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
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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.”

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