Nasty Parties Don't Win Elections
What the Republicans can learn from Britain's Conservative Party.
My fellow disappointed conservatives, former conservatives, and disgusted conservatives, it is time for all good Republicans to come to the defense of David Frum and to endorse his critique of radical right-wing talk-show rhetoric. If you've left the party in disgust, call up your friends who are still members and get them to do it for you.
I am not writing this because David Frum is my friend, although he is. I am writing this because I have just come back from London, where I got a close-up look at the state of the British Conservative Party, once the intellectual motor of free-market economics in Europe and the rest of the world. After almost two decades in power, the British Conservatives lost in 1997 to Tony Blair's slicker, smoother, Labor Party—a party that had accepted the basic premises of Thatcherism and moved on.
At the time, the Tories reckoned they would be in opposition for a couple of years at most. All they had to do was return to their basic principles and declare them with greater fervor and more self-righteous anger than ever before. They knew, they told one another, what the British people really wanted, and they ran two angry campaigns that reeked of xenophobia. The result: The Tories have been out of power since 1997. Thirteen years.
After the second, decisive election loss, the Conservatives finally made some changes. They elected a new leader, younger and "modernizing." They changed their social policies to match the views of the majority, supported the green movement—hugely popular among their own heavily rural supporters—accepted the basic premises of Blairism, and moved on. Above all, they changed the way they spoke: No more shouting. No more anger. No more arrogance.
And the result? The Tories are once again real contenders. But only barely. The latest polling shows that even now, with Britain ruled by one of the most unpopular prime ministers in recent memory, they are still not assured of a victory, and recent polls have them slipping. I can't think of anything worse for the United Kingdom than another term in office for Labor, a party that has left Britain with a vast public deficit, an awkwardly (but irreversibly) reformed constitution, and heavily restricted civil liberties. But the Tories' nasty public image—arrogant, mean, small-minded—is proving very, very difficult to discard.
I haven't asked him, but I'll bet Frum had this example partly in mind when he wrote, a couple of days ago, that the American Republican Party had just had its Waterloo, even though it doesn't apparently know it. As a fully paid-up member of the mushy political center, I am in favor of universal access to health care and also horrified by what President Barack Obama's bill is going to cost. So who should I be voting for? If congressional Republicans are determined to fix this bill by, say, reforming the medical malpractice laws that drive up costs and put doctors out of business, they've got my vote. If, instead, they are going to scream "Communist" and "fascist" at our democratically elected president—thereby achieving nothing at all—then I want nothing to do with them.
In the coming days, many conservative pundits will surely echo the words of another pundit I know and like, Tunku Varadarajan, who has dismissed Frum as a "polite company conservative" and argues that Frum is wrong about that nasty talk-show rhetoric, on the grounds that "passionate extremism is part of any political debate." Well, "up to a point, Lord Copper," as a certain British novelist would put it: The history of the British Conservative Party shows that if by exciting your base you lose the center, then you lose the next election, too.
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Photograph of David Cameron by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.