IT IS ALWAYS risky to project political trends across national frontiers. Elections, like cuisines, generally have distinctive national flavors.
As the economies and cultures of the democratic nations increasingly intermingle, however, political forces have becoming more transnational. Recent elections and public opinion polls in many of the world's democracies suggest that a widespread revival of moderate conservation, springing from broadly similar causes, is under [WORD ILLEGIBLE].
Conservative opposition parties in Britain and West Germany probably would win national election held today. In Sweden, conservative and moderate parties [WORD ILLEGIBLE] fall ended more than 40 years of socialist rule. Britain's first free election since 1936 produced a moderate conservative government. In Israel, the conservative [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Party has ousted the Labor Party, dominant in Israeli politics since the nation's founding. In India, the Janata Party, a mixed-bag coalition but at least more conservative than its predecessor, has similarly distatched the supposedly impregnable Congress Party.
Japan, the conservative Liberal Democrats have unfounded the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] by retaining control of the upper house the national legislature though by a reduced margin. In Australia and New Zealand, conservative parties returned to power in 1975.
Crosscurrents, of course, exist. In France and Italy, conservative governments long in power now are deeply imperiled. And in the United States, our relatively more conservative party has lost the White House to our relatively more liberal party, leaving the Republicans without control of a single important promontory of governmental power (except, perhaps, the Supreme Court, where justices appointed by Presidents Nixon and Ford [WORD ILLEGIBLE] constitute a majority).
In the cases of France and Italy, current conservative weakness can be explained as due to the natural weariness and eclining popularity of long established regions. But in the United States, the Democrats have been dominant nationally for almost as long as the Swedish Social Democrats - though yielding control of the White House occasionally to Republican presidents.
Actually, a potential conservative trend has existed in American politics since the middle of the 60s - leading to the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, have impact of the Wallace movement and Nixon's [WORD ILLEGIBLE] reelection in 1972. This trend was forestalled, but probably not reversed, by public reaction against corruption in the Nixon administration and economic reverses under Nixon and Ford.
Given the events of 1972-1976, the remarkable thing about last year's election was not that Gerald Ford lost, but that he almost won. The Democrats' choice of Jimmy Carter, the most conservative Democratic presidential nominee since John W. Davis, was itself evidence of the continued strength of the conservative trend.
The condition of the Democratic Party today in Congress, and in most important states and cities, seems comparable to that of Labor in Israel and the Congress Party in India before their downfalls - grown fat and sluggish in office, sustained mainly by political inertia and the lack of attractive, even acceptable, alternatives. Whether the accession of Carter to the presidency will revitalize the national Democratic structure remains questionable.
The trend toward conservative parties in most of the democracies seems to grow mainly not so much out of positive approval of the conservatives themselves as out of discontent with their main rivals: the moderate left-of-center parties, variously labeled "liberal" and "social democrat," which have dominated the politics of many countries during most of the last 20 years.
Yet there is more to the swing to the conservatives than a mere casting out of deadwood. Increasingly, voters are seeking relief from three tendencies associated with moderate left-of-center governments: economic policies that contribute to inlation; growing intervention in the lives of ordinary citizens, through both high taxes and bureaucratic regulation, and openness to corruption and/or co-option by surviving big business interests.
Beneath and beyond these discontents lies declining confidence in the purity or achievability of some traditional left-wing values. Left-wing parties for at least the last hundred years - have based much of their appeal on the attraction of two magnetic moral ideals: equality and self-fulfillment. Both now have been found to be subject to severe practical limitations, and both, if pushed too hard or too far, appear to have extremely destructive effects on societies and individuals.
Left-wing governments generally have tried to accomodate these discoveries by drifting toward moderation, by becoming dictatorial or by growing simultaneously more wishy-washy in policy and authoritarian in administration. So doing, they sometimes have dealt with their immediate practical difficulties. But they have paid the price of sacrificing genuine affection and confidence among many industrial workers, intellectuals and middle-class liberals.
Some traditional supporters of the left have responded to this confusion over values by advocating more rigorous application of socialist doctrine. At the end of this road, however, lies the cautionary examples of the Soviet Union and other Marxist regimes.
Others have turned to various kinds of free-form anarchism, such as those proposed by some elements in the New Left in the 1960s. But anarchism appears to have so little relevance to the problems of modern industrial society that few, among voters if not among intellectuals, take it seriously.
THE REMAINING alternative, it appears, is some form of conservatism. Most conservative parties, unfortunately, are ill equipped to deal with this opportunity.
In some countires, such as Sweden, Israel and India, the evident unease of conservative parties in power is due in part simply to inexperience with governmental administration and past inability to attract able young men and women interested in political careers.
In others, such as the United States, France, Italy and Japan, and to some extent West Germany and Britain, the advance of new men and new ideas has been blocked by party establishments that derive their authority from records of former success.
During the 20th Century, conservatives have espoused the values of nationalism, economic growth and heroic individualism. Politically, the trouble with the first two has been that they can easily be taken over by liberals and socialists. The trouble with the third has been that only a few could ever realize its promise (except, vicariously, through John Wayne movies and devotion to professional sports). More recently, the appeal of all three has become clouded by moral and practical reservations.
So far, conservatives have been no more successful than politicians and publicists of the left at developing new bases around which to orient governmental programs. The question, "What do Republicans - or Tories or Gaullists or Christian Democrats or Liberal Democrats - really stand for?" has not been met with very good answers.
Conservative parties probably hold the keys to the maintenance of civility and further economic and social progress in most democracies. With the political decline of the moderate left, moderate conservatives are likely to bear much of the responsibility during the years immediately ahead for steering a course between right-wing reaction and social chaos.
To carry out this responsibility successfully, conservatives will have to produce fresh solutions and attach themselves to progressive moral ideas such as those which were pursued at various times during the 19th Century by conservative parties in the United States, Britain and Germany. Whether moderate conservatives will respond creatively to this challenge remains to be seen.