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Can Conservatism Reform Itself?

Although conservatives traditionally have resisted social and economic change, the center right necessarily has evolved over time. The question, always, is whether it can continue to do so in ways that are still compatible with effective governance and democracy.

BOSTON – The squabbling that has erupted within the US Democratic Party following its loss in the recent Virginia gubernatorial election has convinced many observers that the Republicans will handily retake the House of Representatives next year. In fact, it is the right whose future is most uncertain – a problem for which we are all paying the price.

The right has suffered identity crises before. The rise of mass democracy in the nineteenth century, when industrialization created huge inequities and immiserated the working classes, could have wiped out traditional center-right parties, such as the British Conservatives. By concentrating tens of thousands of workers in cities and workplaces, new opportunities for solidarity and political organization opened up. The appearance of new ideas – ranging from anarchism and utopian socialism to Marx and Engels’s version of communism – reflected mass discontent and provided templates for an alternative organization of society.

But the center right reinvented itself, perhaps most spectacularly under the leadership of Benjamin Disraeli in Britain. In the 1860s, Disraeli spearheaded reforms to expand the electorate (going even further than his rival, Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone), because he believed that a conservative nationalist ideology would appeal to many workers. He was right. The Tories soon re-emerged as the leading party, often surpassing the Liberals for the rest of the century.

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