"From 1979 to 2004, the political Right won the Western world's battle of ideas. Conservatives triumphed because they were correct about the two biggest issues of that era: They were for free markets and against communism. But now confusion on the Right prevails, because today it is they who are on the wrong side of the West's two greatest political issues: climate change and the Iraq War."
Ronald Reagan is dead, Margaret Thatcher is senile and the ideological world that they created is now dying with them. From 1979 to 2004, the political Right won the Western world's battle of ideas. Conservatives triumphed because they were correct about the two biggest issues of that era: They were for free markets and against communism. But now confusion on the Right prevails, because today it is they who are on the wrong side of the West's two greatest political issues: climate change and the Iraq War.
Most people react to new political issues somewhat irrationally. The people who in 2003 participated in demonstrations against the Iraq War or warned of the threat of a climate catastrophe were for many right-wing politicians the people who for the previous 25 years made exactly the wrong predictions: In the decade of the 70s, they warned that the world would run out of oil. In the 80s they were against privatization. And in 1991, they took to the streets to protest the first Gulf War … for the most part, they were serious men in Cardigan sweaters and grim women wearing tennis shoes.
The thought that these people could have been correct on any point was openly regarded as intolerable. Yet they were right on both; climate change and the subject of Iraq. Global warming puts faith in free markets to a serious test. Climate change is, as British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown said, "the world's greatest market failure."
A SHAKEN WORLD VIEW
Worse still is that most of the suggestions about how to fight climate change contain elements that are traditionally anathema to the Right, like global inspection regimes that are key elements of monster agreements like the Kyoto-Protocols. Personal freedoms are being restricted in the form of higher taxes, which forces people to drive less, fly less or at least resort to bargain airfares. There is a new emphasis on the local, in contract to the global. And there is resistance to the theory that more economic growth is always desirable and durable.
Moreover, the Iraq debacle has damaged the intellectual and moral self-confidence of the Right. The worldviews of Reagan and Thatcher were based on a firm belief in military strength and an imperturbable confidence in the moral superiority of the Western democracies. When the Cold War was won in 1989, the Right indulged in an over-the-top universalism. The jubilant masses in Prague and the Baltic states seemed striking proof that all of humanity strives for the same things and that the Western formula for freedom and prosperity could be exported and universally applied.
The confidence that grew out of victory in the Cold War gave rise to the confidence to march into Iraq. The failure in Iraq threatens to undermine the moral certitude that Thatcher and Reagan nurtured in the Right. And it has weakened faith in the effects of the use of military force and the exportability of democracy.
An ideological revolution is demonstrated when party and political labels suddenly lose their relevance. The real triumph of Reagan and Thatcher came when their ideas were embraced by their center-left successors. Bill Clinton's most important achievement in domestic affairs was welfare reform, which was based on ideas that had been originally been expressed by conservative social critics. British Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to cancel trade union reforms that Thatcher had forced through. Blair's Iraq policy, in which he always stresses the "special relationship" with the USA, is a Thatcherite policy of the first order.
Of course there are some incorrigible right-wingers that continue to dismiss global warming as a form of hysteria, and who claim that the Iraq mission will ultimately have a happy ending. Who knows? Perhaps one day they may be proven right. But they have already lost the political debate. They have deviated so far from the ways of thinking that once motivated them, that most mainstream Conservatives in Great Britain and Republicans in the USA now side with the left on the issues of climate change and Iraq.
A NEW ROLE OF THE RIGHT
Many U.S. Republicans have already changed their views. John McCain, their leading presidential candidate, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, their most important governor, have demanded more direct action against climatic change. Furthermore, there is no unanimity amongst Republicans in regard to Bush's new troop increase in Iraq. These differences within the party are bound to grow more serious if concerns grow over global warming and the Iraq War.
All of this sounds as though conservatives should put their tails between their legs and capitulate. But this point of view is far too gloomy. In this new ideological era, the Right plays both a defensive and an offensive role.
The defensive role consists in preventing an overreaction to the emerging consensus on the questions of climate change and Iraq. The Right wasn't wrong to target the old anti-capitalist, and for taking on the West's enemies. There are radical voices that will try and create a world in which no one can book a cheap flight and in which globalization is gradually cancelled. It will be the task of conservatives to show that growth and environmental protection can be compatible. Moreover, the catastrophe in Iraq is good news for anti-Americans in Europe and isolationists in the USA. The conservatives must take up positions against both.
But the right can busy themselves with much more than just damage control. A majority of the great ideas of the Reagan-Thatcher era – privatization, trade union reform, new thinking on the welfare state – were developed in opposition to the popular consensus of the 60's and 70's. After a long period of intellectual hegemony, time spent in the ideological opposition could be exactly what the Anglo-American right needs.