The Political Economy of the Conservative Party’s Near Defeat

Row of tree voting booths

The British election reveals the coming clash between the old and young in much of the West.  The social welfare state naturally creates divisions between groups with immutable characteristics like age as each group maneuvers to get a larger share of money from the state before it runs out.  This sad truth was at the heart of the Conservative Party’s lost majority in the last election.

The young voted almost two thirds for Labour, despite the fact that party was led by Jeremy Corbyn, who was regarded by his own parliamentary party as an unelectable tribune of left wing protest and had as its shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, an open admirer of Lenin and Trotksy. To be sure, the young do not remember the real costs of socialism of either the hard Eastern European kind or the softer British variety.  It would almost contribute to the net happiness of Europe if a member of the old Soviet bloc remained to be a negative exemplar for everyone else.

But even with its compromised leadership the Labour party knew how to exploit the fault line between the old and the young created by the modern welfare state.  Much of the budget of Britain, like other Western democracies, goes to pension and other benefits to the old for which those younger are largely paying. But given longer life expectancy and lower birth rates,  young people fear that they will never get similar benefits, because the well will have run dry by the time they become eligible. Thus, they are energized by the Labour Party’s promise of free college tuition.  That promise can be cashed in now, unlike the illusory ones of state pensions four decades hence.

The same dynamic is taking place in the United States. Bernie Sanders’ platform for stirring up the young closely resembled that of Jeremy Corbyn, offering tuition benefits to almost all anywhere near college age.  And it succeeded in turning out this notoriously apathetic voting bloc in relatively large numbers. We can expect Democratic candidates to double down on such promises in 2020.

The fault line created by large entitlements defined by old age thus offers opportunities to create an even more burdensome government by appealing to younger generations. Entitlement reform of old age benefits would blunt this dynamic. But the Republican Party, like Conservative Party in the U.K., has ever more pensioners and people close to a government pension in its ranks, reducing the appetite for such reforms.

In short, because of ever increasing old-age entitlements, in much of the West the parties of more limited government have ceased to be effective parties of actually limited government.  And by acquiescing in the big and unsustainable debt of unreformed entitlements, they make it more likely that parties of the Left can motivate the young to get their share of the social pie before it is too late.

John O. McGinnis

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the coauthor with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

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  1. nobody.really says

    A real problem for Conservatives—and everyone else, in any democracy. Indeed, the same dynamics influence US elections. My one quibble with McGinnis’s thesis is his focus on spending, and the implication that the dynamic in question is of recent vintage.

    Since the New Deal, the US’s Democratic Party has supported an expanded social safety net—which people associate with increased public spending. Simply by way of contrast, the Republican Party gained a reputation as the party of fiscal responsibility. Yet the last Republican to preside over a decline in the national debt was Nixon.

    In short, for more than a generation the Republican Party’s unofficial motto has been “get a larger share of money from the state before it runs out.” They’ve just distributed this money in the form of tax breaks and regulatory benefits for the rich, the nation’s coffers be damned.

    Indeed, how many of today’s Republican initiatives would not fit under this heading? Obamacare replacement? Tax “reform”? Dodd-Frank “reform”? Net Neutrality repeal? Environmental regulation repeal? You have to look to immigration policy—building a wall, or the travel ban, er, whatever—before you can find a policy that is not regressive on its face.

    The mere fact that a policy may favor one demographic over another does not condemn a policy. But the overwhelming tilt in Republican policies is hard to ignore—or to justify in terms of “fiscal responsibility.”

    Ultimately, we need a spirit of goodwill to engender a shared sense of ownership and mutual sacrifice. Some progressive perspectives erode community spirit. The old-time religion that demonizes capitalists isn’t so common these days, but it isn’t helpful, while the new-time religion that lionizes an educated elite can be corrosive. However, I find the twin philosophies underlying the “establishment” Republican Party to be especially destructive. Libertarianism tends to promote a flavor of individualism that erodes that spirit. And religious fundamentalism, while more promoting a stronger sense of cohesion within the group, does so by engendering contempt for those outside the group.

    The irony is that Trump, by leading a charge grounded neither in libertarianism nor religious fundamentalism, has the opportunity to forge a new “America First” cohesiveness. It hasn’t been going well–but maybe it’s still too early to judge? After all, how well did FDR do during his six months in office?

    • gabe says

      OMG! What a cogent analysis. Whudda thunk it? The GOP as the party favoring the rich – I’d never have known it. I guess, I should have listened to my grandfather back in the 1950’s when he said the same thing.

      But, yep. the GOP, for all it’s pandering IS NOT the party of small government.

      Then again, one does wonder why all the richest (toniest?) counties in the US vote Democrat? Hmmmmm?

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