Guardians of Property

Throughout history, the Right has cared more about preserving private property than about promoting democracy.

German businessman and politician Alfred Hugenberg (left) in December 1932. Wikimedia Commons

Daniel Ziblatt’s new book, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, couldn’t be more timely, which explains why it’s gotten far more attention in the popular press than most scholarly works of political science and academic history.

Ziblatt argues that conservative political parties determine whether or not a state enjoys stable democratization or whether reaction from the Right’s most die-hard ideologues ultimately undoes those gains. In choosing whether to accept democracy, conservative “political entrepreneurs” assess whether their party and their control over it is well-organized enough to survive and thrive in an environment in which political power extends beyond old-regime elites.

To prove this point, Ziblatt contrasts the British and German experiences between the late nineteenth century and World War II. By his account, the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party became a mass-membership organization in the 1870s and 1880s, which allowed it to hold back Northern Irish Unionism’s threat to the whole constitutional order between 1910 and 1914. Ultimately, the Tories’ mass base helped them usher in Britain’s twentieth-century political order when, in 1922, they abandoned the coalition supporting Lloyd George’s postwar government and strode confidently into the future as the sole capitalist party facing off against a fully normalized Labour Party.

By contrast, the succession of Prussian and German conservative parties continually fell back on rural patronage and aristocratic politics. The egregious three-class franchise that determined representation in the Prussian lower house vastly magnified aristocratic interests in national politics, despite ostensibly universal voting rights operating at the federal level. Once the pre-war conservative party lost political power thanks to World War I, it could only come back by restoring these pre-democratic vestiges, which its die-hard faction set out to do in the mid-1920s.

These cases offer an instructive contrast, and the political establishment’s ability to contain right-wing revolts is certainly a compelling disjunction to consider. But we should proceed with caution, as Ziblatt’s analysis omits or, at best, barely addresses a crucial ingredient: ideology.

Simply put, the Right cares more about preserving private property and the power it commands over politics, the economy, and society than it does about democracy. If they can have both, then conservative politicians and parties will support democracy and often get exactly what they want, as formal democracy on its own has historically proven compatible with an anti-democratic capitalism that concentrates economic power. But if conservatives are forced to choose — as they ultimately were in both the British and German contexts — they will always choose property. The circumstances of this choice determine whether they also bring down the curtain on democracy.

Second, Ziblatt’s account of conservative revolts merits a critical analysis. In Britain, it began with the Liberal-Labour coalition’s crushing victory in the 1906 general election after eleven years of Conservative-Unionist hegemony. The Tory opposition to that government will go down in history for its irresponsibility and procedural fecklessness: the House of Lords voted down bill after bill, culminating in the “People’s Budget” of 1909, which levied the first peacetime progressive tax in British history.

Thereafter, the Liberal-Labour coalition set out to reform the constitution in order to hobble the power of the Lords. Following two general elections on that question, for which the government required the support of Irish Nationalists to survive, it managed to pass the Parliament Act of 1911 and secure unchallenged supremacy for the House of Commons.

If anything, this victory only increased the opposition’s willingness to use extra-democratic means to wield power. In exchange for their support, the Irish Nationalists demanded Home Rule — as they had for decades in the face of repeated Tory blockages in the House of Lords. When the upper house could no longer stymie this demand procedurally, the Tories stoked the Ulster Protestants’ revolt to the point of violent insurrection.

Ziblatt gives a factual account of these events, but he also places a great deal of credence in Liberal prime minister H. H. Asquith’s subsequent testimony. For example, he relates an anecdote in which the Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law — who publicly voiced support for extra-democratic measures to “preserve the Union” — supposedly told Asquith, to paraphrase, “We don’t really mean it — you understand this is all in the political game, don’t you?”

Is this sufficient evidence to decide that a resolutely democratic Law had full control of his party? Ziblatt more or less takes this second-hand statement at face value and adds two further ingredients. First, the Tories reasonably expected to win the next general election, so all their figurative (and eventually literal) saber-rattling was designed simply to bring one about. Second, eight years later and under far different political circumstances, Law led the Tory faction that voted to leave the Lloyd George coalition and to battle it out with Labour for the next ninety years — sealing the deal for the Tories’ acquiescence to and support for democracy.

These are suggestive nuggets of evidence, but individually they don’t hold up. Ziblatt weaves a rather intricate tapestry from very little raw material, especially when we remember his argument that the Tories’ party-building decisions from thirty years earlier supposedly set all of this in motion.

World War I ended the Right’s political revolt. Only in wartime did the threat of Ulster Unionism suddenly disappear — at least for a time — and the once-intransigent Tories become cooperative again. Why the war happened, and why the Tories ended their political brinksmanship when it did, go beyond the scope of Ziblatt’s analysis. Indeed, there is no academic consensus on those questions.

The most obvious explanation probably comes closest to the truth: in war, the Liberal government finally adopted the Tories’ foreign policy, which helped the Conservatives find a way out of their political morass. That brings us back to ideology: if conservatives are getting what they want, they can live with democracy. The beleaguered Liberal government knew this, which helps explain why its critical actors more or less welcomed war when it arrived.

This account points to a third deficiency in Ziblatt’s argument: he fully believes that Conservative Party leaders had good intentions. He makes a clear distinction between conservative elites who seek power by democratic means and the die-hard activists constrained by no such institutional loyalty. But Law and his colleagues in leadership consciously stoked extremist interest groups, first in the form of “last-ditch” aristocrats bent on upholding the independent power of the House of Lords, and then in the form of violent Ulster Protestant sectarianism.

The conservative German elites of the Weimar era did the same, shielding nationalist veterans’ groups like the Freikorps and Steel Helmets from prosecution for their political violence, even as the party publicly disassociated itself from them and criticized their coups.

Ziblatt’s account of German conservative radicalization begins in 1928 or just before, when the media magnate and conservative agitator Alfred Hugenberg launched a takeover bid for the German National People’s Party (DNVP), then the nation’s leading conservative party. Officially antidemocratic, the DNVP had joined a series of center-right cabinets that effectively ratified the Treaty of Versailles while alleviating its harshest terms.

Hugenberg’s backlash succeeded because he held the party’s purse strings and had filled local councils with ultra-nationalists who could set the party list in national elections. It would be as if a hybrid of Roger Ailes and Charles Koch took personal control of the Republican Party and sent John Boehner into a forced retirement — and then, several years later, ushered a racist demagogue into absolute power.

Which, come to think of it, is basically what happened, and that explains David Frum’s praise for Ziblatt’s book. Referring to the Republican Party’s recent past, he writes, “Just as in pre-1914 Germany, an institutionally porous party had been quickly and easily overrun from outside.” Frum seems to have forgotten that the same people who’ve been voting in Republican primaries and attending Tea Party rallies for decades nominated Trump, and he won the election with a great deal of help from voter-ID laws, electoral purges, and the policies of mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement that Republican legislatures and judicial appointees have been eagerly enacting for just as long.

Distinguishing between a responsible conservative political elite and an irresponsible nationalistic base places Frum in exactly the historical role he wants to occupy. It ignores, however, the decades that the elites spent stoking white nationalism to hold center-left governments and parties hostage: “Hand us another concession, or else the real crazies will take over.” Those crazies served as useful shock troops for episodes of street violence that produced huge political dividends, either by sending seething voters to the polls or by directly undermining democratic processes.

Ziblatt, of course, did not write his book to hand Frum and his ilk a historical get-out-of-jail-free card — he doesn’t mention contemporary political events at all, and it does the book a disservice to read his argument solely in light of them.

Furthermore, for all its faults, Ziblatt’s account vastly improves on The Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, which argues that the threat of violent revolution from below forced the ancien regime to accept democracy.

Ziblatt gets his core point absolutely right: victimized by one antidemocratic stratagem after another, the political left has far more consistently supported democratization than the Right. The Right — not the Left — uses its privileges and threats of defection to extract concessions for the owners of capital, weakening political systems through the strategic use of atavistic violent nationalism.

That remains true whether we’re talking about 1914, 1933, or 2016 — and conservatives’ ideological privilege, to use an of-the-moment term, is the real avenue worth exploring.