Progress and Conservatism: The Structural Issues

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“Does it matter that the economic situation in Italy is the worst it has been since 1980?  Or that the government is losing on security and illegal immigration?  Silvio Berlusconi seems as strong as ever” (Ta Nea, 2/19/09).  The question arises: how can the Italian people be so senseless as to prefer someone incompetent (according to the Economist) to lead the government, over someone like Walter Veltroni, or even the dry but honest Romano Prodi?

In 2000, it was a commonly accepted fact that George Bush was three times worse than Al Gore, and in 2004, John Kerry, dry as he may have been, was three times better than the clueless cowboy from Texas.  But yet, a man unable to tell Iran apart from Iraq or Slovenia apart from Slovakia was elected twice, leaving the Democrats in a state of despair.

Many attribute these victories of the conservative right to the fact that the center-left is more center and less left.  If that’s the case, we end up with a rather curious logical progression: the social-democrat parties lose elections because they aren’t faithful to the left’s ideals.  So, in order to punish the fake leftists (i.e. the social-democrats), voters prefer not the authentic left (communist and other leftist flavors), but the authentic right.  In other words, the theory goes that the people love the left so much that they vote right.  Great!  Have you heard the one about the guy who castrates himself to punish his adulterous wife?

The other common explanation places the blame on the leaders of the center-left.  The problem is always “they have some political weakness, and so they lose elections.”  The truth is that both Veltroni and Gore had many political weaknesses.  But Berlusconi and Bush had more.  As for the oft-mentioned “communication skills,” maybe John Kerry didn’t have them, but, let’s not kid ourselves, neither did George Bush.

As an aside, we need to clarify that “progress” and “conservatism” don’t necessarily correspond to the current left and right, respectively.  There are some institutions which were once progressive, but have now outlived their usefulness.  Defending them today is a conservative choice, even if it’s made by someone from the left.  Certain people, organizations, and parties may bear the label of “progressive,” when in actuality they are “conservative.”  As the American author Robert Anton Wilson wrote, “It takes only twenty years for a radical to end up being a conservative, without changing a single idea.”

Let’s focus, though, on the epitome of conservatism, the conservative right.  Why does it win, when it has been proven to be more corrupt (e.g. Berlusconi) or more incompetent (e.g. Bush)?

It’s worth noting that explanations involving the role of the media, Karl Rove’s public opinion maneuvers, etc. are useful, but only part of the story.  They are pieces of a larger mosaic that centers around the conservative and progressive proposals for society.

The first thing we need to understand is that the conservative proposal for society has home-field advantage.  What’s being proposed is simple and understood by all: it’s the world we live in.  That world may have problems, but for the majority of citizens it’s far more understandable than any proposal for changing the status quo.

Conservatism is destructive, but only in the long run.  Trying to preserve the status quo, when everything else is unavoidably changing, leads to society withering.  This happens so slowly and gradually, though, that most don’t realize it.  For them, the saying “better five in hand than ten and waiting” holds true, even if 5 slips to 4.9, 4.8, and so on.

The second inherent weakness of proposals for change has to do with the increased complexity of the political process.  I wrote previously:  “By its nature, the democratic process is complicated.  As soon as the number of those involved in the decision making process increases, complexity is added to the system.  It’s one thing for a divine right monarch to make decisions, and another for a prime minister and his government that are accountable to a parliament and held in check by the judiciary.  The level of complexity in governing at the beginning of the last century is different that that of today, when we have independent authorities, countless mass media outlets, pressure groups, etc.  The “deepening and widening of democracy” requires an increasing number of players involved in the process and — unfortunately — constantly growing complexity.  And this is its Achilles’ heel: the more complexity added to the system, the more difficult the system becomes to understand, while also becoming structurally more unstable.  The average citizen can’t adequately understand how, for example, an independent authority can disagree with a law or policy and ban what clearly should be banned (as in the matter of religious affiliation no longer being included on state-issued ID cards).  That voter can’t understand the labyrinthine processes required for a decision to be made, nor the balances that must be maintained as a result of many independent players being involved” (“The democratic paradox and the crisis of politics,” Kathimerini 1/28/07).

The increased complexity of politics favors conservatism.  Example: “John Kerry knew how complex politics are.  And naturally, as a result of that, he was criticized.  He appeared to have no firm views, but in reality he had a complex set of views that, naturally, didn’t fit the media’s mold.  His opponent, on the other hand, was a person who said things that were completely unsophisticated, but incredibly effective with the average voter: ‘whoever’s not with us is against us.’  What could Kerry say without looking weak on the issue?  ‘Yes, whoever’s not with us is against us, assuming that the UN will do X and Europe will support us in Y, while the international situation...etc.’?  By the time he would have explained it, he would have lost Nebraska’s five electoral votes” (“The democratic paradox”, Apogevmatini 11/7/04).

In an already complicated world, the progressive proposal for society adds complexity.  Respect for immigrant or minority rights, for example, adds complexity, not only for the average citizen, but for the state as well.  Progressive proposals come off seeming either populist, when condensed into catchy slogans, or utterly incomprehensible, when laid out in detail.  Things are much easier for conservatism.  All that’s necessary is to point to the status quo and create fear of the future.  And occasionally there might be a nod to reactionaryism, mentioning things like “the nation’s uncorrupted values” and “the good old days, when things were simple and pure.”

The third problem is that changes always entail risk.  Not only risk of failure (in which case reform in general is attacked), but risk of negative side-effects.  For example, PASOK’s 1998 legislation concerning self-government of the courts was undermined by talk of “judges in pre-election battles” and “illicit exchanges” in regards to the election of senior judges and public prosecutors.  A system with those negative characteristics may be the lesser of two evils, given the current system in which the executive branch influences the judicial branch, all the way up to the level of senior judges.  Nevertheless, public opinion is swayed.  Don't opponents of expanding city government play on the same sort of concerns?  No one explains that corruption is a natural phenomenon for institutions that are just learning to walk and haven’t yet gained their balance and established procedures for self-regulation (didn't democracy itself decentralize corruption, which until then had been the privilege of monarchs?).  No one explains, and the rhetoric against city government prevails and powers return to the central government.  There’s corruption in the central government, too, but because of the central government's labyrinthine nature, it's not as visible as at the city level.

These side-effects slowly eat away at both plans for reform and their advocates.  The side-effects of conservatism eat away at its advocates, as well, but more slowly.

There is a fourth crucial point that helps conservatism score points before the game has even started.  Progressive forces practice “the art of the ideal.”  This is their only option for affecting the emotions of large groups of people and moving them towards a future that is by definition uncertain.  Except “the ideal” isn’t an exact science that makes it easy to focus everyone on a single goal.  So, fragmentation results.

Even when the conditions favor wider cooperation in order to achieve electoral victory, governing subsequently leads to fragmentation.  It necessarily implies a constant compromise between many “ideal worlds” and thus leads to disappointment.  And disappointment is a powerful emotion, especially for people who, as a result of practicing “the art of the ideal,” are more sensitive.

Conservatism doesn’t have these kinds of problems because it practices “the art of the (one and only) real.”  There is only one world for it to preserve, and it’s judged based on that.  Conversely, progressivism has many “ideal worlds” (often cloudy and undefined) to promote, and it’s judged based on those.  That’s why the right, in Greece and across Europe, experienced only the split with the liberals (because the Cold War need for their historic compromise had ended), while both the left and the liberals are continually fragmenting.

The compromising of “ideal worlds” is a difficult and short-lived exercise because it’s attacked from all directions and most of all from within the wider progressive coalitions.  Kostas Simitis’ government was accused of leaning right because it sold shares of state-owned enterprises, and of being old-style socialist because it didn’t succeed in privatizing the state-owned airlines, Olympic.  It was also heavily criticized for losing political capital on the ID issue, but also for not bringing about the complete separation of church and state.  In this manner, with constant bickering within parties, the battle between progressive groups makes the progressive proposal for society look incoherent and undefined.  Everyone gets confused and everything sounds like noise, concerning an issue (the future) that seems unclear anyways.  Conversely, the conservative proposal for society always look clear and specific.

Voting behavior, of course, is a complicated matter and can’t be examined in its entirety in one article.  It’s a mistake, though, for political strategists to underestimate the conservative proposal.  Habit is second nature, and that might be what’s at the core of conservatism’s success in recent years.

Published in "Metarithmisi" magazine May 2009 (translation Alex Papulis, Αυτή η διεύθυνση ηλεκτρονικού ταχυδρομείου προστατεύεται από τους αυτοματισμούς αποστολέων ανεπιθύμητων μηνυμάτων. Χρειάζεται να ενεργοποιήσετε τη JavaScript για να μπορέσετε να τη δείτε.)