The New Conservatism

Over the past few years, we have witnessed a fascinating phenomenon as a growing number of 1990s liberals now regard themselves as true conservatives and publicly label themselves as such, even though their views have not changed radically.

The political parties that emerged in Czechoslovakia after November 1989 professing values close to those of the British Conservative Party, the French neo-Gaullist Republicans, or the German Christian democratic parties CDU/CSU, referred to themselves as liberal-conservative.

To the objection that there was actually nothing conservative about them, that it was the communists who were the real “conservatives” at that time and that these parties were, in fact, revolutionary or at least reformist, their representatives responded by claiming that, while not wishing to “conserve” the communist status quo, they were nevertheless conservative, as they were striving to resurrect the conservative, pre-communist and pre-Nazi, values of western civilization, such as the rule of law or private ownership.

In reality, they were liberal parties of the classical kind that pursued the goal of establishing a market economy and democratic capitalism. And their politicians knew deep down that they were indeed classic liberals.

A Growing Number of Czech Liberals Regard Themselves as Conservatives

Over the past five years or so, we have witnessed a fascinating phenomenon as a growing number of 1990s liberals now regard themselves as true conservatives and publicly label themselves as such, even though their views have not changed radically.

The current definition of liberalism has been moving closer to the US usage, that is to say: to the left. Those regarded as liberals range from economic centrists to moderate social democrats.

Or perhaps they have in some respects since some have been baptized into the Roman Catholic church as adults. Of the many possible examples, I will mention just three politicians belonging to what has been the key Czech party of the right over the past thirty years, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS).

The man who served as Prime Minister for ODS (one of those who turned to faith and has been baptized) ten or twelve years ago now describes himself as a “neo-conservative, neo-liberal and neo-Catholic”. A former dissident and associate of Václav Havel, who went on to serve as Minister of Foreign Affairs and has recently been elected a Euro-MP is another newly-baptized Catholic and self-identifying conservative. And the woman who had held the post of Minister of Justice ten years ago, and who has become a renowned solicitor and critic of “gender feminism” and the Istanbul Convention, says she has always been a liberal and regarded herself as a such, yet she could not help but become a conservative.

What is going on and how did this come about?

The Current Definition of Liberalism Shifted

First, the very meaning of the word liberalism has shifted. In the 1990s it was understood to stand for classical liberalism, that is to say, the doctrine of the small state and a market economy, with Friedrich A. Hayek and Milton Friedman seen as apostles of this kind of liberalism.

The current definition of liberalism has been moving closer to the US usage, that is to say: to the left. Those regarded as liberals range from economic centrists to moderate social democrats, as well as those for whom Judeo-Christian values and heritage are more of a burden, namely readers of the British Guardian, the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza, the dailies N in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, or the Czech weekly Respekt.

Second, those who in the 1990s helped introduce or, to be more precise, reinstate in this country a free society (which includes democracy, civic freedoms, human rights, rule of law, constitutional curbs and checks and balances, a market economy, etc) found very little worth conserving in the prevailing conditions of that period and thus saw no reason to describe themselves as conservatives. Thirty years on, however, there are things to be “conserved”, i.e. defended and preserved.

These people are convinced that after November 1989 they managed to achieve something good and that the past thirty years have been one of the happiest periods in our history. Rarely, if ever, have we enjoyed so much freedom, security and prosperity as over the past thirty years. What is exceptional is that these three things—freedom, security and prosperity—have occurred at the same time, which is almost a minor miracle.

And in addition—and that seems to be the real miracle—we have enjoyed good, friendly relations with all our neighbors and are no longer plagued by nationalist hatred against one another.

All this is worth conserving, worth being conservative about. In other words, the present-day new conservatives are those who wish to conserve the free society established after November 1989.

In other words, the present-day new conservatives are those who wish to conserve the free society established after November 1989.

Third, they feel that we might lose all of this, the blessings of freedom, security and prosperity, which is quite unique rather than something that can be taken for granted. (While the conservatives are grateful for the good things we have now, the progressives are angry that there are not enough good things and that society is evil.)

Clouds Gathering on the Horizon

The new conservatives see clouds gathering on the horizon, coming from three of the cardinal points of the compass.

From the West, stultifying political correctness is being aggressively promoted that curbs meaningful discussion of some sensitive political and social issues.

From the East, comes the expansion of a neo-imperialist, assertive Russia, ruled by a regime that lacks basic respect for human beings, individuals and their lives.

While it is undoubtedly right and proper to ban and mete out punishment for, statements that defend crimes or incite to the committing of crimes, this is not what is understood by the term “hate speech”.

From the South, exacerbated by migration, a historically alien civilization is moving towards us, which in addition includes a small but virulent movement known as Islamism or Jihadism that abhors our values and would prefer it if we were all dead.

The conservatives see all of this as a threat to our freedom, security and prosperity. That is to say, not only are there things worth conserving but also things we need to worry about.

Fourthly, rather than the two external threats (being classic liberals, they would oppose Mr Putin’s aggression just as much as they would the terrorist jihad) it has been the first, internal threat that has over the past five years played a crucial role in the self-identification of former classic liberals-turned-new-conservatives (a transformation that did not involve any substantial change of views).

They perceive this as an attempt to impose political correctness and ideological thinking by the political movement that calls itself progressivism and that has gained hegemony west of the Czech Republic, imposing its ideology with steadily increasing vigour and showing less and less tolerance to those who do not share it or, indeed, dare to oppose it.

The 1990s—The Golden Age of the Freedom of Expression

One of its manifestations are restrictions on freedom of expression, a narrowing of the definition of what is socially acceptable and what should be ostracized. Its most drastic expression are the legal, i.e. state-sanctioned, prohibitions on what is known as hate speech. While it is undoubtedly right and proper to ban and mete out punishment for, statements that defend crimes or incite to the committing of crimes (such as murder), this is not what is understood by the term “hate speech”. The term is applied to any statements which, even if not objectively intended as hateful or subjectively perceived as such by many, might be deemed insensitive towards members of the com- munities favored by progressivists, such as racial minorities, ethnic groups of non-European origin, and sexual minorities. An innocuous ethnic joke—as long as it targets a non-European ethnic group—is labelled hate speech.

In this respect, former classic liberals and present-day new conservatives look back at the 1990s as the golden age of the freedom of expression in our country. They feel that, when it comes to freedom of expression, today’s Czech society is still far freer than its Western European counterpart, and they want it to stay that way.

Present-day new conservatives feel that, when it comes to freedom of expression, today’s Czech society is still far freer than its Western European counterpart, and they want it to stay that way.

Another manifestation is the extremist position of progressivism on immigration. New conservatives believe that it is as legitimate for people to have differing views regarding the number of immigrants a country accepts as it is in matters of taxation. If one person champions lower taxes and another wants higher taxation, it does not mean that one of them is a villain. The new conservatives believe that the same should apply to migration: any position, be it extremely liberal or completely restrictive (and, of course, anything in between) is legitimate and none should be demonized. They watch with astonishment, however, the fact that the progressives tend to demonize as racists and xenophobes anyone who champions more restrictive immigration policies, including those who do so for prudent and level-headed reasons.

The Next Controversy: Privileges for the LGBT Community

The next concern relates to the rights and privileges of the LBGT community. The new conservatives, in their previous incarnation as classic liberals, defended the freedom of members of the LGBT community and the tolerant attitude of the majority towards them. They continue to disapprove of the fact that homosexuality used to be criminalized in Western societies.

Although they still hold this classically liberal view, they have been taken aback by the transformation of a movement for the rights of the LGBT community into a movement that demands privileges for them or, indeed, calls for the criminalization of those who object to these rights on moral or religious grounds.

Some were surprised by the LGBT movement’s demand that members of the LBGT community should not be merely tolerated but that they deserve the same social recognition as a married couple raising children. Then came the next shock, in the form of moves to criminalize for hate speech clergy who—in line with biblical teachings—described homosexual relations as “sinful”. Next came demands for the legalization of same-sex marriage, which has now been achieved in most West European countries. In other words, the demand that the family unit comprised of a father, mother and children should lose the exclusive social recognition it has enjoyed so far (while all other consensual alternative life-style options among adults have been fully tolerated) by giving same-sex cohabitation the legal status of marriage.

Although they still hold this classically liberal view, they have been taken aback by the transformation of a movement for the rights of the LGBT community into a movement that demands privileges for them.

For the remaining new conservatives, the final straw came when people who refused to regard a same-sex union as a marriage on religious or moral grounds began to be criminalized.

Former Dissidents Are Asking if this is what They Were Fighting For

Here are some examples to illustrate the point I am making.

Mr and Mrs McArthur run Ashers Baking Company in Belfast in Northern Ireland. Although they routinely serve LGBT customers, they refused to bake a cake decorated with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”. In the autumn of 2016, after the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland as well as a court imposed a hefty fine on the couple, one of the Czech new conservatives I have mentioned earlier—the former dissident and close associate of Václav Havel—told me that this was awful, and that this was not what we had fought for in November 1989; in fact it was precisely what we had fought against.

What he meant was that, while the state may and should ban certain kind of statements (such as “certain kinds of people should be sent to the gas chambers”, which is an incitement to murder and its defense), the state should never force anyone to say or write anything that contradicts their conscience. The state should not force the greengrocer to put up in his shop window a banner of the only political party (as in Václav Havel’s essay The Power of the Powerless), or force anyone to write something he disagrees with: for example, a vegetarian to promote meat, a pacifist to praise arms, an Orthodox Jew to glorify Jesus or an Evangelical Christian to support gay marriage.

This progressivist trend to punish the public expression of disagreement with the official progressivist view, is a further reason why classic liberals have turned into new conservatives without abandoning their classical liberal political and economic convictions.

Around the same time a baker, Jack Phillips (another Evangelical Christian), in Colorado, USA, served all customers regardless of their sexual orientation but refused to bake a cake for a gay couple’s “wedding” because he did not regard it as a wedding; on the same religious grounds he had refused to bake cakes for Halloween or containing alcohol. Other similar cases, for example, some florists or wedding photographers, have been reported in the US: the problem for them was not LGBT customers per se but the ceremonies they described as “weddings”. Under US anti-discrimination law, they were sentenced to huge, ruinous fines, their sentences were confirmed by courts of second and higher instance, and they were even liable to end up in prison.

In fact, the customers could easily have sought other service providers, while the conscientious objector “refuseniks” would have to accept making less money.

New Conservatives with Classical Liberal Convictions

In the end, both cases had a seemingly happy ending: the McArthurs and Jack Phillips appealed to their countries’ respective Supreme Courts and in 2018 both courts vindicated them, stating that there was no discrimination as the defendants had not refused their customers on the grounds of sexual orientation but because of their own moral disapproval of certain views which their customers (as well as the anti-discrimination commissions and lower courts) obliged them to express.

This progressivist trend to punish the public expression of disagreement with the official progressivist view, and for the state to use its force to make people express views they disagree with, is a further reason why classic liberals have turned into new conservatives without abandoning their classical liberal political and economic convictions.

I have based this sketch of the new conservativism on examples from the Czech Republic but there are undoubted parallels with Poland, Hungary or Slovakia. The Slovak MP Milan Krajniak, deputy chairman of the party We Are A Family, started out as Chair of the Civic Democratic Youth, the most classically liberal youth organization. The Polish Euro-MP Ryszard Legutko told me fifteen years ago that people like him used to be dubbed “colibri”— conservative liberals. And we must not forget that in 1988-1989 the young Viktor Orbán started out as a liberal firebrand.

In other words, through their hard-line, politically intolerant and moralistic attitudes, by calling for the state to punish people for their opinions and trying to impose their own, and by imitating some of the loathsome techniques of the former communist regime, the progressivists who describe themselves as “liberals” are actually turning former real liberals into new, present-day conservatives.

Roman Joch

is the Executive Director of the Civic Institute in Prague. He is a commentator and lecturer on political philosophy, international relations, with an emphasis on US Domestic and Foreign Policies. He is the author of several monographs and expert studies including: American Foreign Policies and the Role of the US in the World (Studies OI, Prague 2000), Why Iraq? Reasons and Consequences of the Conflict (Prague 2003), and (together with Frank S. Meyer) Rebellion against the Revolution of the 20th Century (Prague 2003).

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