Over the past century, and even before, conservative political movements thrived by challenging the Left’s appeal to the working and middle class. Virtually all the successful movements on the democratic Right—Disraeli’s Tory Democracy to Thatcherism, Reaganism, and even Trumpism—won by establishing a link between conservative policies and upward mobility. Conservatives have done best when they have met the challenge first posed by social democrats.
But today the Right, notably in the UK, is taking on a far more autocratic turn. The Bank of England recently issued a report that essentially told Britain’s middle and working classes that, to meet the challenges of climate change and globalism, they must accept “poverty” as their future fate. “So somehow in the UK,” the Bank’s chief economist Huw Pill told the Columbia Law School, “someone needs to accept that they’re worse off.”
This growing immiseration reflects an economy increasingly dependent on tourism, finance, and services, and decreasingly so on such sectors as fossil fuel production, home construction, and manufacturing. Proponents appear interested in serving big capital while seeking respectability among the mostly woke media and academic elites. Britain is already suffering from unaffordable housing and living standards that have fallen more consistently than any time in the last half century. Meanwhile, middle class taxes have continued to rise. This could well reverse the political trend among the working and middle class who, until recently, have shifted their allegiance from Labour.
Past political success for the Tories came not from pandering to the rich and their obsessions, but after they began limiting the depredations of the liberal industrial elite. Conservatives like Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, author of Sybil, a novel detailing the conditions of working class Britain, forged the basis for what became “Tory Democracy,” promoted by Lord Randolph Churchill, who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. “Tory Democracy,” historian Richard Bourke suggests, “won new constituencies for the Conservatives,” beyond their traditional upper-class base.
Disraeli saw the working class as natural conservatives “in the purest and loftiest sense,” people proud to be British and part of a great Empire. Similarly, Margaret Thatcher, though she accelerated the country’s deindustrialization, supported the notion of “a property owning democracy,” notably for the working class to whom she devolved ownership of council-owned public housing. A product of the middle class, Thatcher appealed to what could be called Britishism, an embrace of national uniqueness, military power, and certain elements of traditional morality, namely the bourgeois virtues of thrift, diligence, and abstemiousness.
Successful conservatives during the period from Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 through Bill Clinton’s reformed liberal renaissance followed a similar approach. To be sure, some populist conservatives appealed to white working-class voters by embracing racial, gender, and cultural grievance. But there was also an aspirational aspect to this turn, as evidenced most in personal terms by Reagan, as Henry Olsen has suggested. The former union leader won by appealing to working- and middle-class aspirations. Unlike today’s free market ideologues, he remained loyal to the legacy of the New Deal, which fostered one of the strongest eras of prosperity in recent times.
Read the rest of this piece at American Mind.
Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.