The Resurgence of Conservatism in Anglo-American Democracies

The Resurgence of Conservatism in Anglo-American Democracies

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This work presents analyses by experts on the rise of anew tide of conservative governments in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain in an attempt to find what, if any, common ideologies and programs unite them, with what results, in terms of institutional change and policy direction, have been, and what are the prospects for permanent change.

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ISBN-13: 9780822399193
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Series: Duke Press policy studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 472
File size: 2 MB

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The Resurgence of Conservatism in Anglo-American Democracies

By Barry Cooper, Allan Kornberg, William Mishler

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-0793-8


The Resurgence of Conservatism in Britain, Canada, and the United States: An Overview



In recent elections in Canada, Britain, and the United States, governments or administrations generally considered conservative, both in their policy agenda and actions, have been elected or reelected with strong and, at times, overwhelming support. In each country the apparent resurgence of conservatism has taken even many informed observers by surprise, not least because it seems to contradict the widespread belief that the expansion of the welfare state is inevitable. As a consequence, it has been derided in some circles as a reactionary denial of progress and lauded in others as a return to traditional values. Still others question whether the election of conservative governments in the three countries really signals a fundamental change in their public philosophies or simply reflects some common short-term ripples in the public mood. In short, the real character and significance of the "resurgence of conservatism" is far from clear.

Better to understand its nature and meaning, the editors of this volume organized a conference on the subject at the Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, in May 1986. The conference brought together a group of some thirty scholars from Britain, Canada, and the United States to consider three aspects of the conservative resurgence: the ideological character and meaning of contemporary conservatism; the nature and effectiveness of the policies and programs proposed both by current conservative governments and their political opponents; and the nature, extent, and bases of public and elite support for conservative parties, principles, and leaders in these countries.

Fourteen of the papers that were prepared for the conference are presented in this volume and are divided into four sections. The first section consists of six papers that view the conservative resurgence in comparative perspective. The second section presents three papers that focus on the central themes of the conference as they are reflected in Britain. The third section presents two papers on Canada, and the final section presents three papers concerned with the resurgence of conservatism in the United States.

Not surprisingly, since they were written from different perspectives and employ different methods and approaches, the contributors to this volume do not always agree on the meaning of a particular election, the importance of specific policies, or even what constitutes a "resurgence." Nevertheless, there is remarkable consensus in the essays on fundamental trends and dynamics. On the most general level, for example, there is agreement that something that properly may be called a resurgence of conservatism has occurred in each of these countries, but especially in Britain and the United States. Although the liberal tradition remains deeply rooted and very much alive, the tenor of recent political discourse as well as the direction of political events suggest that the liberalism that has dominated and defined their public philosophies has been infused with important new conservative elements. Philosophically, these conservative elements are hard to define, although a rejection of political abstraction, a renewed emphasis on public morality, especially religion, and an emphasis on private enterprise and initiative in matters both economic and social are among them.

With few exceptions, there also is agreement that the resurgence of conservatism in the three countries has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary in character. Notwithstanding the radical tenor of recent political rhetoric, changes in public policy have been relatively modest to date. Far from producing fundamental upheavals in social or even economic policy, "Thatcherism" and "Reaganism" are widely viewed as having been implemented in piecemeal and incremental fashion and with relatively limited, though certainly significant, effects. This appears to be even more the case in Canada where the policy agenda of the Progressive Conservative party was never as clearly articulated or as ideologically coherent as those of its Conservative and Republican counterparts. Nor has there been a set of policies that can be labeled "Mulroneyism" to parallel those identified with President Reagan or Prime Minister Thatcher.

Finally, there is agreement that although there has been a resurgence of conservatism in the elite opinion, public policies, and what might be called the public philosophy of the three countries, there is still little evidence of a similar resurgence in public opinion—the recent successes of conservative candidates in national elections to the contrary notwithstanding. We discuss this last point at the end of this overview essay. First, however, we will summarize the several contributions to the volume and attempt to place them within the perspective of Anglo-American political tradition.


The character and significance of the apparent resurgence of conservatism in Britain, Canada, and the United States must be understood and evaluated in the context of the Anglo-American political tradition. This tradition is, of course, generally recognized as Liberalism, although what comprises Anglo-American liberalism is much disputed. It can be argued that it encompasses at least three distinct and, at times, antagonistic impulses: the "classical" liberalism of Hobbes, Locke, Adam Smith, and Jefferson; the conservatism of Burke, Churchill, George Grant, or Michael Oakeshott; and the progressive Utilitarianism of Bentham, J. S. Mill, T. H. Green, and the social reformers of the twentieth century.

Anglo-American liberalism began as an attempt to open a realm for individual freedom and public happiness by charting a moderate course between the dangers of anarchy and civil war on the one hand and of tyranny and despotism on the other. To this end it argued that men are naturally and, therefore, prepolitically free and endowed with the rights necessary for their preservation and happiness. The state is founded on the basis of individual consent to the adjudication of disputes by a limited and essentially neutral government acting within the framework of a freely enacted code of laws. Man's Natural rights, however, limit the scope of political action and public life and turn people's ambitions toward private life and economic enterprise.

Classical Liberalism was called into question by the French Revolution and, especially, by the Terror. Of the various reactions to the Revolution, the conservatism of Burke was among the most immediate and ardent. Instead of rights, conservatism saw traditions as the basis of social life. Instead of individuals, it turned to families, communities, and peoples bound together by long-established customs and conventions. Moreover, conservatism looked to the established church and its well-tested moral maxims for a foundation rather than to nature and nature's God. Conservatism understood obligation not as the result of individual consent, but as deference to the wealth of experiences that has shaped communal life in the past. In addition, in Canada, rejection of the tenets of the French Revolution was intensified in Quebec by the clergy and, in Upper Canada, by new elites drawn from the Loyalist tradition. Many of the Loyalists and "Late Loyalists" had been born in the United States. Although they shared the Lockean assumptions governing political life, they also adhered to the views of anti-Lockeans such as Richard Hooker. Conservatism rejected classical liberalism, and since it also praised the feudalistic, agricultural life of the ancien régime, it likewise rejected the capitalist political economy that liberalism engenders.

The conservative impulse aimed at rekindling the harmony of the traditional community, but it also opened the door to a romantic nationalism that all too often replaced reason and moderation with fervor. Consequently, conservatism has been viewed with deep suspicion by many Anglo-American liberals, especially in light of the role romantic nationalism played in fostering the two world wars of this century.

The third element intrinsic to the Anglo-American political tradition is less clearly defined than the first two. It is, in fact, a conjunction of Utilitarianism, social idealism, and twentieth-century progressivism. Like conservatism, utilitarianism was in part a reaction to the French Revolution and the doctrine of abstract, universal natural or human rights. It argued that society should pursue the greatest good for the greatest number, even if this meant the sacrifice of the rights of a few of its citizens. In all three countries the reform movements of the late nineteenth century in part were motivated by this concern. Their proponents looked to government and the law as appropriate vehicles for securing the greatest good, and the resulting state intervention in private life was given a positive justification by social idealists such as T. H. Greene and, in a different way, by John Dewey.

It was only after the First World War, however, that these theories were given serious consideration as practical alternatives in Western societies hitherto largely wedded to the precepts of classical liberalism and conservatism. Economic strife, the war, and the Great Depression seemed to many (e.g., Jane Addams, Arnold Toynbee, Thorstein Veblen, the Webbs, Mackenzie King, and J. S. Woodsworth) to demonstrate the bankruptcy of conservatism as well as individualistic liberalism and the capitalist economy that it engendered and legitimized. Some countries turned toward various forms of collectivism from fascism to socialism. In the Anglo-American states, however, the movement toward such "isms" was constrained by the strong egalitarian strain in the progressive elements of their political tradition. For example, instead of revolution Americans and Canadians were offered the "New Deal" of a Franklin Roosevelt or an R. B. Bennett, a complex of programs that involved large-scale state intervention in the economy as well as the establishment of the basic structure of a welfare state. In Britain the Lloyd George government implemented health insurance following the end of the First World War; during the 1930s social policies were heavily influenced by the research and recommendations of the Beveridge Commission.

The Second World War delayed the full-scale development of these social programs, but the two decades following the war witnessed the installation (irrespective of the label applied to it in individual countries) of a genuine welfare state, the hallmarks of which were a progressive income tax, Keynesian fiscal policies, and large-scale social security, health, and welfare programs. Almost from their inception, welfare state programs came under attack. They were unfair, unjust, inefficient, ineffective, cost too much, didn't go far enough in dealing with basic problems, or went too far and posed an increasing threat to freedom in democratic societies. One reason for such criticisms, according to Joel Smith, Allan Kornberg, and Neil Nevitte, is the mechanism through which the welfare state system is implemented. Although each country's system varies from the others in specifics, in each the great majority of adults are involved continuously in contributing to its funding and only a minority of persons are direct recipients of program benefits at any one time. Since from the perspective of the individual there are long periods when one's only relation to the welfare state is as a financial contributor, the system depends, in a real sense, upon people's generosity and goodwill—which is more likely to be manifested in good rather than bad economic times.

But since criticisms of the welfare state have been made during good and bad times alike, their chapter, "Structural Factors in the Conservative Resurgence," is concerned with identifying the conditions in each country under which the same triggering event—the energy-induced economic crisis of the early 1970s—generated a climate in which the withdrawal of public support for the welfare state and its proponents was severe enough to bring about a conservative electoral triumph. The conditions they point to include (1) a growth of foreign competition for markets; (2) the acquisition of domestic corporations and properties by foreign investors; (3) the withdrawal of support for the national regime by members of both upper and lower economic strata; (4) the emergence of demand overload on the welfare system; (5) strained relationships with foreign powers; and (6) shifts in political participation.

Although they acknowledge that this is not an exhaustive list of factors and that Britain, Canada, and the United States differ in the degree to which a conservative resurgence has occurred, they believe that each country shares these general attributes sufficiently to suggest convergence. They also assert that in each country the resurgence is a product of an electoral coalition of numerous Limited-issue groups — disaffected elements of opposition parties who essentially are voting against recent prowelfare state incumbents—and the exit from the electoral arena of both disaffected partisans of liberal parties and those not identified with any party. Since there have not been massive ideological realignments in the three electorates and since neither the several elements in each country's coalition nor the governments they have brought to office support every conservative position, these governments have been unwilling or unable to implement a thoroughgoing conservative agenda. Instead, until now they have restricted themselves largely to rhetoric, the promotion of ancillary policies and programs, and to partial implementation of what has been called "fiscal responsibility." In short, the authors contend that it is more appropriate to view the conservative resurgence in Britain, Canada, and the United States during the 1970s as a rejection by their publics of political parties and officials traditionally associated with the welfare state and its programs rather than as a massive and fundamental conversion to conservative ideals and goals.

As its skeptical subtitle suggests, in "Hunting the Snark: Or Searching for Evidence of That Widely Touted but Highly Elusive Resurgence of Public Support for Conservative Parties in Britain, Canada, and the United States," William Mishler, Marilyn Hoskin, and Roy Fitzgerald find little systematic evidence to support the rich variety of anecdotal evidence regarding the resurgence of public support for conservative parties. Indeed, what Smith, Kornberg, and Nevitte interpret as a rejection by the public of political parties and officials associated with the welfare state, Mishler, Hoskin, and Fitzgerald maintain is simply one part of a more general decline in public support (or dealignment) for all political parties, conservative and liberal alike.

To test this proposition, the authors use time series analyses of data gathered quarterly since 1964 on the relative share of public support for the more conservative of the two major political parties in each country. Although they find some evidence of significant conservative gains in public support during the late 1970s and early 1980s, their analyses indicate the gains generally were short-lived and well within the range of normal fluctuations in public opinion across the past twenty years. Moreover, conservative gains usually were followed closely by a countervailing shift in public support of comparable magnitude toward the liberal party. Based on this evidence, the authors argue that recent trends in public support for conservative parties are simply part of the normal ebb and flow of partisan politics and that the "much-heralded resurgence of conservatism is largely myth."

Proceeding with a detailed examination of the causes of recent fluctuations in conservative party support, the authors also find little evidence to support the conventional wisdom that recent conservative gains in the three countries are linked or stem from certain shared social, economic, or political experiences. To the contrary, variations in public support for conservative parties appear to be best explained by idiosyncratic factors, including the popularity of Ronald Reagan, the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, the charisma (both positive and negative) of Pierre Trudeau, and the impact of events such as the Falklands and Grenada invasions, the Watergate scandal, and the patriation of the Canadian Constitution.

What seems initially to be a contradiction between their conclusions and those of Smith, Kornberg, and Nevitte appears, on closer scrutiny, to be a difference largely of focus and perspective. Although the latter chapter demonstrates convincingly that the bankruptcy of liberal policies has become increasingly evident to conservative political actors and opinion leaders in the three countries, the essay by Mishler, Hoskin, and Fitzgerald argues that this bankruptcy has been considerably less obvious to average citizens in the three countries. Their interpretation is consistent with an extensive literature demonstrating the volatility of mass opinion in the Anglo-American democracies and the relative lack of ideologues among mass publics as compared to political elites. It also is consistent in part with the analysis by Norman Thomas of the resurgence of conservatism in the public policies of the three countries.


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Table of Contents

Preface vii

1. The Resurgence of Conservatism in Britain, Canada, and the United States: An Overview - Barry Cooper, Allan Kornberg, and William Mishler 1

2. Structural Factors in the Conservative Resurgence - Joel Smith, Allan Kornberg, and Neil Nevitte 25

3. Hunting the Snark: Or Searching for Evidence of That Widely Touted but Highly Elusive Resurgence of Public Support for Conservative Parties in Britain, Canada, and the United States - William Mishler, Marilyn Hoskin, and Roy E. Fitzgerald 54

4. Public Policy and the Resurgence of Conservatism in Three Anglo-American Democracies - Norman C. Thomas 96

5. Gulliver and the Lilliputians: Conservatism, Foreign Policy, and Alliance Relations - William James Booth 137

6. Conservatives and the Courts in the United States and Canada - F.L. Morton 163

7. Conservatism and the Courts: A Comparative Analysis of Canada and the United States - A. Kenneth Pye 185

8. New Wine in Old Bottles: Thatcher's Conservative Economic Policy - James E. Alt 217

9. Mrs. Thatcher's Crusade: Conservatism in Britain, 1972-1986 - Ivor Crewe and Donald D. Searing 258

10. The Resurgence of Conservatism in British Elections After 1974 - Mark N. Franklin 304

11. Conservatism in Canada: The Ideological Impact of the 1984 Election - Roger Gibbins 332

12. Canada's Tory Tide: Electoral Change and Partisan Instability in the 1980s - Allan Kornberg and Harold D. Clarke 351

13. The Economic Conservatism of the Reagan Administration: Notes for a Theory Party Differences, Partisan Change, and Electoral Accountability - Henry W. Chappell, Jr., and William R. Keech 387

14. Religion and the Resurgence of Conservatism - Michael Gillespie and Michael Lienesch 404

15. The Reagan Years: Turning to the Right or Groping Toward the Middle? - Morris P. Fiorina 430

Index 461

About the Contributors 465

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