Why Conservative Parties Are Central to Democracy

The right has repeatedly acted as a “hinge of history,” one political scientist says.

Marko Djurica / Reuters

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.

The common thread among the conservative parties in his study is not ideology, but who they primarily represented when they were founded: “upper-class propertied economic elites” or “political elites” with ties to the old, pre-democratic regime in each country. After 1848, when revolutions against conservative governments roiled Europe, all of these conservative parties resisted political and economic change, including growing “mobility and economic exchange” and the disappearance of “traditional systems of social power,” Ziblatt writes.

Ziblatt also documents how conservative parties have repeatedly struggled to confront radical right-wing forces that pose challenges to democracy. And he articulates a theory for how all this contributed to the breakdown of democracy in 20th-century Germany and the blossoming of democracy in 19th-century Britain. Where conservatives in Western Europe have developed strong party organizations—maintaining control over the selection of candidates, the financing of campaigns, and the mobilization of grassroots activists—democracy has historically tended to be more stable, he argues. The study of conservative parties offers “a framework to understand European history,” Ziblatt told me.

I recently asked Ziblatt to explain that framework—and the extent to which it can be applied to contemporary politics from France to the United States to Thailand. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Uri Friedman: Saying that conservative parties are important to the formation of democracies isn’t necessarily saying that they are the thing that is important to democracy-formation, right?

Daniel Ziblatt: Other factors matter in shaping whether or not a country remains democratic, whether it survives moments of crisis. But I do think that when one looks around the world historically, at key moments, conservatives have been a hinge of history. Their reaction to forces of change shape whether or not a democracy survives.

Friedman: Walk me through some of those hinge moments.

Ziblatt: Pre-1914 Germany, the imperial German political system, was a highly undemocratic political system. What was so striking about it was that this was also a country in which you had the largest socialist party in Europe, you had strong working-class movements, you had high levels of industrialization, all of the things that ought to have made the country more democratic. This unstoppable force of modernization met this unmovable object of the German state. So why was the German state so resistant to democratic change? The key factor had to do with how conservatives, as defenders of the old regime, responded to those forces of democratic change. Since they didn’t have access to party organization, didn’t think they could survive a major democratic change, they resisted this to the bitter end.

Another setting is Weimar Germany. We often retrospectively think of all the reasons why things could have gone poorly there, but this was also a political system after 1918 [and World War I] that was highly democratic, it was founded by this incredible democratic coalition of Catholics, liberals, and socialists that had an overwhelming majority of the vote in the first years of the Weimar Republic. There were lots of right-wing critics of the regime. There was economic crisis. Certainly all of these factors mattered as well. But I think one really important factor that prevented the regime from stabilizing was the inability of the conservative party to bind all of the right-wing forces to the regime.

Friedman: Why do you feel it was a conservative failure in particular that paved the way for Hitler versus [a failure on the part of all German] political leaders?

Ziblatt: In the 19th century and early 20th century, conservatives represented those elements in society that were the greatest threat to democratic stability. The far-right end of the political spectrum—these were the potential saboteurs of democracy. And so the question is: How do you get these guys to buy in? The question of how you get liberals to buy in to democracy is important but not as critical. Socialists were pushing for democratic reform. Certainly there were far-left elements, communists, who were trying to undermine the regime, but these groups on the far-right had the motive to undermine democracy and they also had the means to undermine democracy because they often had access to the state, to the military.

There were these intervening years in the middle of the 1920s where you had relative stability [in the Weimar Republic] and these were also the years where the successor to the Conservative Party was doing well electorally. In 1928, they had a big electoral loss. There was a grassroots rebellion of the far-right who thought that the party leadership had been making too many concessions to the democratic order, and the party was taken over by this right-wing media mogul, Alfred Hugenberg, who pushed the party far to the right and began to open the door to the much further right, and sought out alliances with Hitler and the rising Nazi Party. The question becomes: Do these parties on the right ally with the very far right that are explicitly trying to overthrow the democratic system, or do they distance themselves? In this case, they clearly made the wrong choice.

Going back to 19th-century Britain there’s a positive case where conservatives played a critical role in helping support democracy. When conservatives in the 1880s signed onto a franchise extension because they thought they could win elections—they helped negotiate the Third Reform Act. And the Conservative Party, because it was a well-organized political party, thrived in the face of democratic changes.

There’s positive cases [in 19th- and 20th-century Europe], there’s negative cases, so the big question becomes: Why do you get certain kinds of conservatives in some places, at certain times, that unleash these virtuous circles [for democracy] and in other countries, at other times, [that] unleash these vicious circles?

Friedman: What answer have you found?

Ziblatt: There was a major discovery made in the course of the 19th century, which was the invention of political parties. When conservatives embrace this invention and have access to party organization and party professionals and on-the-ground grassroots organizing that they controlled, then they knew they could concede democracy without conceding power. They could win elections.

When, on the other hand, they didn’t have access to these organizations, when they resisted coherent party organization, then they were left stranded and naked.

In the countries where parties developed earliest, they could absorb [grassroots] groups and channel them in ways that didn’t threaten democracy. [That] took place in Britain. In Germany, in Spain, in Portugal, in Italy, where old-regime elites didn’t develop party organization early, [then] when grassroots mobilization took place, beginning in the 1890s in Europe, they were victims of this mobilization—they had no instruments in place to mobilize and channel these forces.

Friedman: When you look beyond Britain and Germany, do your findings hold?

Ziblatt: There’s a group of countries—Britain, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark—where democracy was generally more stable, where there were fewer moments of democratic backsliding, where there’s a process where democracy gradually expanded without constitutional crises, and in all of those countries the right organized precociously. It developed before full democracy and it helped secure democracy.

There’s a second group of countries—Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and France—where there was much more instability. There were moments of democratic breakthrough, moments of democratic breakdown. There was backsliding, moments of stalled reform. And in all of these places, the right was much weaker. Conservative parties didn’t organize before major democratic reforms came.

France is an interesting case. There was a long period of democratic stability—the French Third Republic—where the right wasn’t organized. But if you take a longer view, from the 1840s through to Vichy, France was often on the verge of crisis. To the degree that it was on the verge of crisis, it’s because the right was a much more radical right that developed because there was no Tory, moderate, center-right tradition that was well-developed. France is a country that sits between these two broad groups.

[What I’m describing is] a framework to understand European history. In Latin America there’s a very similar pattern where, throughout Latin American history, countries where the right developed early and well, and did well electorally, democracy has been more stable.

Friedman: On Latin America, Hugo Chavez thoroughly undermined Venezuelan democracy, but he came from the left. So there are circumstances in which we’re seeing democratic backsliding and breakdown coming from the left. How do you think about that?

Ziblatt: [What I’m describing] is not the only path to democratic breakdown. I’m highlighting one pattern. The establishment of communist regimes in Eastern Europe after the end of World War II, the Leninist party in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century—these are totally different paths.

I’m not saying conservatives lead to democratic collapse. Conservatives can also be heroes of democracy. It’s just that what conservatives look like is often a key determinant of how stable a democratic regime is.

Another good case is Thailand today. One of the reasons that there’s been several military coups over the last several years was a response to the rise of Thaksin [Shinawatra], a populist leader who was himself wealthy, in some sense from the left. The Thai Democrats, who are in principle committed to democracy but represent the economic elite in Thailand, had a tough time competing with Thaksin because he had a [better] organized political party. Rather than competing, at some level, there was tacit support [among leaders of Thailand’s Democratic Party] for military coups to restore order and reconfigure the constitution.

Friedman: How do you think about other variables in the countries and cases you’ve studied? For example, varying levels of national wealth, rising wages and what that does to demands from the middle class and working class for more rights, or just the political and religious traditions of a country?

Ziblatt: There’s no stronger predictor of democratic stability than GDP per capita. The wealthier countries are, the more likely they are to be democratic. That’s the biggest moving force around the world.

What’s interesting, though, is when one looks at Western Europe, as all of these countries were industrializing, some were wealthier than others. There is some correlation: Countries that broke through first [in terms of industrializing]—Britain, Northern Europe—tend to be more democratic. But there are these exceptions. Sweden is a country that industrialized later, as was Germany. And yet Sweden sustained democracy and Germany did not. There are these vast differences in political regimes, and small differences in GDP per capita, and I don’t think we can treat the vast political differences as simply a function of economic development.

Similarly, conservative elites historically might not have conceded democratic reform unless facing heroic liberals and working-class movements demanding political rights. This was a critical ingredient as well. The thing I’m focusing on is how did conservatives respond to those demands and those threats.

Religion also mattered. Religion was a key factor shaping whether or not conservative parties would organize and how they organized. In countries that were split by confessional divides, it [was] much harder for conservatives to organize. When the right was religiously more homogenous, it was easier for them to organize and they could compete in politics. So in Britain there was an Anglican elite, and this allowed the British ruling class to organize politically around religion. In Germany there was a sharp divide between Protestant and Catholic landed elites, and they both had their own political parties, so it was harder to build a cohesive party of the right. When one looks at Germany after 1945, one of the major contributions to democratic stabilization in Western Germany was the creation of the [center-right Christian Democratic Union], a party built for the first time in German history to overcome the Catholic/Protestant divide.

Friedman: To what extent are these findings applicable to today?

Ziblatt: In advanced democracies—France, the United States, the U.K., Austria—in recent years there’s been this rise of right-wing populism. And a determinant of how well right-wing populists do is what the center-right does about them. A lot has been made—and I think there’s something to this—about the varying electoral success of [Donald] Trump and [French far-right leader Marine] Le Pen. Trump became president and Le Pen did not. A big part of this story is how the center right—the Republican Party in both countries—responded to this populist insurgency. In [the second round of the French presidential election], Francois Fillon, who was the Republican Party candidate for president in the first round, endorsed [Emmanuel] Macron, the center-left candidate. Around 50 percent of Fillon voters voted for Macron after that, about a third abstained, and only a sixth of center-right voters voted for Le Pen. So this may have made the crucial difference in the election.

In the United States, it was a harder ask—to ask mainstream Republicans to distance themselves from their own party’s nominee for president, but a lot of unelected Republicans didn’t endorse Donald Trump. Had more Republicans behaved in the way that Fillon behaved in France, there may have been a different outcome in the United States.

Friedman: Are you suggesting that Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump would pose dangers to democracy?

Ziblatt: It’s to be determined. A lot of things that Donald Trump said during the campaign—if we take those words literally, which some people said not to do—were a major departure from normal democratic practice: threatening violence, accusing the opponent of not being legitimate and being a crook. Certainly American political life is more unsettled than it’s been in a long time.

Friedman: What are the limits to applying your findings to Trump and populist nationalism in Western Europe?

Ziblatt: This is really a book of political history. I don’t mention the words “Donald Trump” once. I don’t want to draw direct lessons. We’re living through a different period now. But there are variations on a theme.