The European Parliament elections of May 23–26 have struck another hard blow to the European political establishment.
For the first time, the pro-European Union bloc of the two main political groups—European People’s Party (EPP) and Socialists and Democrats (S&D)—has lost its majority in the E.U.’s European Parliament. Euroskeptics who oppose further E.U. encroachments on national sovereignty, though split among at least three different political groups, have together won as many seats as the traditionally dominant pro-E.U. group led by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. In Britain, Nigel Farage’s six-week-old Brexit Party won more votes than the Conservatives and Labour together. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally beat Emmanuel Macron’s governing République en Marche. And in Italy, Matteo Salvini’s euroskeptic League crushed all rivals with 34 percent of the vote, doubling what it received in the 2018 Italian national elections.
The immediate issues motivating voter rebellion against the status quo were many, most of them attributable to the supranationalist excesses of the E.U. Brexit, Muslim immigration, and conflicts between the E.U. and the governments of Hungary, Poland, and Italy drag on. But something much larger and more fundamental is happening. What is referred to pejoratively as “populism” in Europe is really about a resurgence of conservatism in Europe—a revolt against the hegemony of progressivism and the E.U.’s soft-utopian vision of a post-national Europe.
In 1995, in a speech entitled “Right, Left and Freedom,” the German politician Steffen Heitmann characterized a vigorous and contested politics of Right (“prudent, cautious conservatism”) and Left (“activist, innovative progressivism”) as fundamental to a healthy democracy. The constructive rivalry between these two outlooks, he argued, form the “basic scaffolding” of liberal democracy. “Not only will Right and Left continue to exist as basic frameworks within which people can find a general intellectual and political orientation, but they must continue to exist if freedom of intellectual exchange and debate is to be preserved.”
Heitmann gave his speech only six years after the Berlin Wall fell. He was worried that the proper tension between Right and Left was being undone, and discerned a “slow but persistently leftward” trend. The conservative “understanding of reality,” as he called it, was quietly but steadily being crowded out of the public square. Heitmann lamented a “climate of opinion in the media” that assessed viewpoints “according to their political correctness” and placed politically incorrect perspectives under a taboo.
Heitmann was right to worry. Today, mainstream Western European parties begin on the center-left and move further left from there. Many, if not most, of Europe’s so-called center-right parties have transformed themselves into de facto progressive parties.
At the heart of this shift is the waning of the Christian faith and the emergence of a post-Christian understanding of politics. Faced with injustice, a secular woman or man either despairs or adopts a faith in political action as the source of redemptive social justice—usually in the form of state intervention and government planning of human affairs. The realization of justice through politics is not only something to strive for. It is something one must strive for. If this world is all that there is, then the highest justice depends upon human beings and must be pursued through politics.
Another central factor pushing conservatism to the margins is the utopian supranationalism that has dominated Western Europe’s political landscape for the past seventy years. Almost all the established political parties—including those who claim the center-right—have surrendered themselves to the utopian project of European integration. In doing so, they have forfeited their conservatism. The most striking example is the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which embodies the Western European center-right’s devotion to the E.U. The CDU’s passionate commitment to the “European idea” arose originally out of the laudable desire to overcome Germany’s Nazi past. Today, seventy years since the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany, this allegiance to “ever closer union” has transformed the CDU into a center-left party distinguished from parties to its left only by claims to be more sensible and pragmatic about implementing progressive policies.
The rise of the populist parties in Europe—evident in the European elections—reflects the messy, diffuse, and chaotic resurgence of the conservative worldview. This trend is basically healthy, for as Heitmann recognized, liberal democracy requires a vigorous Right just as much as a vigorous Left. The politically correct European establishment is either shocked and outraged, or in denial. But the patriotism and anti-globalism that motivated populist voters are not only understandable but also eminently reasonable responses to the E.U.’s ideologically narrow globalism.
Caution is appropriate. There are radical right elements attempting to steer the Europe-wide resurgence of conservatism in an extreme direction. Nevertheless, branding as “far right” the instinctive conservatives who join the populist revolt against the progressive juggernaut is foolish. The European center-right should open itself to the concerns of traditionalist voters who, through no fault of their own, have no real home in the political mainstream. Who knows? In so doing, some parties formerly on the center-right might even rediscover some of their original conservatism.
The European election results are relevant to North America. The suppression of conservative voices is a problem in the United States, to say nothing of Canada. Although more Americans call themselves conservative than liberal, the progressive worldview reigns in much of the establishment media, the academy, government bureaucracy, and elsewhere among elite opinion makers. More often than not, conservative perspectives are delegitimized, measured against the standard of political correctness and found wanting. Often, traditional conservative perspectives, even those held by the majority of Americans, are declared beyond the pale. The progressive ideologues no longer wish to tolerate free speech for those who do not adhere to the progressive faith. Again, as Heitmann recognized, this undermines the conditions for a healthy liberal democracy.
Populism has made itself heard. Our task is to convert the spirit of protest into the renewal of modern conservatism. In the face of an increasingly anti-Western progressivism, unmoored from tradition and truth, conservatives must articulate a broad, comprehensive, and coherent case for preserving the Judeo-Christian West, and do so in a way that can awaken millions from their unknowing postmodern slumber and win them over. If conservatives don’t meet this challenge successfully, North America and Europe both stand to lose the “freedom of intellectual exchange and debate” of which Steffen Heitmann spoke.
Todd Huizinga is president of the Center for Transatlantic Renewal and author of The New Totalitarian Temptation: Global Governance and the Crisis of Democracy in Europe (Encounter Books, 2016). Portions of this article first appeared in the German publication CATO, and appear by permission of CATO.