Survey the conservative parties of the Western world these days, and you’ll come away confused. Are they on the rise or under siege? In the United States, a Republican Party that only months ago was imploding now controls the federal government. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party holds power, but just barely, after a poor showing at the polls. In France, the Republican Party is outperforming its traditional rival, the Socialists—but underperforming relative to the brand new party of the upstart prime minister. In the Netherlands, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy managed to fend off a challenge from a far-right firebrand … by co-opting parts of the far right’s agenda.
The state of these parties has consequences beyond the normal ebbs and flows of politics, according to the Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt, because the vitality of the center right has proven pivotal to the health of democracies ever since the emergence of modern liberal democracy. In his new book, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, Ziblatt draws on a range of archival and statistical evidence to show how, in Western Europe and particularly Britain and Germany in the 19th and early 20th centuries, aristocratic conservative leaders grappled with democratic reforms that threatened their wealth and privilege—and ultimately either accepted or rejected the advance of democracy. His method for capturing how British elites gradually accepted democracy, for instance, involves tracking bond markets as a proxy for assessments of political risk; with each expansion of voting rights—in 1832, 1867, and 1884—investors grew less alarmed.