“Responsible Conservatives” Won’t Save Us From Fascism

History shows that when working-class strength threatens the status quo, even moderate conservatives won’t balk at making common cause with fascists.

British prime minister Theresa May delivers a Brexit statement at Downing Street on November 14, 2018 in London. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

David Frum is a man of his word. Four months before the election of Donald J. Trump, the Atlantic columnist announced he was forming a one-man brain trust to save the GOP. “The party of reasonable conservatism I grew up with,” he claimed, “died a long time ago.” Seeking his own “exit from Trumpocracy,” Frum hoped for the party’s “reintegration into a politics again founded on decency.”

Frum was hardly alone in his quest. One of the most persistent features of three years of Trumpmania has been the search for a political species now considered a rare breed: the “reasonable conservative.” Highly educated but not aristocratic, the reasonable conservative recognizes norms and values and refuses to calumniate opponents. Above all, they’re firm believers in procedural democracy and the necessity of constitutional safeguards.

There was a time when such a marriage between conservatism and democracy was far from evident. Edmund Burke derided the democratic system as “the despotism of the multitude,” while Arthur de Gobineau thought democracy equal to “mobocracy.” Others were less civil — democracy, Friedrich Nietzsche claimed, was nothing less than “the rule of the rabble.”

Frum realizes that antidemocratic animus has always come naturally to elites. Since “the non-rich will always outnumber the rich,” he writes, democracy will enable “the many to outvote the few” and thus prove “a profoundly threatening prospect to the few.” So how could one go about reconciling those elites with democracy?

Conservative Stabilizers

Frum’s musings on the perennial opposition between the “rich” and the “non-rich” appear in a review of a recent book by the Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt. The title of Ziblatt’s study — Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy — might seem a tad technical. The book itself, however, is a work of high analytical sophistication and moral vigor, in which Ziblatt presents a carefully crafted thesis that proves the centrality (or, more strongly, indispensability) of socially rooted conservative parties to democratic regimes.

This is a daring claim. More than vehicles for elite caprice, Ziblatt claims that conservative parties are actually key stabilizers in democratic transitions, enabling the very survival of electoral systems and democratic rule.

Ziblatt has a sizable literature to draw on when proffering his thesis. For decades historians have racked their brains to answer the question of why some countries turned to dictatorship in the twentieth century while others survived as democratic regimes. The American historian Barrington Moore Jr remains an abiding presence in these debates. Moore famously claimed that the die for fascism were cast somewhere in the 1860s and 1870s — the period that saw the US Civil War, the Franco-German conflict, and the unification of the Italian peninsula. If countries managed to subdue their aristocracies (Southern slave-owners, the French ancien régime, etc.) they were spared the bane of fascism in the next century. If their Old Regimes persisted and states did not “internally reorganize” — think of countries such as Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Spain — they were set on the road to democratic ruin.

Ziblatt’s book is a Moorean piece of scholarship. Yet it comes with some sensitive modifications and nuances. Rather than positing a one-sided correlation between ancient-regime persistence and fascist rule, Conservative Parties argues that one specific variable is key in explaining a country’s turn to dictatorship: the existence (or absence) of an electorally viable conservative party, committed to securing its interests through the democratic process rather than naked force.

This stems from the risky binary that elites face in a democratizing world, Ziblatt shows. Confronted with an expanding franchise, they could either defend their privilege by legal means through a party representation or turn to repression, fraud, and manipulation. The latter tactics were often a reaction to intimidatingly high rates of organization among their opponents — in particular, the organized working class, which had far more to gain from suffrage then their conservative counterparts. As Friedrich Engels noted in 1895, Marxists were

thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and overthrow. The parties of order, as they call themselves, are perishing under the legal conditions created by themselves. They cry despairingly…: la légalité nous tue; legality is the death of us.

To conservatives, democracy seemed nothing less than a social death sentence. In the end there was only one remedy: building a powerful conservative party.

Mass Conservatism

Some national elites proved especially adept at this balancing act. In the 1870s and 1880s, British Tories constructed a mass party that covered English society with a rich texture of clubs and fraternal groups to counter a rising working class. The most stimulating parts of Ziblatt’s book detail the birth of this conservative subculture, featuring organizations like the Primrose League and the National Union. Conservative organizations continued to outnumber Labour’s local groups well into the 1950s and 1960s. British elites thereby became accustomed to playing the game of liberal democracy early on and reconciled themselves to the idea that a few years of a Labour government would not endanger their stature within the society.

Other elites’ relationship to democracy was more fraught. In Germany, landed wealth relied on vote-buying rather than electioneering to assure their continued access to the state from the 1890s onward. Representative channels for bosses and landlords remained fragmented and weak, outpaced by the most powerful workers’ party in the world — the German Social Democratic Party. The result was a class existentially threatened by democracy, unable to cede an inch to electoral fancies. Instead, they went for the Nazi version of elections: “one man, one vote, one time.”

This pattern replicated itself across other countries that fell to fascism, Ziblatt argues. In Italy, the landed classes continued to rely on stuffed ballot boxes, even after suffrage reform in 1912. Faced with an insurgent working class and rebellious sharecroppers after World War I, liberals and conservatives gradually rallied to Mussolini and made their peace with reaction. As the conservative thinker Donoso Cortes once summarized: “It is a question of choosing between the dictatorship of the dagger and that of the saber …. Between them, I choose that of the saber.”

This even holds for what Ziblatt terms “in-between” cases. Here the most infamous instance was France, which lacked a unified and organized right in the 1920s and 1930s. Although fascists were never able to seize power, the threat of a Popular Front government — in which socialists and communists united behind an ambitious program of social reform — drove a considerable section of the French ruling class to embrace an antidemocratic ideology. This partly led to the country’s “strange defeat” of 1940, in which one of Europe’s largest armies was overrun by an assertive Wehrmacht.

The weakness of French conservatives bequeathed a poisonous legacy. While the Belgian and Dutch governments — mostly made up of Christian parties, which had long begun to unite workers and bosses — fled the country after the 1940 Nazi invasion, France’s rulers set up a Nazi vassal state in Vichy, securing the elite’s cooperation with fascism. Even on the margins, Ziblatt’s criterion does an impressive job.

Synthetic Science

Conservative Parties is political science at its best. More storyteller than number-cruncher, Ziblatt has not only mastered a set of rewarding quantitative techniques (he draws on member lists from political parties, for instance, to probe the relationship between conservative party-building and electoral performance). He has managed to give a convincing narrative account of Europe’s democratic transitions, tying together history, philosophy, and political analysis in a shining example of what a combined approach to scholarship can yield.

Ziblatt has done more than given a diagnostic, however. In addition to writing Conservative Parties he is also the co-author of the 2019 book How Democracies Die — a prominent product of the burgeoning post-2016 “democracy-defense industry.” In that book, Ziblatt makes a case for counter-majoritarian mechanisms and powerful party leaderships to counter the rise of extremist forces. There is, of course, a pointed historical dimension to this argument, with Ziblatt holding up the 1930s as an instructive warning to contemporary observers.

In light of this prescriptive model, two questions loom over Ziblatt’s original portrait of conservatism. The first concerns the matter of what drives fascist or antidemocratic forces in the first place; the second concerns his notion of democracy. Although elites might have a natural interest in defending their property and privilege, what explains their need for defensive methods in the first place? In the case of the Tories, for instance, the propertied classes were content to use democratic means to defend their privileges; in Germany it lacked organizational outreach, and therefore preferred dictatorship.

The “Sonderweg” Revisited

Historians have long noted the correlation between fascism and a revolutionary threat from the Left. As late as 1923, the philosopher Max Horkheimer was claiming that a communist revolution was around the corner in Germany. The same held for the Italian case, in which the so-called “Biennio Rosso” (the Red Biennium) made the occasion of national revolution seem conceivable as late as 1920.

These postwar moments were formative for the creation of fascist movements, which filled the role of the guardians of property in Mediterranean cases. The countries that Ziblatt celebrates as “consolidated democracies” — Belgium, Sweden, and Britain — never saw anything resembling this revolutionary threat. Although well-organized and numerous, the Labour left in the 1920s was wedded to a narrowly “economistic” understanding of reform, while unions had long been wary of any political involvement: their class identity was more “corporate” than “transformative.” Given the absence of a credible threat, British elites saw little need to go on the offensive.

Contemporary observers were already struck by this divergence. As the political scientist Franz Neumann put it, in contrast to their German colleagues, British elites “safeguarded their economic freedom not materially, by establishing barriers against the legislation of Parliament, but genetically, through participation in the making of laws.” Escaping a militant left, legality would do.

Democracy Formal and Substantive

This initial caveat leads to a second problem, which concerns Ziblatt’s conception of democracy. Ziblatt defines democracy as peaceful handovers of power, fair and open elections, and the recognition of a legitimate opposition. Given this minimalist conception of democratic rule, Ziblatt’s model of democracy is perfectly compatible with class rule and high levels of economic inequality. Recent research has found that that American citizens have next to no influence on the actual policy crafted in Congress. Despite all of Trump’s gyrations, it is also clear that the law of electoral succession is far from being breached in America. A marriage of extreme inequality and electoral propriety thus remains conceivable in Ziblatt’s framework.

This also explains the essentially static view of elite dominance Ziblatt seems to adhere to — Frum’s “the non-rich will always outnumber the rich.” Throughout history, there are the powerful and the meek, and the best a democracy can settle for is to slightly restrict the predatory drives of the powerful. This is not to say that elites are angelic benefactors. Yet for those who want to imagine democracy beyond the mere holding of fair elections, the question of how elites will respond to redistributive ambition becomes trickier. We must not forget, for instance, that the issue that ultimately pushed Germany’s Social Democratic Party out of a coalition government was conservative attempts to cut unemployment insurance, a proposal on which even the reformist SPD was not willing to compromise.

This throws up some interesting questions. In Ziblatt’s schema, an embattled ruling class had two options when faced with democratic expansion: electoral accommodation or dictatorial takeover. What this binary whisks away, in turn, are the preconditions of that second option: what drives fascist movements in the first place? And if we can locate its source, what does that tell us about conservatives’ true dispositions towards democracy?

The Austrian Outlier

This problem becomes particularly acute for cases left out of Ziblatt’s comparative account, such as Austria. Unlike Germany, the Austrian elite did have a powerful conservative party at its disposal in the 1920s, capable of integrating both elite and base, farmers and notables, in the Christian People’s Party (CS). It is true that the CS never had a mass base of industrial workers. Nonetheless, it won the first postwar elections on a whopping 41.8 percent and went into coalition with the Social Democrats. Although critical of its political Catholicism, the legal scholar Hans Kelsen had to acknowledge the party’s mass appeal. In the early 1930s, the CS even seemed serious about banning the Nazi party and  fascist organizing.

This is not to deny the persistence of antidemocratic sentiment within the CS. Yet despite the existence of a well-organized mass conservative party, the attempt by the SPÖ (Austria’s social democrats) to institute stronger protections for workers’ rights and establish republican defense forces proved a bridge too far for the Austrian ruling class. The result was a classic case of elite-driven democratic breakdown, in which the CS suspended parliamentary government and later organized the country’s annexation to the Reich.

The implication of Ziblatt’s thesis here seems to be that if we give the Right what they want they will let democracy be. Yet this is only the case if democracy is construed in such a way as to not conflict with elite interests. In other cases, conservatism will remain unreconciled to democracy.

A Risky Bet

None of this affects the argumentative core of Ziblatt’s study. It does, however, suggest some important sidenotes to the book’s political slant. Although disorganized conservatives might be a necessary condition for fascist takeover, they are hardly sufficient, requiring a revolutionary threat from the Left. Inversely, even well-organized mass conservatism can easily turn antidemocratic when faced with this revolutionary threat, as the Austrian case testifies.

There are also palpable limits to using the 1930s as an exemplar for today. Democracy was young at the time — in the American South it was still thirty years away. It was also highly mobilized, with millions of people being pulled into the remit of political decision-making.

Today’s situation is existentially different. Fascism has no powerful working class to destroy. Socialist organizing has only recently undergone a slight revival, mainly within social-democratic parties. As Dylan Riley notes, today’s reeling conservatism is not a reaction to an insurgent working class, but rather to the failed reformism of the Obama years, in which liberal technocracy failed to absorb the shock of 2008.

Traditional conservatives have, of course, not fared well in this age of populist insurgency. But it is useful to point out how much of their decline has been due to conservatives’ own actions in government. Conservatism’s convulsions are better explained due to the disconnect between their mass constituency and the way they have managed their capitalist economies. The Tory party celebrated by Ziblatt as a paragon of decency, for example, has gone through a precipitous decline in the last thirty years, now relying on foreign donors to build its election machine. A lot of this has been of their own doing — the Primrose League was disbanded in 2004. As James Heartfield notes, beating the working-class challenge of the 1970s required “tearing up the old institutions that bound the masses to the state,” destroying not only trade unions and socialist parties but also right-wing political organizations, including “their traditional support bases amongst church and farmers’ groups.”

The results of this are plain to see. Visitors to England will be struck, for instance, by the fading colors of the “Conservative Club” placard in the country’s rural towns. Like the old Workingman’s Associations, these clubs hardly function as mass mobilizers anymore, and often appear more like retirement homes (the median age of the Conservative Party member is now put at seventy-two). Unsurprisingly, with no organic link to their constituencies, conservative parties have allowed themselves to be taken over by insurgents on the Right.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

This leaves us with some uncomfortable conclusions regarding Ziblatt’s paean to the robust conservative party. The evidence suggests that even moderate conservative parties might find it necessary to suspend procedural democracy when faced with an insurgent working class. Secondly, there remains a whole host of external factors with the potential to neutralize the strength of those parties themselves — the shifting imperatives of profit-making above all. As a vehicle for the defense of “formal” democracy, conservative parties appear an unreliable bet.

Such developments will hardly worry Daniel Ziblatt the scholar, who has produced a first-rate work of political analysis. They might worry Ziblatt the citizen, although this issue is better left to private minds. They will certainly prove very bothersome for David Frum, who seems bent on reinventing the conservative party for the age of Trump. Like a sorcerer’s apprentice, it was the unleashed force of neoliberal capitalism that unmoored old-style conservatism from its base, pushing it into the wide-open sea, where it had to contend with Trump and the alt-right. Against a foe of this kind, even the most robust of conservative parties will stand little chance.