The economically conservative wing took charge of most center-right parties after 1991. They pursued global integration and pro-immigration policies at the expense of more nationalist sentiments in their parties. In the United States, this took the form of Republicans supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement, China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and President George W. Bush’s attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform. In Britain, it took the form of Prime Minister John Major pushing the United Kingdom into the Maastricht Treaty and Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt to re-rebrand the Tories as a socially liberal, environmentally conscious party. In both cases, it appeared that the future was on the side of Bush- or Cameron-type conservatives.
The Great Recession and mass immigration during the past decade upended that dominance. Lesser-skilled citizens in the United States and Britain suffered most from the financial crash and then faced competition from low-wage and low-skilled foreign workers as the economy recovered. In other countries, immigration from majority-Muslim countries and elsewhere spurred a nativist upheaval, especially after center-right leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and Sweden’s Fredrik Reinfeldt dismissed their voters’ concerns or insulted their motives by calling these fellow citizens heartless or racist. The old coalition began to break.
In some countries, the old center-right parties have completely collapsed. France’s center-right movement now polls under 10 percent of the vote. Its nationalist voters have flocked to the National Rally’s Marine Le Pen while its economically orthodox wing backs French President Emmanuel Macron. Italy’s center-right Forza Italia party, still led by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, fares even worse, polling around 6 percent, while center-right voters enthusiastically back bombastic populist Matteo Salvini and his Lega party.
The decoupling is still ongoing in the Anglosphere. Trump’s victory was the first step in the United States, as millions of blue-collar former Democrats aligned with the socially conservative and nationalist elements of the old GOP to wrest control of the party from Bush conservatives. The Never Trump rear-guard action is merely the U.S. version of the movement of economics-focused, internationalist conservatives moving into a faction of the center-left.
Britain’s Johnson is simply the consequence of his predecessor, Theresa May, agreeing to extend Britain’s departure date from the European Union past its original March 29. Tory support plummeted overnight as angry Brexiteers started backing Nigel Farage’s upstart Brexit Party. That party won the European Parliament elections in late May as the Conservative Party fell to its lowest standing — only 9 percent of the vote — in its 180-year history. A Brexit candidate nearly won a parliamentary by-election in Peterborough in June, winning 29 percent and pushing the Tories into a poor third with less than half the vote they took just two years earlier. Conservative rebels may believe a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster, but Conservative voters — many of whom now are blue-collar former Labourites — strongly disagree.
Trump’s personality and character surely create their own disruption, but the Republican split was bound to happen. The best examples of center-right parties maintaining their cohesion — Australia and Austria — have done so after candidates with establishment support tacked right on issues such as migration, climate change and economic policy. The unwillingness of the GOP’s dominant wings to make these changes cost them their leadership of the party.
Australia’s new prime minister, Scott Morrison, exemplifies this new conservatism. He’s a religious man in a secular country, unafraid of displaying his Pentacostal faith and strongly supportive of religious-liberty laws. He jettisoned the climate change policies and tax cuts of his more urbane and centrist predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, opting instead for a go-slow approach on climate and cutting taxes on the working and middle classes. His victory this spring — after never leading in any pre-election poll — was built on gains in working- and middle-class communities even as upper-income urban voters moved toward the opposition Labor Party.
Many longtime Republicans and Conservatives feel betrayed by their new leaders, but their refusal to compromise with their old parties’ new majorities means they no longer belong. The future for the center-right is clear: adapt to populist trends, like the Australians, or fall to irrelevance, like the French and the Italians. The choice for the Never Trumpers or Tory rebels is the same: adapt to the new facts, move to a new home on the center-left or rest in the political graveyard.