The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The center right is collapsing globally. It has only two options for survival.

Armin Laschet, leader of Germany's Christian Democratic Union, speaks to media in October. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Many anti-Trump Republicans long for the day when they can retake their party and expel the populist deviations from orthodoxy that vex them so. Evidence from around the world shows this is a pipe dream.

The same fissures in the old conservative coalition that plague the GOP appear in virtually every other modern democracy. Nationalist and populist parties have grown dramatically in the past decade, often gaining near parity with incumbent center-right parties. Urban and suburban moderate voters, meanwhile, have often swung to classically liberal or green parties that are comfortable aligning with left-wing governments.

We can see this clearly in European polls and recent election results. Scandinavian polls show national populist parties obtaining between 11 and 19 percent of the vote. EKRE, Estonia’s populist incarnation, now leads that nation’s polls with 22 percent, while the Flemish separatist and anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang leads Belgian surveys. National populist parties in Austria and Spain are polling in the high-teens, and a trio of nationalist parties garnered nearly a quarter of Dutch voters in recent surveys. No center-right coalition can emerge without these parties’ involvement.

Center-right parties that reject that option must invariably form governments with centrists or even their traditional center-left opponents. The incoming four-party Dutch government will include Democrats 66, a center-left party. This means the new coalition agreement includes substantial spending increases for education and climate change, leading ING bank to declare it was “a farewell to Dutch frugality.” Austria’s conservatives govern with the Greens, resulting in a budget with tax cuts for business and working-class voters balanced by increases in carbon taxes to battle climate change. These parties, like many in the moderate and business wings of the GOP, would prefer to swing to the center economically rather than swing right on cultural issues to placate populists.

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That choice may seem unpalatable to many, but a failure to choose between the options is impossible. Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union tried to do that in the country’s recent election, choosing a lackluster centrist, Armin Laschet, as its candidate for chancellor rather than swinging right to recapture conservatives attracted to the populist Alternative for Germany, known by its German initials AfD. The CDU crashed to its worst-ever showing, winning only 24 percent. Moderate former CDU voters moved to the Greens or the classical liberal Free Democrats, each of which gained votes, while conservatives either stuck with AfD or supported one of three right-wing populist parties that did not get enough votes to enter parliament. The new German government is a coalition between the Social Democrats, Greens and the FDP, while the CDU has belatedly selected Laschet’s prior opponent, conservative Friedrich Merz, as its new leader.

This dilemma is bedeviling center-right parties in the Anglosphere, too. Canada’s Conservative Party tried to appeal to moderate suburbanites while offering an economic appeal to blue-collar voters in that nation’s recent elections. It didn’t work. The party lost seats in suburban Toronto and Vancouver while the aggressively populist People’s Party soared to win nearly 5 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has a large parliamentary majority in Britain, but his government is stymied by conflicts between its traditional suburban voter bloc in the south, which eschews higher government spending, and blue-collar, former Labour-voting constituencies in the north that crave it. And New Zealand’s National Party has a new leader, its fourth in 18 months, as it remains mired in the polls under 30 percent. That party’s fall from grace started when it failed to entice populist Winston Peters and his New Zealand First party into a coalition government, something the Labour Party’s canny Jacinda Ardern was all too willing to do.

The global evidence makes it clear that 1980s-era Reagan-Thatcher conservative politics is a dead letter. Coalitions built on that formula — free markets, globally minded, strong on defense — no longer win majorities. The new conservative winning formula is extremely hard to pull off, as one must simultaneously satisfy the still significant Reaganite element while winning over nationalist populists and moderate suburbanites. Having incompetent opponents who veer too far to the left, such as Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, help bring these disparate groups together out of fear. But no center-right figure has yet built such a coalition on positive grounds that has survived the stress of actually governing.

Republican strategists ought to read the tea leaves now and work toward building that durable coalition. The longer they ignore reality, the less likely they will win in 2024 and beyond.