Conservative, or centre-right, parties are not a rare phenomenon in Europe. In fact, in a majority of European countries they have led governments for the greater part of the period since the Second World War. Right now some of the most influential European countries – such as Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy – are led by conservatives. Given the importance of relations between Europe and America, it could perhaps be supposed that there would be a ready understanding this side of the Atlantic of the policies and strategies of the conservative movement in the United States.
The fact that is is not particularly so probably owes something to the very different nature of American conservatives. On the whole, European (including British) conservatives base their political aspirations on employer-friendly policies balanced by some statutory protection of employees, on balanced trade and budgets, on reasonably well resourced defence policies, and on a degree of social conservatism in matters such as abortion or the protection of families. American conservatives are often rather more whole-hearted carnivores, who use certain issues such as gun ownership, fiscal rectitude, the outlawing of abortion, opposition to non-traditional family arrangements and opposition to immigration as iconic principles that define them and which are non-negotiable in any context. European conservatives on the whole prefer their leaders to be pragmatic (except perhaps the British), while Americans are constantly on the look-out for some charismatic preacher who will lead them to glory. As a result, Europeans of all shades (but including conservatives) on the whole do not understand, and find it hard to relate to, the American right wing. American politics overall are not nuanced and compromise-driven as is the experience in Europe.
For all those reasons, it is hard for people on this side of the Atlantic to understand and come to grips with new conservative movements in America. The Tea Party Movement for example (which I previously discussed here) seems somewhere between alien and just bizarre to most Europeans. And in that frame of mind the whole theatrical stuff over the past few days of the ‘Restoring Honor’ event in Washington, and the flirting between organiser Glenn Beck and former Republic Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, will seem just too mad to most observers here to allow it to be taken seriously.
And that is a mistake. American conservative politics may seem a bit weird to us, or even very weird, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it all or to laugh at it. Glenn Beck may be a peddler of strange conspiracy theories and gratuitous insults, and Sarah Palin may be a less than intellectual and often inarticulate representative of the American right, but in the event of a perfect political storm they could end up in powerful positions, possibly even in a partnership. Their America would be something we have not experienced before, a good deal more rightwing than that of George W. Bush, and a lot less interested still in what the rest of the world may do or think. The presidency of Bush was, as we might see it, so disastrous in part because of how it was run, but in part also because the rest of the world could not work out how to engage with it.
Europeans by a majority are unlikely to become converts to a Beck-Palin world view, but they would be wise to understand what this view represents; while perhaps hoping that the present management in Washington will stay in place for some time.