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The Mind of the Right

Jean Marie Le Pen's stunning showing in the French presidential election stripped bare not only the malaise in traditional French politics, but also the deeper crisis facing Europe's traditional democratic Conservatives, who now confront rising xenophobic parties in the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, and Germany. Jürgen Rüttgers, a leading German Conservative, offers his diagnosis.

Throughout Europe, conservatism is in crisis. Political parties that call themselves Conservative, and that are perceived as Conservative by voters, continue to win elections and assume power. But democratic Conservatism as a world view, as a conceptual framework, and as a way of behaving--whether in power or as a form of political opposition--is increasingly difficult to articulate. Indeed, hardly anyone nowadays can offer a satisfying definition of what being Conservative means.

Part of the problem--at least as far as elections are concerned--is that the hopes projected by "liberal" and "progressive" parties are far more attractive and successful than a Conservative's natural skepticism. As the editor and political journalist Konrad Adam put it, "Skepticism is a feeling, not a program."

Yet mainstream European Conservative parties--often Christian Democrats--continue to attract voters. Is this mere inertia? The historian Paul Nolte criticizes Conservatives for being strategically lazy. During the past two or three decades, he argues, Conservatives became complacent "in the wake of the political, programmatic, and intellectual debates--and often enough, the self-laceration--of the Left." Conservatives sat back and benefited from the Left's implosion, but "overlooked the fact that their own need for discussion was as urgent."