Are conservatives better at getting things done?

You don't have to be a conservative to notice that there is something about the conservative disposition that makes them formidably effective political operatives. Why is that?

In any tussle between liberal democrats on the one hand and
conservatives on the other it is getting difficult to bet against the
conservative political players: they are good at getting their way. As a
result, liberal democrats are in retreat almost everywhere. Now, while in each
political community there will be different contextual explanations for who
wins political contests –including programmes for reform or social change – it
seems to me that there is something about the conservative disposition that
makes them formidably effective political operators. I want to explore that in
this blog post.

But first
a definition of terms. According to The
Oxford Companion to Philosophy (edited by Ted Honderich): “The conservative
approach [to politics] is empirical as opposed to rationalistic, cautiously
sceptical rather than dogmatic, and, in certain circumstances, seeks to
preserve the status quo rather than engage in wholesale revolution or overthrow
existing institutions.” To properly understand modern conservatism, you must
begin with a study of Edmund Burke, especially his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). From the definition
you will see that a lot of the people we call conservatives today are either
reactionaries or populists. The conservative approach to politics is a serious
one.

Having
observed conservative political effectiveness in a variety of contexts, here is
why I think they are formidable players.

(1)
Conservatives
have a more realistic sense of human nature. The point is well made in the Oxford Companion referred to earlier. Conservative
political thinkers “…unlike liberals and socialists…have all possessed a keen
sense of the darker, more egoistic sides of human beings”. For instance,
conservative politicians work on the assumption that human beings are selfish.
It is not that they do not believe that human beings are capable of altruism; they simply think that the better assumption
to make until a human being proves otherwise is selfishness. You design
legislation on this basis. You deal with stakeholders on this basis. Ditto
opponents. And, sadly, often they are right. I once observed activists shut
down a major city by getting citizens to stay at home. The conservative leaders
of the country knew something the activists did not know: that most denizens of
that city had to go out daily to hustle for a living. They waited three days
and the effort collapsed because ordinary citizens needed to be back on the
streets to seek their subsistence income.

(2)
Conservatives
believe that not only are most human beings dominated by irrational impulses
and drives they don’t pay enough attention to politics to act intelligently
with their vote. So, conservatives blithely manipulate public opinion. The
Brexit referendum campaign in the United Kingdom is a case in point. The lies
and deceptions of the Brexiteers have now been fully revealed but they got away
with it…at least so far. Another case in point is good old President Donald
Trump. I lived in the United States during that presidential campaign and I
remember all the experts saying there was no way the buffoonery, the
astonishing lies could deliver the White House, but it narrowly did. In
countries as different as Nigeria and the United States conservatives regularly
get ordinary citizens to vote against
their own economic interests.

(3)
Conservatives
adapt to the political marketplace shamelessly. That is why modern or Burkean
conservatism is not a reactionary creed. Conservatives drop old plumage
ruthlessly when the dictates of power acquisition and retention demand it. That
is why conservative political formations endure and manage to hold on to power.
In the UK, for instance, while there have been interludes of the Labour Party
in power, since 1945 power in the UK has been a Conservative Party monopoly, and
different conservative leaders have embraced programmes they earlier opposed if
it is enduringly popular with the citizens. The outstanding example is the
socialist National Health Service (NHS).

(4)
Finally,
conservative political leaders are hard-charging and ruthless players…and they
never give up. When I lived in the US (for eleven years) liberal enfeeblement
in the face of the relentlessness and ruthlessness of conservatives drove me
close to despair. If you want an outstanding example of this look into the
political practice of Senator Mitch
McConnell, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate. He is one of the
most amoral political operators I have ever observed anywhere…and he gets
results for his side often. He has just secured a conservative majority on the
US Supreme Court for a generation.

Now, I am not a conservative. I am a firm
believer in liberal democracy and I am a liberal constitutionalist. But
political effectiveness matters. As I like to say, meaning well is not enough.
To be effective under real world conditions liberal democrats everywhere need
to get smarter and better…fast.


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