. One of the most interesting was actually published in The Atlantic going on 20 years ago by Christopher Caldwell, ‘The Southern Captivity of the GOP‘. If you’ve never read it, read it. It’s an extremely good article by one of the shrewdest writers about American politics. And the piece holds up remarkably well. But I think it shows us in a way no one should ignore the ‘why’ behind this difference. It’s not an accident or a failure to catch up or learn lessons the UK Tories have learned. The US and thus the GOP is just different and different in a way that I think makes it hard and perhaps questionable to even speak of conservatism as the same thing in both countries, with only small national distinction. We’re just different.

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