Is the centre-right dying?

I’ve argued here a number of times that mainstream centre-right parties are among the most critical supports for democracy: that, as Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky pointed out in How Democracies Die, the survival of democracy tends to depend on the strength of such parties and the attitude they take. Do they remain loyal to the democratic system, or do they make common cause with its enemies?

In that context, there’s plenty of worrying material in a long article by Jeremy Cliffe last week in the New Statesman, on “The strange death of the centre right.” Cliffe says the centre-right is in “damaging and lasting trouble” that “has not received the attention it deserves.” He points to a number of examples where the “moderate conservative tendency” of a decade or so ago “has been sidelined in one way or another,” and suggests that this is “about more than swings of the electoral pendulum” but speaks to “deep sociological and socio-economic changes.”

It’s a sobering read and well worth your time. The processes that Cliffe identifies, “takeover, fragmentation, shrinkage and rightwards drift,” are very real, and have transformed a number of previously mainstream parties into either accomplices of the far right or helpless bystanders. If this continues, there’s no doubt that democracy will be in greater peril.

It’s particularly foolish, as Cliffe realises, for left-of-centre politicians to be complacent about this trend and even gloat at the misfortunes of their traditional opponents. While it may work to their benefit in the short term, “The pendulum will always swing back eventually. At the current rate, in much of the West, when it does so it will pass through a vacuum where the moderate right once stood – and onwards, rightwards, to less palatable alternatives beyond.”

I’m not sure that the current trend, however, is as clear as Cliffe thinks. He notes some exceptions, where the traditional centre-right is doing well, such as the Netherlands, Finland, Latvia, Greece and New Zealand. He could also have mentioned Czechia, where a centre-right-led coalition overthrew the populists in 2021, and South Korea, where the centre-right returned to power last year; plus of course Japan, where the LDP continues its dominance.

Nor is the contrast with the early 2010s as sharp as might appear. Canada’s Stephen Harper might have called himself a “Burkean conservative”, but at the time he was seen as on the hard right, more in the mould of Australia’s John Howard. Poland’s Donald Tusk could be described as leading a centre-right government, but even at the time his main opponents were on the right.

Broad trends, when examined closely, often turn out to be less uniform and more haphazard than might appear. Cliffe would have gone to print before this month’s Berlin election, where the Christian Democrats made a major comeback; no doubt he would attribute that to their turn towards the hard right, but they remain very much a mainstream force. And he should also perhaps have noted the way that the Republican Party in the United States looks increasingly unlikely to entrust its fortunes to Donald Trump, although it remains dangerously authoritarian.

But the most important piece of the picture, it seems to me, is one that Cliffe does mention: the way that formerly far-right parties have moved into territory previously occupied by the centre-right, offering the opportunity of some sort of synthesis. Italy’s Giorgia Meloni is the leading example, with her attempt to re-invent herself as a mainstream centre-right politician – albeit one who continues to sound a number of far-right themes (as, of course, mainstream politicians have always done on occasion).

Cliffe remarks that “This does not make Meloni any more moderate or less dangerous,” but I’m not at all sure that’s true. Five years ago the far right looked like a rising tide of hostility to democracy; now, more and more of its practitioners seem to be finding their place within the democratic tent. Some will form “hybrids of centre-right and hard-right politics,” while others no doubt will splinter and re-form in unpredictable ways. But to the extent that they can be domesticated – as many parties of the far left have been – democracy will be in better shape for it.

A party system is a dynamic beast, and the story of the centre-right cannot be told in isolation. Cliffe is certainly right in drawing attention to its current predicament, but the report of its death is premature at least.


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